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A Healthy Eden Hazard Completely Raises Real Madrid’s Trajectory

Kiyan Sobhani’s column, on Hazard reminding us against PSG just how good he can be, and how the ceiling of Real Madrid gets raised if he gets back to superstar mode

UEFA Champions League”Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain”

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

It took around two months, but Eden Hazard finally looks like Eden Hazard — the unstoppable offense-carrying machine that led Chelsea to a top-four Premier League finish and Europa League title with little offensive help around him.

Ok, maybe that’s a stretch. Last season Hazard led the Premier League in assists (16), was second in key passes per game (2.8), and first in completed dribbles per game (3.7). He scored 16 goals — good for a goal every other game. Last season Hazard was a freak of nature. He’s not there yet, but he’s getting there after a slow start.

This season Hazard is still off pace, and his ankle injury against PSG will give him a minor (and thankfully only minor) dent in his momentum. One aspect of his game that has been elite regardless of his form: his dribbling. Before the season started, I had predicted on The Locker Room that Hazard would be the second best player in the league upon his arrival to Spain. If he’s not there yet, he will be soon. But he is already the best dribbler in Spain behind Lionel Messi at 4.4 completed dribbles per game. He is far and away the most efficient dribbler Zinedine Zidane has at his disposal. He’s at the elite number that had Hazard breaking lines all of last season.

Hazard has already started turning the gears, which unlocks a new level for the entire team and raises its ceiling. Once Hazard gets into Hazard mode, the whole team feels the contagious confidence. Against PSG, his combination play with Marcelo and Karim Benzema gave pleasant flashbacks of the way Raul, Roberto Carlos, and Zinedine Zidane used to connect and dominate the left attacking third:

There is nothing particularly special about that sequence, other than it providing a smile to see the parallels from the Zidane playing era to stir the nostalgic feelings. But it also serves as a good reminder that Real Madrid look more confident now than they did at the start of the season. The body language against PSG looked great, and even if that clip didn’t create a chance, plenty other sequences did, and you can see Hazard’s knack for finding Marcelo (or whomever provides that outlet) in a vertical channel and not settling for an easy back-pass. Marcelo, for what it’s worth, made that run often — playing the ball down the flank and moving into a central-forward position to overload PSG’s defensive line. Zidane had the whole team humming off the ball.

It was always going to be interesting to see how Hazard fits into the starting line-up given that, by sheer talent, price, and brand alone, he’s a lock starter alongside Karim Benzema — leaving just one space free for a plethora of talented players in the attack. Hazard was supposed to lend Benzema a hand offensively, with an extended arm to Vinicius Jr who was undroppable under Santiago Solari last season.

One concern among skeptics about Hazard’s contribution to Real Madrid’s rebuild: How do you structure the team defensively with him in the line-up? Vinicius was one of the best flank defenders the team had last season. Maurizio Sarri said over the summer that “We had to accommodate Hazard’s characteristics. He could change the game, but his presence caused issues in defending that we had to work on.”

Those concerns have not carried over. During Hazard’s slump, his work ethic — even though sluggish and leg-heavy — was there. He has not been a passenger on defense, and has bought in to the idea that if you play on Zidane’s wing this season, you’re a two-way player. So much of Hazard’s ball retention has come deep helping Marcelo or Ferland Mendy.

It was clear that any real concern over the Hazard signing was probably a reach. He was not signed to be a defensive workhorse — but putting in that kind of effort allows the game to come to him. Real Madrid needed a transcendent player. Hazard’s transcendency trumps the concerns of fit, and now that he’s a chief prong in attack, the urgency of his signing has become more noticeable.

67 minutes is all it took against PSG for Hazard to take 71 touches — the most of any attacker on the field apart from Benzema’s 77 over the course of 90 minutes. It was no real surprise that Real Madrid’s most impressive display of the season came with one of Hazard’s most heavily involved since putting on a Real Madrid shirt. His link-up play with Benzema (actively prophesied to be exciting, and finally coming into fruition) was surgical. And it wasn’t just Marcelo and Benzema that benefited on that left side — it was Isco and Toni Kroos too. That latter of which had seven key passes and completed over 100 passes with a near perfect passing accuracy. The way Hazard and co. sucked PSG to the left side meant Isco had more room to roam on the right, and receive a pass to break PSG on the far side.

The xG of 3.3 that night matched that of the Galatasaray five-goal thumping at the Bernabeu.

It will be interesting to see how much Zidane takes away from that PSG performance at the Bernabeu, and how much he believes it can be replicated with that same line-up in the upcoming big games. The diamond with Isco has not been used consistently since the ‘16-17 season where it tore teams apart. One season later, the same scheme fizzled once the scouting report came out. Thomas Tuchel was caught off guard, expecting either Rodrygo or Gareth Bale in the line-up rather than an Isco curveball. Real Madrid suddenly became more narrow and full of control and off-ball movement. They were more unpredictable in their attack. In the first half, they crossed just nine times and relied more on their movement in the half-spaces to create. In the second half, mostly due to Zidane bringing Bale and Rodrygo on, the team doubled its output to 18 crosses and 27 overall — becoming more predictable for PSG to defend in the process. One half was better than the other.

And now comes the juicy part: Back-to-back games from hell at the Mestalla and Camp Nou, with three days separating the two clashes. What happens at the Camp Nou will be the first real measuring stick of what Zidane perceives his starting XI to be in a big game. Neither of the games against PSG were do-or-die, nor was everyone available in those encounters. Before the Valencia game, he’ll have two games — against (with utmost respect) the train-wreck that is Espanyol, and Club Brugge which is, for all intent and purposes, a meaningless game in the grand scheme of things apart from giving fringe players some minutes — to rest his starters. He may not have Hazard back for the Valencia game — but both him and James should be back just in time for Clasico, giving him a full-strength army to choose from. The Barca away game is the one where you circle as the first real moment Zidane might show both his blazing guns without hiding any ammo.

Get ready for a classic against-the-grain blitzkrieg from Zidane. An infamous Captain Hook moment that no one expects. Four central midfielders? Three at the back? Man-marking Messi? Nothing is completely off the table, especially with Casemiro just one yellow card away from suspension.

Those two games against Valencia and Barcelona are close enough to each other that you can’t possibly play the same XI in both. (If that’s the curve-ball, then we’re all just going to throw our hands up in the air.) But both games are difficult and important enough that Zidane needs to think outside the box. Expect minutes for players on the outskirt in the next two games: Militao, Jovic, Odriozola, Vinicius Jr, Brahim Diaz, among others. This might be the ultimate fortnight of rotations before the juggling act truly starts against Valencia.

Hopes ride high on that Clasico game in particular. That could be a watershed moment. But the build-up to a difficult stretch in December has already had a couple milestone junctures. The team did not start the season well, and in September, there were no real signs of improvement from the previous regime. The team then went on a run where they devastated inferior opponents. The criticism was that the teams Real Madrid were playing just weren’t good, namely Leganes and Galatasaray who Zidane’s men outscored 11 - 0 in total. Three days later Real Madrid went to Ipurua — a tough place to play for anyone — and won by four goals. Then the skeptics — and I’m throwing myself into the camp that was cautious, and still ride the waves of prudence in what is a volatile sport — looked at the Real Sociedad and PSG games (which, in a way, is the poor man’s Valencia / Barca double-header) as the ultimate litmus test. Real Madrid sent a message in both.

Full-circle back to Eden Hazard — he is a key player in getting Real Madrid over the hump. Elite Hazard changes the team’s ceiling dramatically. The team goes from good to great when a player like the Belgian has the supernatural ability to lift you out of a mediocre performance and break the back of even the best teams that would otherwise thwart you. You could feel Hazard’s absence in an ugly game at Mendizorroza, where the team just didn’t have his dribbling ability from the left against an above-average defensive side.

There is never a good time to get injured, but count your blessings on a couple counts: The next two games on the schedule are games that Real Madrid should rest starters in anyway, and given how difficult it was for Hazard to walk off the pitch against PSG, the injury could’ve turned out to be much worse. Hazard shouldn’t miss the Clasico now, which is great news for any football fan.

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