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How Eden Hazard will revive Real Madrid

Hazard’s signing helps Real Madrid find solutions to multiple problems. Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column, on Hazard’s fit, and what he brings to the table.

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Chelsea v Manchester City - Carabao Cup Final Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

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 all happened within the span of four days. Luka Jovic was signed last Tuesday, and Eden Hazard was announced on Friday night. If Real Madrid could’ve, they would’ve announced Hazard even sooner, but the paper work took us to Friday night, and with it, our workload into the weekend. As fast as it was, neither signing was a surprise, and we were prepared. Before the signing, we released a video on Hazard’s tactical fit over on School of Real Madrid, and the Jovic version will be released next week. Now that the foreplay with Hazard has officially ended, it’s time to dive even deeper into his arrival, and how Zidane can use him as the team’s offensive fulcrum.

Like Jovic, Hazard solves some problems, but won’t move the needle in other facets of Real Madrid’s deep systemic issues. But Hazard fills one of the biggest hollow barrels Real Madrid currently have: chance creation. Do not let anyone coax you into the idea that the team’s problems were down to missing chances alone — those chances were not being created in the first place. ‘Creating chances wasn’t a problem’ is a lazy way out of a deep problem. The team’s xG regressed by, wait for it, 22.64 from last season’s La Liga campaign to this one. Real Madrid didn’t create chances. To rehash some rock-bottom offensive moments from a Jovic article I wrote last week: .46xG away to Rayo, .49xG away to Alaves, and .46xG away to Huesca. You can’t score goals if you’re not entering the final-third against relegation-dwellers.

Hazard is not here for the sole reasons that he was available, his price tag was cut in half from last summer as he grows near the end of his contract, or that he courted the club for years. This was not an obligatory purchase because of outside pressure — it was obligatory because Hazard is immediately needed, even if the position he resides in is deep with young assets.

Eden Hazard is a Real Madrid player for a simple reason: To help Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema spur a stagnant offense into motion.

Vinicius was the main line-breaker this season; but Benzema’s most underrated trait was that he was the main, ever-mobile outlet while others remained idle. Over the course of the season, from start to finish, the French striker would put onus on himself to move and create innovative distribution channels:

That sequence was against Athletic Bilbao, who refused to shelter themselves in the comfort of a low-block against a Real Madrid that was (then) in form. And that was the common scouting report this season against Real: Hedge higher, shift your defensive line up the field to cut off the main supply chain, unnerve Casemiro, and deny outlets. In three tough away losses specifically, Benzema was the main off-ball instigator, but too often alone: Bilbao at San Mames, Sevilla at the Pizjuan, and Barcelona in the Camp Nou (Lopetegui’s good-bye).

The creative process requires fluidity, moving parts and incisive dribbling — something Hazard is elite in. Zidane would’ve like to have had someone like him in years past (his public courting of Hazard actually started back in 2011, when he said he would take Hazard, then at Lille, with his eyes closed), but it makes sense now more than ever. Hazard is coming off the back of his best season, and is in his peak. At the age of 28, he’s the same age Zidane was when Real Madrid signed him.

Jurgen Klopp once said that you need three players to stop Hazard — that defending him one-on-one is not ideal, but it becomes easier once you send a second or third player at him. But continually doing that against a supernova like Hazard opens you up in different ways:

Hazard doesn’t score goals like that routinely, but the broader sequence illustrates how he’ll help Real Madrid. The easy decision at the beginning of the loop is to just pass the ball backwards or sideways and recycle possession — but Hazard zags when most players zig. That’s what breaking lines consists of. Liverpool shift. Hazard stays with the play and pops up as an immediate outlet once he’s unchained from the tight space he was in. What ensues can only be described as a tornado ripping through a good defensive team. Movement like that is often the answer to multiple defensive looks, whether it’s a stubborn low-block or a high-press.

Hazard is a more polished Vinicius — a peak-star with an end product. Maybe he’ll guide the Brazilian into a channeled approach to take advantage of the good shooting positions he gets himself into.

If Zidane gets it right, then Hazard doesn’t hinder Vinicius’s development — he lifts him up and causes chaos in the final third alongside him. Real Madrid need multiple gunslingers, as they have in all their historic teams throughout the years. One guy breaking lines isn’t enough. Having just one threat is what made them so easy to defend this past season. Hazard put in one of the best seasons of his career virtually alone, alongside an inconsistent Wilian and Pedro, without a reliable forward to play off of, and often as a false 9 isolated from the rest of the team — imagine what he can do with better talent around him.

“Reading the game and reading passes to him, reacting a little better – it’s not easy – but in some situations, you can’t defend (him),“ Klopp said of Hazard back in April. “hopefully help will come in from somewhere else.”

In the EFL Cup final against Manchester City this season, Hazard played as a false 9 — a blueprint that had worked against Pep’s possession-based scheme prior. The Belgian carried the entire offensive load on his own. In the first half of that game, Chelsea’s only source of offense was Hazard dribbling through multiple players. Just before half-time, he skipped passed four defenders before seeing his shot blocked. As the game progressed, Hazard’s influence grew despite being isolated while his team hedged back to soak up attacks. In one instance in the second half, he glided past Kompany, waited for N’golo Kante to dart up the field, and found the French midfielder. Kante eventually shot it over the bar.

Klopp’s idea of throwing multiple defenders at Hazard gets more difficult when you surround the Belgian with like-minded players like Vinicius (rather than a reliance on Kante escaping a low-block to help in attack). Defending Chelsea wasn’t complicated when Sarri hadn’t yet figured out his best XI. That changed when he introduced the dynamic Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi into the team. Suddenly Chelsea went from a one-man, John Wick exhibition, to a vibrant ecosystem of flair on both flanks, and incisive runs from midfield which Jorginho could pick out from his deep-lying role.

That’s the kind of environment Zidane will want to create. Individually, Real Madrid’s attackers all fill a need — collectively, all these signings and existing pieces can create exciting offensive pandemonium.

This season, Vinicius was a defensive work-horse and ball-carrying engine — but he couldn’t finish, and he had little help breaking lines. Benzema was the only consistent scorer. Jovic fills the goal-scoring need; Hazard becomes Vinny’s wingman in the half-spaces. The two should be able to co-exist. Some of Hazard’s best goals came from central positions or down the right. If Zidane decides to roll with a diamond again, Hazard could play the Isco-2017 role to a tee — popping up as an outlet all over the pitch to glue the offensive transition into something more cerebral. (The defensive dominoes of the diamond under Zidane had its own slew of problems, as Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro were unaware of where Isco was off-ball at any given moment, causing a messy domino-effect defending in transition which I wrote about extensively in the lead-up to the Champions League final against Liverpool. But the team did have offensive control and slung waves of attack in that scheme at the very least.) Diamond or not, there are multiple looks Zidane can roll out which has Vinicius and Hazard together — along with Jovic and Benzema.

Just to emphasize the point of how good Hazard is at creating openings when they don’t exist: No one in the Premier League had more completed dribbles per game (3.6) than Hazard. Only one player, James Maddison, had more key passes per game. He’s often fouled as a means of being thwarted, and only one player, Wilfried Zaha, was fouled more than the Belgian. Those numbers extend beyond England. Only four players — Lionel Messi, Sofiane Boufal, Allan Saint-Maximin, Hatem Ben Arfa — complete more dribbles per game in Europe. Hazard ranks 11th on the continent when it comes to key passes per game.

In the Europa League, Hazard led the tournament with 4.5 dribbles per game. (Interestingly, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi round out the top-three, as Chelsea put their mark on the tournament and peaked as the season wore on.)

People often poke fun at the diameter of Hazard’s booty. It’s hard to miss. Hazard is the Kyle Lowry of football — his ass has a gravitational pull that attracts multiple moons that orbit around it. That’s not slander. His ass is an unfair weapon as he bounces off defenders and slithers past them with his technique and low center of gravity.

“His ass is his center of gravity,” Roberto Martinez, Hazard’s coach at the Belgian national team told AS on Tuesday. “He can use it to get out of 1v1 situations.”

Real Madrid’s two best dribblers — Vinicius Jr and Marcelo — don’t have the ass, but have a similar center of gravity, and all hover around the same height.

Hazard wears defenders down and chips away at their soul. In the Europa League final, both Torreira and Maitland-Niles hounded the Belgian and took away his space. Hazard flipped it on them. He found space anyway, found overloading runs from Emerson with a series of back-heels and flicks, and drifted centrally to stretch out Arsenal’s defense which emphasized packing the flanks:

What makes Hazard so difficult to defend is the aggression in which he attacks with. Rarely will you see him hesitate in uncertainty. Just when defenders think they have set up a barricade and ease their defensive stance, Hazard shifts into full gear and starts his waltz into dangerous positions. He catches defenders napping consistently.

Once he decides to get into the box, there’s not much you can do to stop him:

Arsenal eventually win the ball here, but it takes four defenders to collapse on him. If this play unfolds another second before Sokratis and Matiland-Niles step in; Hazard can play a square-pass to a wide-open Giroud in front of goal.

He’s unpredictable and will keep defenders guessing. Hedge off him, and he’ll carry the ball into a dangerous area with an incisive dribble; collapse on him and he’ll find an open man with a pass-and-move sequence at the top of the box. This is where he can really thrive next to Benzema:

It’s not just the final-third where Hazard can lift you. He’ll also drop deep to help get you out of a press before taking the ball into open water in transition — a trait Real Madrid sorely missed when Mateo Kovacic went out on loan:

None of this means that Real Madrid, a team that finished 19 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and got waxed by Ajax in the Champions League, will be back at the pantheon next season. There will be growing pains. What it does mean is that Zidane’s schematic options will start to shift towards what he had in the ‘16-17 season — where opponents will face unpredictable schemes that can shape-shift from game-to-game — from half-to-half.

Real Madrid erred on the side of pragmatism in past off-seasons — rightfully so given their success on the field. But last season’s transfer stagnancy (relative stagnancy that is, given they did sign Alvaro Odriozola, Thibaut Courtois, Mariano Diaz, Brahim Diaz, Andriy Lunin, and Vinicius for a combined 157m) haunted them to the point where a big injection of fresh blood is needed to revive the team back into life.

Hazard is part of the revival.

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