This season's Stats Zone Premier League Player of the Year has swept up the annual awards, and Michael Cox says it's because Jose Mourinho has been forced to make another exception...
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When Jose Mourinho was appointed Chelsea manager two summers ago, Eden Hazard had a problem. He was now a winger playing under Jose Mourinho – but he wasn’t a Jose Mourinho winger.
Just as, for example, the Arsene Wenger full-back is quick, technical and proactive with his defensive play, and the Pep Guardiola centre-back is composed, calm and good in possession, the Jose Mourinho winger is disciplined, hard-working and good at springing forward from deep positions.
So while the likes of Andre Schurrle, Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne and Juan Mata couldn't make it work in Chelsea's right-wing position, Willian has proved perfect.
A willing runner who tracks back constantly, his defensive work is more impressive than his attacking play, which summarises precisely what Mourinho wants. Hazard isn’t that player, and therefore had to adapt.
The exception to this rule, though, is Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. There, Mourinho didn't ask Ronaldo to sprint back and protect his full-back. He didn't ask him to form a second bank of four behind the ball.
He didn't even ask him to track the opposition full-back. Ronaldo had licence to stay high up the pitch, remain in a position to counter-attack and cause the opposition problems with his sheer pace and ability to beat the opposition right-back. Therefore, there were two potential avenues for Hazard: he could become the standard Mourinho winger, or attempt to become his new Ronaldo.
Mourinho was honest about the freedom he gave Ronaldo at Real Madrid. "Cristiano has had three fantastic seasons with me. I don't know if they were the best of his career because he had some fantastic moments with Manchester United," Mourinho said after leaving Real. "I think we created a fantastic situation for him tactically in which he could express all his potential and turn that into records and goals."
The 'fantastic tactical situation' essentially meant Ronaldo didn't have to contribute defensively. Other players – Marcelo, Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Angel Di Maria – were given roles which meant this wasn't disastrous. Mourinho is a system-first manager, but he happily changed his for one of the world's most outstanding players.
Gary Neville, who played as a full-back behind Ronaldo for a good few years, said something similar. "He completely changed my opinions about the game," the former Manchester United skipper admitted a couple of years ago. "I'd always been taught that I must have a right winger in front of me, but I knew he'd go and win us the match. Darren Fletcher would say that we'd have to work around him, because he'd always do more harm than opposing players he was leaving free to go forward.
"All the premeditated tactical theories I'd learned about getting and staying in your shape, tracking back with your runner; all the things that had been drummed into me were thrown out over those two years because we had a player who could make up his own rules with the blessing of his team-mates."
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The question, then, is whether Hazard can become entrusted in this manner. At Real Madrid, Mourinho was dealing with a player in almost a unique situation, a superstar footballer at a club that prides themselves on having superstars. Mourinho, for the only time in his career, wasn't the main man – and that meant he needed to make an exception. Hazard's first season under Mourinho finished with him facing plenty of criticism for his lack of defensive ability. In the 3-1 home defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, Chelsea conceded two goals because Juanfran bombed past Hazard easily.
The Belgian neglected his defensive responsibilities, rather than being absolved from any responsibility. He barely did anything without the ball, while Juanfran created chances for two Atletico goals.
Mourinho was furious, particularly when Hazard hinted he’d been unhappy with Chelsea’s reactive, counter-attacking approach. "You get this kind of comment from players like him: from players who can’t resolve a problem like we had with the first [Atletico] goal," fumed Mourinho. "You understand where the mistake was and why we conceded that goal... when the comments come from a player like Eden, it’s normal. He’s not the kind of player ready to sacrifice himself 100 per cent for the team. I’m not happy."
Things improved, though. At the start of this campaign, it wouldn't have been possible for Mourinho to tell Hazard to stay high up the pitch permanently. Chelsea were already open in the centre because Cesc Fabregas was bombing forward from a deep position, with Nemanja Matic just about covering for him. Hazard couldn’t be given a free role, and had to get through some defensive work.
"Defensively we are very strong," Hazard said in December. "All the players want to defend for the team, even the attacking players... even me! He tells the attacking players to go for goals, to play our football, but when you don’t have the ball you have to defend."
But now, Chelsea have become more structured in midfield. Matic has had a defensive player alongside him – sometimes Ramires, sometimes converted centre-back Kurt Zouma – while Willian established himself on the right because he was the most defensive option. Theoretically, Matic could now cover out to the left flank, with Cesar Azpilicueta also remaining in a defensive position to stop breaks down that side.
Now, especially since Hazard has shown his ability to run matches – he can beat opponents, score goals and create chances for his team-mates – he’s moved into the class of players whose lack of defensive work-rate can be tolerated, and maybe even encouraged.
Do you want Hazard tracking the opposition right-back? Or do you want him to remain in behind his opponent, in the knowledge that only the centre-backs are separating him from goal once he receives possession? Against weak opposition, Hazard runs riot when allowed to remain high up the pitch. Against stronger sides, he often gets the ball when boxed in, close to the touchline inside his own half.
Hazard is hugely ambitious, wants to become the world’s best and has spoken of his determination to improve his goal return. "The best players in the world – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo – they score 40-50 goals in a season. That's what I have to do," he told FFT in November.
For that, he needs to play higher up the pitch. Can he become Chelsea’s Ronaldo?
Stats Zone Premier League Goalkeeper of the Year 2014/15
Stats Zone Premier League Full-Back of 2014/15
Stats Zone Premier League Centre-Back of 2014/15
Stats Zone Premier League Central Midfielder of 2014/15
Stats Zone Premier League Attacking Midfielder of 2014/15
Stats Zone Premier League Striker of 2014/15
Stats Zone Premier League Young Player of 2014/15