Chelsea have been dealt a blow in recent days as Eden Hazard has suffered a broken ankle while on international duty with Belgium. The attacker managed to stay relatively injury-free during the Blues’ title-winning campaign and that was a major factor in their triumph. Pedro and Willian are excellent players, but neither possess the dynamism or stay quality that Hazard has.
It is important that a club doesn’t stand-still after a title win and that they recruit further from a position of strength. This injury to arguably their best player presents a problem for Antonio Conte as he is likely to miss the start of the season. That in itself is a major problem, but the bigger issue is that he won’t be able to prepare with the team during pre-season and won’t reach peak fitness until months into the campaign.
How much will he be missed?
Last season, Hazard averaged 2.68 chances created and 2.32 attempted shots per ninety minutes, while he averaged a goal close to every other game with 0.48 every ninety minutes. This is impressive and shows just how integral he is to the Chelsea attack. Not only was he producing good numbers, but his presence opened up space for the rest of the front-line to exploit as he was often watched closely and man-marked in several matches. Every opposition manager is aware of the threat that the Belgian poses and the fear that he imposes on others will be hugely lost.
Pedro had a good attacking season and was a useful player on the opposing wing, with nine goals and nine assists. His direct approach and intelligent movement was suited to the 3-4-3 system. The Spaniard thrived in the space that was created by Hazard. Meanwhile, Willian averaged 2.96 chances created and 2.55 attempted shots per ninety minutes. Although these numbers are better than Hazard, he was mainly used as an impact sub when the opposition team was chasing the game, which meant he had more space to attack. It would be a stretch to suggest he could replace Hazard for the opening months of next season.
The one stat that illustrates the importance of Hazard to this team is successful dribbles and take ons. According to Whoscored, the Belgian averaged four successful dribbles per game, while Willian (1.5) and Pedro (1.6) were significantly trailing. Meanwhile, Hazard completed 4.4 successful take ons per ninety minutes, once again bettering Willian (3.19) and Pedro (2.34). In the 3-4-3 formation, Chelsea needed Hazard to beat opposition players and drag their defence out of position in order to create chances. His dynamism and dribbling ability can’t be replaced from within, which means that Conte needs to find a solution before the season starts.
What should Chelsea do to limit the loss of Hazard?
They could choose to change the formation and their style of play to one that doesn’t require a dynamic player on the counter-attack, but this would be unlikely given the success that the Blues have had with the 3-4-3. A better solution would be to recruit a player that has a dribbling ability to rival Hazard. As he is one of the best at beating players, it will be difficult, but there are players that could come in and carry out a similar job to limit the loss of the Belgian.
There are two players that Chelsea could consider from within the Premier League as possible replacements for Hazard until the 26-year-old returns. The first would be an obvious one in Alexis Sanchez. He averages 2.9 successful dribbles per game and 3.05 successful take ons per ninety minutes. These are lower than Hazard, but he would be able to do a good job on the left wing and signing him would send a message to the rest of the league that Chelsea mean business.
The other possible replacement comes from left-field, but it would make sense for the Blues. Wilfried Zaha has had his best Premier League season, contributing seven goals and nine assists in a struggling Crystal Palace team. He is now contributing on a regular basis, but it is his 4.1 successful dribbles per game and 4.38 successful take ons per ninety minutes that suggest he would be a good fit for Conte’s team. It would be a risk, but the Ivory Coast international has done enough during the last 12 months to suggest he could be ready to make a step up. Furthermore, Chelsea aren’t looking for a permanent replacement for Hazard and in the short-term, Zaha could do an adequate job, before dropping to carry out the role of a squad player.