Eden Hazard leans forward in his chair at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground, eager to explain how it feels to work under Jose Mourinho.
“To criticise is normal, it’s part of a manager’s job,” he says. “As players, we know if we’ve been good, we know if we’ve been bad.
“It’s more because it’s Mourinho – that’s a bit scary for everyone. But he says things sincerely and, for me, that’s what I appreciate in a manager. It can shock you but we’re professionals. We’re used to criticism so it’s up to us to work to make him happy.’
Mourinho returned to Chelsea last summer as the self-professed Happy One but that demeanour has been tested at times this season. Chelsea’s campaign has been fitful, dented by six defeats including a League Cup quarter-final exit in extra time against Sunderland in midweek.
Mourinho again vented his frustration after that loss, but it was no surprise to the players. “That’s his job and if we are bad, he says so and we know that,” Hazard says. “He’s a very sincere manager and he’s very clear about what he wants. He demands a lot in defence and attack, he talks a lot, so we do know what we have to do. But he also laughs a lot and he’s at ease on the pitch.”
Hazard also likes to laugh, often punctuating his sometimes cheeky answers with a wink or a grin. “I think I’m a player who when I am feeling well, feeling good then I enjoy it and I play well. It’s all connected – whether it’s in life or in football. I really need that target to be feeling good.”
And life has been good at Chelsea since his £32 million move from Lille in 2012. He has proved one of the top flight’s most creative influences – only Wayne Rooney has produced more assists since August 2012 – and he has earned the affection of Chelsea’s followers.
“On the pitch I really try to give pleasure to people, to give the maximum so that they really enjoy it and that’s a good, happy relationship with the fans and that’s why they feel that affection,” Hazard says, speaking as part of the Barclays ‘Thank You’ campaign to supporters and community heroes. “So I’m hoping that this ‘love story’, if you can call it that, continues for as long as possible.”
Hazard is also not afraid to reach out to the supporters. He laughs again as he recalls being sent, along with Tottenham Hotspur’s Nacer Chadli, to the home of one young fan in Brussels as part of a thank you to Belgium’s fans for their backing during the national team’s successful campaign to qualify for the Brazil World Cup.
The pair arrived on the doorstep and promptly asked if there were any chores they could help with. “It’s a Belgium thing, a bet we have on,” Hazard says. “Whenever there is a squad chosen two or three players have to go and do something. So it fell to me and to Nacer Chadli to go to someone’s house and we offered to wash the dishes. We really enjoyed it, it was really great to make a child happy. He’s really keen on me and actually I found it more stressful than being out on the pitch.”
When he was a young boy himself Hazard, naturally, had his own heroes – chief among them Zinedine Zidane. “My top first player was Zidane who I used to really enjoy watching. I wouldn’t say he was like me, far from it, but he had a fantastic ease on the pitch, he was a beautiful player and he really is my role model. I’ve also looked at a lot of videos of Ronaldinho, Robinho and [Juan Román] Riquelme and I really like them.”
All, of course, are playmakers with skill and deft touches but have, in the case of the latter trio, been accused on occasions of being a little too languid.
Hazard accepts that there have been games when he has also frustrated. “It’s true that I do have matches where it’s really good and some where it’s not so good. Sometimes it is variable – there are times when I disappear out of the match – so I’m hoping to improve my work rate, work really hard on that and get more consistency. There will be matches when I don’t do so well and matches when I am exceptional.”
There was the highest of praise from Mourinho following another match against Sunderland — the 4-3 victory in the Barclays Premier League earlier this month, which he marked with an assist and two goals. “The best,” Mourinho purred about Hazard.
There are parallels between him and Joe Cole, who faced a similar ‘tough love’ approach from Mourinho, with the England international then going on to hail him as the best manager he has ever had. Did Hazard quiz Cole about the manager when the players were at Lille together?
“Actually my English was pretty useless at the time!” Hazard says, although Cole’s French was no better. “He [Mourinho] says things as they are and for young players that’s really helpful. It’s up to us to listen and learn and that’s what I mean about he makes players better.”
This is also an evolving Chelsea, with Hazard drawing the comparison between his club and country: both teams being stuffed with exciting young talent and weighed down by expectations. “I do think we have a good chance, a really good chance but we are not there yet,” he says of Belgium.
And Chelsea? What of them and their changing style? “In the past Chelsea won trophies with their own style – there was Didier Drogba who was there,” Hazard explains. “I think we need to get away from that image of the past and try to build a new team. I think it will come. We will improve our game and style and we will find ourselves but it won’t be immediate.”
Nevertheless there are immediate goals, which include sustaining a title challenge. “I prefer to be in the position we are in now compared to last year,” Hazard says, remembering a time when Chelsea were already out of the title race by December.
“If we manage this festive fixture list properly we can see what Chelsea can do and we will see what we deserve by the end of the season.”
That starts with Monday’s match away to Arsenal, with Mourinho having already declared that this is the month in which only the ‘brave’ survive. Hazard agrees. “It is the period when the championship can be won, although it’s actually a period of time when you can lose the championship. So it’s up to us to play these matches with a lot of intensity, take them seriously because there are lots of fans who come with their families at this time of year and it’s up to us to provide them with really positive victories.”
Chelsea – and Mourinho – have a very strong record against Arsenal, a team that Hazard admires. “Arsenal have always been a team who play really beautiful football and even in past years, even though they haven’t always won, they have always been really great to look at,” he says. “But against the big teams they don’t always get there so it’s up to us to take advantage of that and I hope that we are going to win, it’s our aim and it would be good to get three extra points in order to be at the top.”
He is, understandably, a fan of Mesut Özil, a player in a similar creative, elusive mould to himself. “They recently recruited a really great player, a really intelligent player, who can change the course of the match,” Hazard says. “And I’m hoping that on Monday he doesn’t play well!”
Özil vies for status within the world’s elite players – a group to which Hazard also aspires. “I really, really hope that I can be one of the best,” he says. “People want to see me being like Cristiano Ronaldo, like Lionel Messi, scoring goals, but that’s not what I am. I am who I am, with my strengths and weaknesses. It’s up to me to work on the weaknesses.”