Sunday 21 January 2018

Gary Neville: Premier League is all drama and no substance

Eden Hazard has been the best player in the Premier League this season
Eden Hazard has been the best player in the Premier League this season

Gary Neville

Eden Hazard is the clear favourite to be named PFA Player of the Year on Sunday evening and, if he is, the Chelsea winger should enjoy his night and celebrate his achievement, but for his own status and that of the Premier League, he now needs to push himself to a higher level.

I am not suggesting he is ready to challenge Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi because those two are in outer space compared to everybody else.

For me, Hazard is in what I regard as Tier 2, alongside the top wide players at Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, so I am comparing him to Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Neymar, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez.

Right now, the stats show Hazard to be at the bottom of the group, but it is not just the numbers that give the others the edge on the Belgian.

Hazard needs to bully defenders more, become a killer, somebody who gives full-backs nightmares before they play against him. And at 24, now is the time for him to make those improvements.

When I watched the Chelsea-Manchester United game last Saturday, Hazard was head and shoulders above the rest, the outstanding individual, and he ultimately delivered the decisive moment by scoring the goal which won the three points for his team.

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo

He is a fantastic professional and, when I interviewed Jose Mourinho earlier this season, the mention of Hazard was the moment that brought a warm smile to Mourinho’s face, with the Chelsea manager speaking of him being a really good professional and good person.

And not only does Hazard have terrific match-winning qualities, he is also durable and anything but the definition of a flaky winger who goes missing from time to time.

Hazard’s appearances for club and country over the past three seasons prove his reliability, both physically and mentally.

In 2012-13, he played 69 games. It was 55 in 2013-14 and, with over a month of this season to play, has made 51 appearances for Chelsea and Belgium.

But with him seemingly on the brink of being crowned Player of the Year, we need to find some perspective as to where he stands beyond the Premier League.

To do this, we should first look back on Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final second-leg between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the Bernabeu.

For me, it was a fascinating match, a true example of football at the elite level, with one less-talented, but hugely disciplined and organised team (Atletico) attempting to overcome a team packed with individual flair and talent (Real) at the same time as attempting to nick the away goal which would have changed the whole complexion of the tie.

But when I looked at how the game was being judged on social media over here, I was so disappointed by the reaction, with people describing it as a drag, boring and many wishing for it to end.

It was a fantastic match, one which evoked memories of the Liverpool-Chelsea encounters in 2005 or the United-Barcelona semi-final in 2008, which we won 1-0 after being forced to defend for much of the two games.

But the negative reaction to Real-Atletico was a result of what the Premier League has become.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi
Barcelona's Lionel Messi

Everybody loves the drama and excitement of English football, but when you get to the elite level in the Champions League, I don’t believe that any Premier League club could have lived with Real or Atletico on Wednesday night.

And this brings me back to Hazard and where he currently ranks alongside his contemporaries.

In all competitions, for club and country this season, Hazard has scored 19 goals in 51 appearances, scoring at a rate of once every 2.68 games.

Robben has scored 21 in 35, at 1.66 games per goal, with Muller scoring 25 in 47, at a rate of 1.88.

Neymar’s numbers for Barcelona and Brazil are 30 goals in 42 games, at 1.40 a game, while Bale has scored 21 goals in 48 games for Real and Wales, at a rate of 2.28 games per goal.

Finally, James Rodriguez has scored 15 goals in 40 for Real and Colombia, coming out at 2.66 games per goal, which is fractionally better than Hazard.

All of the above have posted better games-per-goal statistics than Hazard and all of them are still performing in the latter stages of the Champions League.

Many people are suggesting that Bale has had a poor season with Real, but 21 goals in 48 games is a better return than Hazard.

So what does Hazard need to do next, to make himself a better player and also enable Chelsea to become a more dangerous team?

First of all, he needs to add ruthlessness to his game because he still lets too many defenders off the hook.

As a right-back, I confess that Hazard would have been a nightmare to play against because he has a low centre of gravity, loads of skill and trickery, two strong feet and the ability to spin in behind you.

But he is not a bully in the manner of Muller, Neymar or Robben, somebody who will keep coming at you, time and time again.

Too often, when his team is comfortable, Hazard will roll his foot over the ball a couple of times and pass it to a team-mate, when he could instead torment his full-back again by taking him on.

He also needs to learn to play inside the game more, which may mean he touches the ball less, but is instead in positions where he can score goals, influence the game more or deliver a crucial pass.

Sometimes, wingers and number tens can drift out wide in search of the ball, but when you look at Messi and Ronaldo, they are more often inside the game, playing in areas which can hurt opponents more readily.

This is what Hazard needs to work on so that he more regularly find himself in the position that he was in against United last week, when he received the ball in the penalty area before shooting low past David de Gea to win the game for Chelsea.

When Bale was at Tottenham, people doubted whether he delivered enough in big games and wondered if he was too soft to be ruthless against opponents, but he blew all those doubts away before earning his move to Real and Hazard should now look to find that ruthless streak which Bale discovered.

When Ronaldo was 24, he left United for Real, but he had already made the leap in his game that Hazard has yet to achieve.

In his first three seasons at United, Ronaldo scored 8, 16, and 13 goals respectively before jumping to 28, 46 and 25 and his final three years at Old Trafford.

I don’t believe that Hazard is capable of having a 46-goal season like Ronaldo, but he can certainly hit the mid-twenties.

At £32m, he has been fantastic value for Chelsea and I love watching him play, but I really do think that the time has come for Hazard to propel himself to another level.

And for the Premier League, it is just as important for one of the league’s most outstanding players to elevate himself alongside and above the likes of Bale, Robben and Neymar in order to show that our clubs can still possess the talent capable of making the difference in the Champions League.

Hazard has the attitude and the talent to do that, the rest is up to him.

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