Friday 20 September 2019

Sam Dean: 'Low centre of gravity keeps Hazard soaring above rivals'

As well as his natural footballing ability, the Chelsea star's unique frame gives him an edge on the pitch, writes Sam Dean

Eden Hazard. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Eden Hazard. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Eden Hazard appeared almost a little sheepish when asked, a few weeks ago, to explain how he had scored the best individual goal of the season. The final whistle had only just blown on Chelsea's 2-0 victory over West Ham United, when Hazard had slid through the visiting defence as if wearing ice skates, and the Belgian was struggling to put the moment into words.

In typically nonchalant style, he first tried to claim that the strike was "a bit lucky". But he was then pressed on the nature of the goal and, in particular, his low centre of gravity. "Well, I'm small, so, for me, it's quite good when I play against tall guys," Hazard said. "It's very hard for them to change direction."

Hazard cannot be reasonably expected to explain in depth what has come naturally to him for his entire footballing life. This, though, was a pretty good summary of why he remains the Premier League's most relentlessly thrilling individual talent.

After all, there is a reason why Real Madrid are so keen to secure his services this summer and that reason extends far beyond trophies and accolades.

Hazard could easily end the season with zero titles to his name. Somehow, he did not even make the Professional Footballers' Association team of the year.

But few players have provided as many moments of individual genius this season, and no single attacker has been as vital to a team as Hazard has been to Chelsea.

Assists As Maurizio Sarri's side go to Old Trafford tomorrow, knowing that a victory would put them on the cusp of a top-four finish, it is Hazard to whom they will turn. With 16 goals and 13 assists in the Premier League, he has been directly involved in more goals than any other player in the division.

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling, with 17 goals and 10 assists, is the only other to reach double figures in both categories.

Those defining moments mean that Hazard has been involved in 49.2 per cent of all of Chelsea's goals in the league.

The next most influential player at a top-six club is Paul Pogba, whose 13 goals and nine assists make up a comparatively meagre 35 per cent of Manchester United's goals. Across Europe's top five leagues, only Lionel Messi has created more chances (74) from open play than Hazard's 73.

Those outstanding statistics are evidence - as if further evidence was needed - of Hazard's quality. What the numbers do not explain, though, and what Hazard struggles to explain himself, is why he is so good.

There are many elements to this, some of which are more obvious than others.

It should be said first of all, however, that Hazard is physiologically built to be an elite attacking force in a way that very few footballers are.

Hazard's physique is markedly different to most top-level players. At 5ft 7in, he is two inches shorter than the average right-back he has faced in the Premier League this season. But at almost 12st, he is also heavier than the average right-back.

"What differentiates Hazard from just being small is that he has a large amount of body mass, which is all muscle," says Jim Pate, senior physiologist at the Centre for Health and Human Performance in London.

"That mass is important. If he was lighter than the 6ft right-back then that defender could push him around much more easily.

"So, he's on an equal ground in terms of mass, but because he is lower to the ground he can get up underneath the bigger guys. He becomes the fulcrum on the lever."

It also helps Hazard's cause that he is, for want of a better description, a "short" 5ft 7in. His torso is long and his legs are disproportionately short.

Most of his mass is, therefore, held in the lower half of his body, so the all-important centre of gravity is driven down even further.

"The distribution of your mass is important," says Pate. "The lower your centre of mass, the lower your centre of gravity. His height helps with that, as does the fact that his legs are the most developed part of his body."

His legs, and also his rear. Hazard's glutes are so well developed that one fan has even created a dedicated Twitter account as a tribute. Much of his weight comes from these muscles and the fact it is all packed onto a small frame only adds to his explosiveness.

"If you looked at the area of muscle in his legs, they would be a lot bigger than the other guys," says Pate. "He is heavy, but he is a bit more compact. He's really comparable to Messi. Diego Maradona had the same build."

There are other advantages. Hazard runs with short strides, his feet staying close to the ground. It is the opposite to how sprinters are taught to move, but for Hazard it means that he can take more touches of the ball at high speed. Matt Lowton, the Burnley right-back, was the latest to learn this on Monday night, when he was twisted left, right and left again as Hazard created a goal for N'Golo Kante. In that move, Hazard took 11 touches of the ball in just six seconds.

Machine-like Perhaps the only question that Madrid might ask themselves this summer is whether all this ability can be translated into machine-like goalscoring.

Sarri certainly thought so at the start of the season, when he challenged Hazard to score 40 goals. Sarri wanted the 28-year-old to spend more time closer to the opposition goal, rather than constantly dropping deep.

Since then, the plan has either been abandoned or, more likely, the ever-relaxed Hazard has simply continued to do what he has always done.

He still comes to the ball, preferring to pick it up near the halfway line rather than darting in behind, and he certainly roams far more freely than, say, the more advanced Sterling, who plays a similar position in a team who play a similar style of football.

"I'm not at all selfish," Hazard has said. "The way I am can be a weakness to be the best player in the world. Managers like Mourinho, Conte, now with Sarri, want me to score 40, 50 goals a season, but can I do that? I'm not sure. I know myself and I don't think I can."

At heart, Hazard is a creator rather than a finisher. An artist rather than a predator. He is not another Messi, nor he is another Cristiano Ronaldo.

He may well be the next best thing, though, and he will be missed by more than just Chelsea fans if that explosive frame carries him all the way to Spain.

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