Eden Hazard’s future as the best winger in Europe may lie at Bayern Munich
Chelsea fans have spent the last two summers railing against every suggestion of interest in Eden Hazard from the mega-money denizens of Paris and Madrid. However, Munich could well be the city with the strongest pull for the Belgian as Bayern Munich seek to replace Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, as per the Mirror.
The Dutchman and Frenchman are arguably the finest pair of traditional wingers in world football, and the individualist accents that breathe life into the suffocatingly dominant possession football favoured by Pep Guardiola.
With both first-choice wide-men unavailable for the Bavarians’ away clash against Borussia Dortmund through injury, the Spaniard was forced to resort to an uncharacteristically reactive game plan, favouring hits on the counter rather than his usual preference for total supremacy over opponents. They won 1-0 but it was hardly a fitting follow-up to their last meeting: an exhilarating, pulsating encounter at the Allianz Arena that ended in a 2-1 victory to the hosts in November 2014.
Meanwhile, some 325 miles west at Stamford Bridge, Hazard was once again the player to make the biggest difference for Chelsea in their continued, stuttering procession towards the Premier League title.
His star turn against Stoke City was the 12th league game this season in which the Belgian has been rated as the Blues’ top performer by Squawka and he pulled the Potters apart with eight successful dribbles from 11 attempts, drawing six fouls, scoring the opening penalty and creating Loic Remy’s winner in a 2-1 triumph.
It seems strange that, for a team managed by a manager whose greatest breakthroughs have so often come through big, domineering characters and almost brutishly assertive football, Hazard has become the de facto leader of the club’s charge for the finishing line.
Eden Hazard has completed the most final third passes in the Premier League this season (722). pic.twitter.com/AZRl8rELfW
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 4, 2015
Week after week Hazard continues to try and find a way through defences regardless, not letting up on his performance level even as his colleagues appear to struggle for focus and form in the final fixtures of the season.
After having started their league campaign brimming with so much style, swagger and momentum, Chelsea have shrivelled up and slowed down of late; a slide in standards and impetus best epitomised by the decline of Cesc Fabregas since the new year.
The Spaniard was the heartbeat of the fluid and ruthless football in the first half of the season, and still leads the assists charts both for the Blues and the Premier League with 16 goals created in 27 games; yet of that total, only three have come since the start of 2015.
Whether this drop in output has been caused by tiredness, Fabregas’ annual New Year issues, niggling minor injuries or psychological or tactical problems that have diminished his team as a whole, Hazard has carried on as the image of consistency on the left wing for Jose Mourinho.
He may not be able to boast as many assists as the former Arsenal and Barcelona playmaker, but Hazard has actually created more chances as a whole from his berth out wide, with 85 in the league versus the Spaniard’s haul of 79. Meanwhile, the Belgian is untouchable as a dribbler in the English top flight, leading the division with 143 successful take-ons, 45 ahead of Alexis Sanchez, which is one dribble fewer than the total number Angel Di Maria has managed this term for Manchester United.
Furthermore, Hazard holds this season’s highest total across Europe’s top five leagues and has also maintained a more proficient record than both his closest competitors, Karim Bellarabi and Lionel Messi, with a success rate of 65% versus the 55% rate so far achieved by that duo. He is also fouled more often than any other player in the top 10, including Barcelona’s talisman.
That puts him some way ahead of both Robben and Ribery in so far as take-ons and winning set-piece decisions are concerned, but does he do as much with his skill at beating opponents and openings as Bayern’s two free-flying wingers?
With either one of the pair on the field in the Bundesliga, Guardiola’s team have been able to rip opponents apart in spectacular fashion. Bayern’s two stand-out victories in February — the 8-0 home win over Hamburg and 6-0 away win over Paderborn — featured both wide-men, who both got on the score sheet; in Robben’s case scoring successive braces to help bulk up his goal tally for the campaign. The Dutchman is currently the Bavarian’s top scorer in the league with 17 strikes in 21 appearances, three ahead of the club’s first-choice striker Robert Lewandowski. Only Thomas Muller has more assists (nine) than the seven that have been individually conjured up by the two wingers, respectively.
Bayern are nowhere near as rampant without Robben and Ribery with their ability to peel away from the collective to cause chaos through their direct running, creating overloads for others to benefit from and turning self-perpetuating periods of possession into moments of shape-breaking penetration.
Muller and Mario Gotze cannot provide the same kind of explosive individualism and provide something different, more methodical and ultimately more central.
The likes of Bernat, Rafinha and David Alaba, who are often pushed up to play as wing-backs when the team switches to a back three, offer width but they cannot produce the kind of instant changes in pace and direction to wrong-foot defences like the club’s primary wide-men. At times, they can almost look capable of creating counters out of nothing from within the opposition’s half such is their intent when on the ball and on the move.
Meanwhile, the make-up of Guardiola’s squad is beginning to resemble that of the roster during the latter days of his reign at Barcelona. The promotion of Gianluca Gaudino from the Bayern academy, purchase of Sebastian Rode in the summer and re-purposing of Philipp Lahm and Alaba in central roles — not to mention the long-term potential of Pierre Hojbjerg, currently loaned-out at FC Augsburg — means that there is a distinct midfielder creep brought about by the Spaniard’s over-prioritising of players in that position.
His constant refinement of his ideals, and expansion of his list of midfielders at the Camp Nou, eventually lead to a detrimental orthodoxy of sorts in Catalonia, especially in the years following Guardiola’s departure. For periods under Jordi Roura and Gerardo Martino, it seemed as though the entire first-team had come to rely on Messi to do the thinking and find the breakthrough for every problem they faced.
Bayern’s current manager must be careful not to make a similar mistake by overlooking the need to reinforce and replenish his squad’s fire-power down the flanks. At present, Mitchell Weiser is the only natural cover as far as wingers are concerned, yet with only nine Bundesliga games under his belt for the club, the 20-year-old remains a hope for the future rather than a ready-made replacement of the calibre required.
It wouldn’t be an inexpensive solution, but signing Hazard would be an emphatic answer to this weak point in the German champion’s otherwise comprehensive roster of tactically-adaptable midfielders, forwards and defenders, and not just because of his talent on the field.
After all, Messi, Robben and Ribery aren’t just their club’s skilful, high performers but leaders by example, too. With both players now 31, the need for suitable back-ups grows by the year.
Chelsea’s frailties may have been exposed by the mental and physical pressures of a highly-strung Champions League run, a domestic FA Cup failure and Premier League complacency, but Hazard has — as mentioned above — remained something of a constant. Though the other previously gleaming weapons in Mourinho’s tactical arsenal have become dulled and blunted, the Belgian’s keen sharpness as a reliable cutting edge remains true.
His consistency and self-belief are qualities that are not dissimilar to the strengths that Robben and Ribery carried over into Guardiola’s squad from Jupp Heyncke’s all-conquering, treble-winning side of 2012/13. The futures of both wingers under the Spaniard were questioned by pundits following the news he would be taking over at the club, and yet they have since proven to be two of his most essential game-changing figures in all competitions.
After having scored the winner in the all-German Champions League final against Dortmund in 2013, Robben also fired home the first goal in the 2014 DFB-Pokal cup final, again against Jurgen Klopp’s side. Ribery was named man of the match in the 2013 UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup final wins over Chelsea and Raja Casablanca, respectively.
Given his excellence as a dribbler and creator of chances, Hazard is arguably already the finest and most effective winger in Europe, and given his persistence in a blue shirt this season, he is one of the few players in Mourinho’s squad to show the kind of steely resolve expected of those who feature within his teams.
Between 2004 and 2007, it was Robben who so often lead the way from the wing under the Portuguese at Stamford Bridge, helping to fire Chelsea to a record points total of 95 in his second season in England. However, their rapport didn’t last and he was sold to Real Madrid a few months before his manager was sacked.
Could Hazard follow suit and one day re-inspire the flanks for Bayern, just like his predecessor for the Blues? It would require a landmark deal to wrestle him from the club’s grasp, but it’s hard to think the Belgian would be anything but a natural fit for the star-studded squad list of “FC Hollywood”. As Ribery himself has said, as reported by ESPN, bringing the best dribbler in England to the Allianz is the logical choice.