Real Madrid and Belgium international Eden Hazard has picked up seven injuries during his short tenure with Los Blancos, missing nearly 60% of the matches he’s eligible for.
The player was durable during his playing days at Chelsea, so what’s going on here? Physiotherapist Dr. Rajpal Brar has outlined six possible reasons underlying Hazard’s Real Madrid injury woes and the key factors that could determine whether he can escape the cycle.
It’s well known that Hazard showed up to Real Madrid’s 2019 camp out of shape and in poor fitness following his massive transfer from Chelsea. The player, unsurprisingly, quickly picked up a muscle injury during pre-season games; in this case, a moderate hamstring tear that kept him out for nearly a month. There’s always an increased risk for muscle injuries when increasing intensity of play and even more so when fitness levels aren’t up to par.
2. Fluctuating fitness levels
In late November 2019, Hazard picked up a knock to his ankle that turned into a saga in and of itself with multiple different diagnoses, poor healing, and eventually, requiring surgery. That process essentially ended Hazard’s first season with the club.
After this sort of longer-term injury and extended layoff — especially with a lower-body injury for which you cannot do much cardiovascular training — there are significant fluctuations in strength, conditioning, and overall fitness levels (to add to the already existing ones), increasing the overall risk for injuries.
These fluctuations were exacerbated by two separate impact knocks during the La Liga restart that kept Hazard out a combined 37 days, a muscular injury during the start of the 20/21 season that saw him miss 27 days, and then he tested positive for COVID-19. The latter potentially added another dimension of cardiovascular issues as there are reports of some players — Paul Pogba, for example — dealing with longer-term conditioning issues after contracting and returning from the virus.
3. A vicious cycle
Hazard’s last three overt injuries have each been muscular. This hints at the player being in a muscle injury-reinjury cycle, a vicious cycle highlighted by the development of scar tissue, compensation from other body parts to make up for a weaker link (“the kinetic chain”), and as touched on before, further fitness deficits. Each of these lead to injury and reinjury risk as muscles can’t tolerate the load or stretch placed on them in the short and medium term, which leads to overload and increasingly lower thresholds for injury.
Research shows that ageing footballers have a higher soft tissue injury risk, year over year. For example, for every year a footballer has played professionally, there’s a 30% increase in hamstring injury risk.
Hazard debuted with Lille at the tender age of 16 in November 2007, so he’s been playing professionally for coming up on 14 years.
5. Playing history
During his time with Chelsea, Hazard was consistently involved in longer seasons and higher intensity matches, whether with the club in the Premier League, domestic or European tournaments, or playing for Belgium internationally. Further, as a star player, Hazard had greater responsibilities on the pitch and was keyed on by oppositional tactics and defenders, who served up some robust treatment for the 30-year-old.
These factors, particularly over an extended period of time like for Hazard, lead to increased wear and tear and cumulative fatigue, both physically and mentally.
6. Playing style
An integral part of what makes Hazard such a dangerous, formidable player who strikes fear into the heart of opposing backlines is his start-stop, change-of-direction playing style that constantly leaves defenders guessing and off-balance.
However, that playing style with constant acceleration, deceleration, and twisting puts a greater demand and load on the body. That demand can be tolerated when playing and training consistently but now that Hazard is going through these cycles of injuries and fitness loss, that stress may be too much to handle in his present state.
Considering all these factors, the all-important question of the moment becomes: Can he ever escape the cycle and get healthy?
There are multiple examples of players emerging from these periods of injury woes and it’s typically spurred by a realization and commitment to underlying lifestyle changes that prioritize sleep, nutrition, managing stress, and optimizing fitness.
A prime example is Barcelona winger Ousmane Dembele, who has dealt with a devastatingly vicious cycle of hamstring injuries — to the point where Barcelona put him on the transfer market this past off-season as the player recovered from a grade-3 hamstring rupture and surgical hamstring repair — but seems to have emerged out of it, now having played a consistent run of games. By multiple accounts, that emergence is a testament to the off-pitch changes he’s committed himself to. That said, Dembele doesn’t have the age and playing history factors that Hazard has.
All in all, it will be no easy task for Hazard to escape this injury crisis but although difficult, it’s not impossible. The key I’ve often found with athletes in his position is simply focusing on the day-to-day process and crowding everything else out of the mind, lest the task feel like climbing a mountain, which can be very disheartening. I’m certainly rooting for Hazard to find his form off and on the pitch and return to the mesmerizing dynamo we saw at Chelsea and Lille.
Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more) by going here.