Premier League: Can Eden Hazard Return to Previous Heights Under Antonio Conte?
One of the benefits of a manager switch is a complete reset of team placement and mentality. Both the players and incoming manager typically get a clean slate to find out how the team will work and what their identity is.
For Chelsea and new manager Antonio Conte, this is especially true.
The Blues crashed out of a title defense last season and sacked Jose Mourinho, who is now at Manchester United. The campaign saw some of the worst runs of form in Chelsea blue for many players. Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic, Diego Costa, Oscar and, most notably, Eden Hazard disappointed on a level not often seen from a club that is consistently in the top four, much less one coming off a dominant title run the year prior.
For Hazard, it was ugly. The Belgian won multiple player of the year awards and had three consecutive selections to the PFA Team of the Year coming into last season. He looked to be reaching the apex of his game, but instead, the 25-year-old failed to inspire Chelsea's offense and endured a long run of poor form.
Conte's arrival offers new opportunities for every player. One of the more intriguing aspects of Conte is his affection for the 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 formations, something historically important to Italy and Serie A but seen less in the Premier League. While he has shown throughout his career he can adapt and find success with four at the back, it wouldn't be surprising to see Conte at least try his favored formations.
Both require consistent and extensive wing play, something Hazard has shown in the past, although defensive capabilities have never been his strength. But if Conte lights a fire in Hazard, simple pressing and use of his lightning pace could make him an all-around force.
The other promising aspect of the 2016-17 version of Chelsea is the addition of Michy Batshuayi. Hazard is already familiar with his Belgian teammate, and the prospect of Hazard and Willian feeding into Batshuayi and Diego Costa is an exciting one. Costa has decent ball control, but Batshuayi impresses with similar size and promising moments of dribbling and passing.
|Michy Batshuayi||17||9||32(4)||Ligue 1|
Hazard could be used in any number of ways under Conte, who has a plethora of talented, diverse weapons at his disposal.
And probably most importantly of all, Hazard's history speaks more for his chances at a return to expected form. The last time he totaled under 20 goals created in a league season was back in Lille's 2010-11 campaign, a far cry from the quality he's currently achieved and the team that surrounds him.
He responded to that solid performance for his age with an unbelievable 36 league goals created in 35 games in 2011-12, and he was a top player for three seasons at Chelsea before the implosion of last year.
Hazard is still the crown jewel of Chelsea, and when he's on form, he may be the best winger in the league. As Chelsea enters its next era, Hazard has the chance to remind English football exactly how good he is and return Chelsea to title hopes and more.