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Real Madrid should not buy Eden Hazard from Chelsea

Photo: Aleksandr Osipov

I come to bury Eden Hazard, and to praise him. The player whose effortless runs once terrorized Premier League rightbacks is no more. Could he ever come back?

Once in a while I scan NYA’s player ratings across different leagues to see if anything unusual is going on. I have a rating for skill in ground duels in possession, and the player I’ve tended to use as a benchmark for this rating is none other than Hazard. The reason is simple: he’s always been among the most dangerous wingers (or lately attacking midfielders) in the world. In a ground duel against a generic Premier League player, he would win about two thirds of the time. So any rating system that didn’t find him exceptional might have something awry.

Last week, I saw something that looked very awry. Hazard’s current skill rating for ground duels in possession was barely average for a winger. This implied that he had lost a lot of duels… and against defenders whom he might usually beat. I scoured the code, looking for obvious errors and finding none. Then I looked at the data, duel by duel. What I saw startled me.

Starting in the match at West Ham on September 23, Hazard virtually couldn’t win a duel – or at least he seemed no more likely to win a duel than a generic player at any position. Just look at how his rating evolved over the past few seasons:

It wasn’t the first time he had a slight dip in form. Another one happened at about the same time last season, but he recovered pretty quickly. This time the drop was much deeper, and he hadn’t necessarily hit bottom yet.

Next I checked his attacking output in a couple of expected-goals-based models. For each match this season, I calculated his contributions to xG in shot creation and ball progression per minute Chelsea had possession (after all, you can’t easily create in attack if your team doesn’t have the ball). Then I compared these figures to the average for other wingers in the Premier League. The results were just as stark:

Hazard had gone from superman to everyman in the space of a couple of months. As with the rating for ground duels in possession, his attacking output had weakened to a level that was just average. It wasn’t surprising, given the importance of his dribbling as an attacking tool. And to judge by the second chart, his powers may have been ebbing even before the West Ham match.

What happened? Hazard has been struggling with back and ankle injuries this season, though they’ve kept him out of the lineup only once, on October 28. He’s also been adapting to yet another new coach in Maurizio Sarri. Perhaps most importantly, he’s been saying all season that he wants to play for Real Madrid.

So is Hazard’s plunge in form a case of health problems from so many miles on the clock, a misfit tactical system, or just sulking? If there’s any chance that it’s the former, Real Madrid should think three times about a move. The Merengues should already be thinking twice because of Hazard’s age – he just turned 28 – so any signs of decline will require extra caution.

To be sure, Hazard still has 10G 10A (albeit with three penalty goals) this season, which is impressive for a player of any age. Moreover, David Silva is still running riot in penalty areas across Europe at the age of 33. But a closer look into Hazard’s numbers suggests that this once undoubted galactico may finally be falling back to earth.