Eden Hazard has grown used to the stream of instruction barked from the touchline. He puts his head down, stays in the zone as best he can, and might occasionally flit over to the opposite flank in search of respite. But there is never any real escaping Antonio Conte’s exhortations or, even when spotted out of the corner of his eye, the Chelsea head coach’s accompanying histrionics. Just as well, then, that he would not have it any other way.
There is no questioning the manager of the moment’s unwavering intensity when his team have won five games on the bounce without conceding a goal, and their stellar playmaker’s form has soared to new levels. “If someone had told us before the season that if we did everything Conte asked of us we’d have a chance to become champions again, we’d all have signed up,” says Hazard, the Premier League’s player of the month award, as well as the world, at his feet. “We have bought into it. This is what he wants from us and believes we need to do to achieve something special.
“He kicks every ball, heads every ball. If he could, he’d be out there with us, our 12th man on the pitch. You can see he was a player. It’s only now and again, when he’s screaming at you to do this or that, demanding you concentrate or work even harder, you find yourself thinking: ‘Hold on a second, we’re 4-0 up with five minutes to play. Easy now, boss. Calm down …’ But that’s the way he is. That’s his personality. That’s how he works. He expects a lot of us, he’s demanding, and he never stops wanting more from his players. But when you’re in his side winning matches every week, it’s obvious his methods work.”
They have revived both team and talisman. Chelsea careered into the international break on such a scorching streak of form that the interruption seemed desperately untimely, with Middlesbrough braced to confront opponents eager to restore a ferocious rhythm on Sunday.
Conte’s team have not looked back from the moment they limped, crestfallen and humiliated, to the dressing room at half-time in the Emirates Stadium on 24 September with defeat to Arsenal already inevitable. The manager, raging at the deficiencies, swapped to a back three that afternoon merely to stop the bleeding but in so doing, effectively came up with the answer. Their defensive record in a 3-4-3 has been exemplary ever since, their attacking play utterly scintillating. Everton had sought to mirror systems at Stamford Bridge two weeks ago but could not live with the hosts’ dynamism.
Hazard sliced through them that evening, forever drawing tentative defenders to him before spinning off at pace. His was a mesmeric performance, the kind that stays seared in the memory for years to come. Take the teasing glide away from Ashley Williams and Séamus Coleman before he curled in his side’s opening goal or, 23 seconds of game-time later, the pirouette and scuttle from a trio of broken opponents to spread confusion and pave the way for Marcos Alonso to crunch in a second. It was Hazard who had flicked the ball down the right touchline for Pedro , burst into space beyond Ramiro Funes Mori to gather the Spaniard’s backheel and ram in a fourth, and his shot that was parried by Maarten Stekelenburg for Pedro to score the fifth. Conte spent much of his post-match debrief cooing over potential but he knows he inherited a gem. Albeit one that had needed another polish.
Last season had damaged reputations up and down this Chelsea side, but Hazard’s in particular took a pummelling. The previous campaign’s player of the year and title-winning inspiration had been diminished, his form blunted by a series of niggling injuries. It took him until April even to register a league goal. Now that nagging ache in his hip has receded, his commitment to the cause reaffirmed in a face-to-face meeting with Conte back in March, as he revels in his role on the left of a front three.
“I’m playing without pain,” he says. “Last year was complicated. Some people didn’t believe it but I played with an injury [he points at his hip] for a long time. I was never 100%, and when you’re not completely fit it’s hard to play at your best. But I had a good break after the Euros, a good pre-season, and was ready. Liberated, yes. It feels like that sometimes, being injury-free and if a system brings the best out of you.
“Back in March I’d spoken [to Conte] about the difficult season I’d had up to then, and what he expected of me in the year to come. I’d not scored many goals, but he saw me as a goalscorer. He spoke to me about his preferred systems, the 3-4-3 or even with two up front. His passion and enthusiasm for the job were obvious. I made clear I had no intention of leaving after such a poor year. I didn’t want to go out like that. If I ever leave, it’ll be after winning a championship. You need to go out on a high so that people remember you for the right reasons.
“Up to now, under him, we’re being rewarded for the work we’re putting in. Everything changed at Arsenal. A turning point. We were losing 3-0, we were beaten, but we got together – coaching staff and players – and determined then things would improve. It was a crossroads. From the first day I arrived at Chelsea four years ago, and even last season, I’ve never sensed panic among the players. We are professionals. We know when we’re playing badly so, if you have a poor game, you work in training to put things right so form comes back. So that is what we did. We reminded ourselves we are good players, we know our qualities. We have to work, work, work and make things better. Something just clicked.
“The change in system has made an impact. It’s such a difficult formation to play against: I played for Belgium against [Conte’s] Italy at the Euros and, even though we saw plenty of the ball, it was so hard to break down that defensive block. They only conceded once from open play in five matches, and when teams come up against us now they find they don’t have many sights of goal either. Personally, it allows me to concentrate more on the attacking parts of the game, the offensive side.
“I play this way with Belgium, too. Defensively, with the national team I have [Yannick] Carrasco close to me. Here I have Alonso just behind me who defends a bit more, and has those responsibilities. That allows me to concentrate more on hurting teams going forward. And it’s worked. I’ve managed to make a positive impact in games, and my form is there.”
His status is scaling new heights. Hazard was presented with his award for player of the month by children from Servite primary school, on Fulham Road, and St Polycarp’s from Farnham, two of the 14 schools to whom the Chelsea Foundation has delivered a pilot programme of equality workshops as part of its year-round Building Bridges campaign.
The pupils’ faces had lit up as he strode across the artificial turf in the club’s new indoor facility at Cobham, jaws hitting the floor before the squeals of delight and chorused “Good afternoon, Eden Haz-Ard”, with the playmaker subject to the same level of hero worship he once afforded Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry “and that generation of French players who were so successful” in his youth. He listened as the children eloquently and even lyrically delivered their ideas on diversity and with roles reversed, was stumped by a series of questions offered from the floor. He apparently now considers fame “normal”. His allegiance to Anderlecht is exposed. He does not have a clue how many goals he has scored for Chelsea.
The club’s classroom-based equality workshops have been developed in partnership with the Football Association and may eventually be extended to reach 500 schools across the country, with football considered a means of breaking through society’s barriers. Hazard had been substituted as a precaution in Belgium’s 8-1 World Cup trouncing of Estonia on Sunday having experienced discomfort in a calf, but there were no signs of an injury as he joined the youngsters’ small-sided games as if enjoying a kickaround back at the family home in Braine-le-Comte. Their house had backed on to a pitch, with Eden and Thorgan forever sneaking through a hole in the fence to lose themselves in football, just as their younger brothers Kylian and Ethan would after them.
It is remarkable to consider next week marks the ninth anniversary of the professional debut of the eldest of the brothers, Claude Puel having substituted the journeyman forward Nicolas Fauvergue 12 minutes from time and asked Lille’s 16-year-old tearaway to salvage a 2-0 deficit at Nancy. “I didn’t see much of the ball, spent most of my time defending and we still lost, but it was an amazing experience. I played without fear. I’ve done that since I first kicked a ball in my back garden as a five-year-old, whether it’s been my first game, my 100th game, or my 500th game. I’m still only 25, only young. But I still say you have to enjoy it and go out to express yourself. We’re all enjoying playing at the moment.”
He is a player content again, settled in London with his family and his mood improved by the arrival of his compatriot and friend Christian Benteke as a near neighbour. The pair used to speak all the time on the phone. “When he decided to leave Liverpool and had the opportunity to sign for Crystal Palace, a good club in the Premier League where he’ll play and score goals because he has team-mates of quality, I told him: ‘Come to London. Come, come, because I’ll see you all the time.’” The recommendation still seems slightly surprising given Hazard’s first experience of Selhurst Park was being dive-bombed by Palace’s bald eagle, Kayla, as the sides entered the arena pre-match back in 2014. Chelsea’s No10 had been visibly shaken up that afternoon. “But it’s not every day you’re walking out on to a football pitch, look up and there’s a massive eagle swooping down at you,” he offers through a smile.
Boro will have to unearth some method of unsettling the Belgian and knocking Chelsea off their stride if they are to prosper on Teesside. Conte’s team have appeared unstoppable of late, a squad intent upon exorcising the memories of last term and restoring their place at the pinnacle. Beyond the game at the Riverside there are tantalising, and potentially revealing, encounters with Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur to come over the next few weeks, with that derby in particular a mouthwatering prospect.
One of the quirks of Hazard’s time in England is the reality he has scored the decisive goals that claimed the title for Chelsea in 2015 and – courtesy of an equaliser whipped right-foot and emphatically into the top corner against Spurs – Leicester City earlier this year. The celebrations among the majority at Stamford Bridge that night were almost as raucous as those up in the east Midlands. “That was the best memory of last year because of the rivalry with Tottenham,” he adds. “I was on the bench, we were losing 2-0 at the break and had been up against it, and at half-time we were in that dressing-room saying: ‘Lads, it’s 26 years since we last lost to Tottenham here. This isn’t the day that record is going to end.’
“It kickstarted us. Gary Cahill scored from a corner, and then my goal … Even a 2-2 draw felt like a victory because it had been such a difficult season, and we knew we had wounded our local rivals in Tottenham. Leicester were the ones who really enjoyed that night, of course. So yes, I’ve scored the goals that have decided the title in the last two years, but hopefully this season I’ll be scoring one to bring the trophy back to Chelsea.”
That might have sounded fanciful a little over seven weeks ago. Now it seems far from outlandish.