EDEN Hazard was Real Madrid’s first true ‘Galactico’ signing for five years. Not since the £70 million arrival of James Rodriguez after his sparkling performances at the 2014 World Cup had the the Spanish club welcomed such a ready-made superstar, with over 50,000 fans turning out for the customary Santiago Bernabeu reception last summer.
Madrid’s interest in Hazard had been a long standing one. Seen as the natural heir to Cristiano Ronaldo, who had departed the summer before, the Spanish club paid a fee of around £100 million to sign the Belgian as he entered the final year of his Chelsea contract. That decision hasn’t aged especially well.
One year on, Hazard has still to find any sort of consistency as a Real Madrid player. His first season in Spain was severely disrupted by injury. He had to wait a number of weeks into the 2019/20 campaign to receive his competitive debut. This was followed by a debate over Hazard’s fitness, with the player himself admitting himself to be overweight. “It’s true,” he said. “I’m not going to hide it, but when I’m on vacation, I’m on vacation.”
An ankle injury in late November was then succeeded by another in February. At that point, Hazard’s season appeared to be as good as over. The three-month hiatus due to the global Covid-19 pandemic gave the Belgian something of a reprieve and an opportunity to contribute again, which he did as Real Madrid won 10 games in a row after lockdown to clinch the title.
However, with a new season here Hazard’s situation is a similar one. The 29-year-old missed Real Madrid’s La Liga opener against Real Sociedad with injury as reports revealed Zinedine Zidane’s disgruntlement at Hazard’s lack of fitness upon reporting for pre-season. Once again, the £100 million man appears unprepared for the new season.
Even when Hazard has managed to maintain his fitness, he has struggled to find his place in the Real Madrid team, scoring just once in 16 La Liga appearances last season. For context, central defender Sergio Ramos contributed 11 goals to Los Blancos’ title success. Marco Asensio scored three times despite only making six appearances (three of which were off the bench).
At Chelsea, Hazard was accustomed to being the hub of his side’s attacking play. Whenever the Blues had the ball through the midfield, it more often than not ended up at the Belgian’s feet. At Real Madrid, though, this is a role performed by Karim Benzema. He is the dynamo through which the majority of their attacking play flows.
Benzema is the key to Hazard’s success or failure at the Santiago Bernabeu. There have been signs of a developing understanding between the two players, but Zidane’s favoured 4-3-3 shape means Hazard has to play off the left when there’s an argument for him to be used as part of a front two, which would also leave a place on the left for Asensio, Rodrygo or Vinicius Junior to fill.
Hazard performs at his best when he is able to drive with the ball at his feet, when he can play one-twos with teammates or get a shot off himself. Zidane, however, expects the Belgian to make runs in behind and stretch the pitch on the counter attack. While this might suit the likes of Rodrygo and Vinicius, it requires Hazard to drastically alter his natural game.
All this adds to the notion that this could be one of the most important seasons of Hazard’s career. The Santiago Bernabeu is an unforgiving arena for underperforming superstars. Just ask Gareth Bale. Hazard is on the brink of being considered a flop and must quickly reverse the public perception of him that is forming.