Likely to be crowned Premier League Player of the Month for September, Eden Hazard has been the star of Chelsea's impressive start. Tactics writer Sam Tighe analyses how Saints can tame the in-form Belgian...
Without a doubt the brightest light of Chelsea’s impressive 2018/19 campaign so far has been Eden Hazard.
He’s the Premier League’s current top scorer with six goals, that total inclusive of a hat-trick against Cardiff City, and he’s added two assists for good measure. In fact, he’s been held goalless or assist-less in just one of the seven matches he’s played so far.
Nominated for September’s Premier League Player of the Month and surely a shoo-in to take it home, Southampton face a man in form this weekend at St Mary’s and must devise a plan to stop him.
From a purely positional point of view, Hazard’s role in this Chelsea side isn’t so different to the one he’s played throughout his career at Stamford Bridge. He lines up on the left wing, just as he almost always has done, be it under José Mourinho, Antonio Conte or now under Maurizio Sarri.
The difference is the style of football. It’s possession-heavy, pass-and-move stuff that gets the ball to Hazard’s feet early and often. Chelsea’s average of 63.1% possession per league game – a total second only to Manchester City – is close to a full 10% higher than last season’s average of 54.4% per game in 2017/18 under Conte.
More of the ball for Chelsea means more of the ball for Hazard. His dribbling and take-on ability remains a true threat, but he’s also shooting more and getting into the box more, his link-up play with Olivier Giroud – a target striker who lives to feed others chances – looking particularly dangerous of late.
How to stop him
As potent as Hazard has looked so far this term, he has been largely stymied by two teams: Newcastle and West Ham.
Both sides sat deep and defended the edge of their own box manfully, funnelling Chelsea into less threatening areas out wide. The Blues got a touch fortunate against Newcastle, winning thanks to a penalty and an own goal, while West Ham held them scoreless without requiring too much from goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski.
Hazard’s quick feet and shimmies become less effective the further from goal they are. Blocking out his flank with bodies has been by far the best way of dealing with him so far this season. The canny Pablo Zabaleta was able to handle him with some help at the London Stadium, while DeAndre Yedlin did quite well for the most part...until he scored an own goal.
When Hazard did squeeze in for an opportunity against West Ham, loosed in behind the defence by a Jorginho pass, his selfless streak took over and he tried to flick it to Álvaro Morata, which proved to be the wrong choice. As brutally effective as he has been in 2018/19 so far, he’s still Hazard: he’s not particularly greedy and that can sometimes be a problem.
What Saints can do
Right-back Cédric is set to go face to face with the Belgian and, with some assistance inside him and ahead, can come out on top.
Mark Hughes may be tempted to continue with the three-man defensive line utilised away to Everton on Tuesday, giving Cédric an additional man in the channel behind him when he funnels Hazard into wide areas. It’ll mean if he is beaten, there’s cover inside.
If the back four returns adding a third midfielder might prove crucial, as that would allow the right-most of the trio to filter outward and block Hazard’s path into the centre.
Whatever the plan is, balance must remain a consideration. Dedicating extra resources to one side of the pitch has a knock-on effect on the opposite flank, so additional attention devoted to Hazard will benefit Willian or Pedro on the other side.