Eden Hazard thriving, scoring more goals in new wide forward role under Maurizio Sarri
Maurizio Sarri is not the first Chelsea head coach to challenge Eden Hazard to score more, but he is the first one to set the Belgian such an ambitious goal target. "I talked with Eden [on Friday] and I told him that for me he can score 40 goals," Sarri revealed after watching Hazard dismantle Cardiff City with a scintillating hat trick. "He has to improve something but he can do it."
Specifically, Sarri wants Hazard to expend less energy contributing to Chelsea's possession in the middle third of the pitch and "play in the last 25 metres", becoming less of a winger and more of a wide forward in much the same way as Mohamed Salah has been unleashed to such devastating effect in Jurgen Klopp's system at Liverpool.
Hazard certainly has all the tools to become a similar threat. He is lightning fast, an intelligent mover and a technically precise finisher with both feet. He also has arguably the best first touch, dribbling ability and close control in the Premier League and, at 27 years old, he is operating at the peak of his physical and technical powers. But does he have the mentality of an elite goalscorer?
Look at the Premier League scoring charts in recent years and it becomes clear that what distinguishes the very best in front of goal is the ability to find the net relatively efficiently on a large volume of attempts. Elite goalscorers shoot a lot more frequently than everyone else and volume, rather than efficiency, has been the limiting factor on Hazard's goal tally so far at Chelsea.
Hazard's most prolific Premier League campaign to date is 2016-17. He scored 16 goals from 77 shots, averaging 2.1 attempts per game with a shot conversion rate of 21 percent. For context, Tottenham striker Harry Kane won the Premier League Golden Boot that season with 29 goals from 110 shots, averaging 3.7 shots per game and a shot conversion rate of 26 percent.
Kane's efficiency in 2016-17 was unusually high by his or any other recent Premier League standards; in the six seasons since Hazard signed for Chelsea in the summer of 2012 the shot conversion rate of the Golden Boot winner has generally fallen just below the 20 percent mark, effectively one goal scored for every five shots taken.
When measured against this benchmark, Hazard's average shot conversion rate of just under 18 percent is reasonable if not outstanding. The bigger problem is his volume of attempts: no Premier League Golden Boot winner since Opta began tracking attempts on goal in 2009-10 has averaged fewer than 3.7 shots per game, but prior to 2018-19 Hazard had never averaged more than 2.1 for a season.
Indeed, Hazard has never even led Chelsea in shot attempts per game for a Premier League campaign, never mind the rest of the division.
That per game figure has crept up to 2.8 in the Belgian's first five Premier League appearances under Sarri, yielding five goals -- an even more impressive return considering that Hazard has only completed 90 minutes twice. He is averaging 4.1 shots per 90 minutes played, an unprecedented rate within the wider context of his career.
Such numbers should be cause for excitement among Chelsea supporters, but there's also reason for caution. Two of Hazard's five Premier League goals this season have come from the penalty spot and his shot conversion rate currently stands at an almost certainly unsustainable 36 percent; the best season rate managed by Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, the most efficient high-volume scorer in the modern era, in La Liga between 2010 and 2018 was 28 percent.
Sarri is hoping that his system, and the midfield strength that underpins it, can allow Hazard to focus fully on the final third rather than feeling the burden of stabilizing and igniting uninspired Chelsea passages of play from deeper positions.
The early signs are that the Italian has built the most formidable passing midfield of the Roman Abramovich era. Marquee summer signing Jorginho is averaging 101.8 passes per game, more than anyone else in the Premier League, and he, N'Golo Kante (65.4) and Mateo Kovacic (59.3) are all completing more than 90 percent of the passes they attempt.
Chelsea as a team are averaging 65.8 percent possession, an even larger share than Pep Guardiola's imperious Manchester City, and more of the ball is leading to more attacks; shots on goal are up to 18.8 per game from 15.9 under Conte last season.
"The manager just wants Chelsea to keep the ball, and then when we can find a solution we need to find good passes between the lines, like Jorginho, Kovacic and [Cesc] Fabregas can do," Hazard said after the Cardiff win. "When I'm on the pitch I'm just trying to create chances, score goals. A hat trick comes with confidence, so I will try to do more of this."
There is plenty of reason to think that Hazard is primed for the most prolific season of his Chelsea career. Transforming his mindset enough to meet Sarri's target of 40 goals and the Premier League Golden Boot still looks a tall order, but it will be fun for everyone to watch him try.