Chelsea's Eden Hazard, not N'Golo Kante, should win player of the year
In two months' time, Chelsea will win the Premier League -- and one of their players will almost certainly win PFA Player of the Year too. That battle is essentially a two-horse race between two very different runners, N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard. The former has emerged as the popular favourite but the latter has truly been Chelsea's outstanding performer this season.
The title winners don't always provide the season's outstanding performer but with Antonio Conte's men currently 10 points clear and voting set to begin shortly, it's inevitable that their fellow professionals will choose someone from Stamford Bridge. Besides, all potential rivals have blotted their copybook this week, namely Zlatan Ibrahimovic with his elbow on Tyrone Mings and Alexis Sanchez after his squabble with Arsene Wenger. Perhaps only Tottenham's Harry Kane, who is enjoying yet another prolific season, can take this particular award away from Stamford Bridge.
In all probability, this comes down to Hazard vs. Kante and they are two extraordinarily different footballers.
Hazard is a hugely talented individualist capable of almost anything in the final third: he's the Premier League's most prolific dribbler, and just creeps into the division's top 10 in terms of both goals and assists too.
More than anything he's an outstanding counter-attacker, as evidenced by his brilliant goal on Monday night at the London Stadium, when he collected the ball on the run, exchanging passes with Pedro Rodriguez before rounding the stricken goalkeeper and tapping in. That was vintage Hazard, scoring a superb goal that seems somehow extremely easy. He did something similar in the recent 3-1 victory over Arsenal, shrugging off Francis Coquelin, who was making a challenge that was less a tackle and more an outright foul, before easing past the Arsenal defence and converting coolly.
Hazard is a pure attacker: in fact, he's particularly thrived since Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation, which has allowed him to remain in advanced positions, drifting into his favoured central positions where he can run the game and create chances as well as score goals.
Hazard's level of defensive discipline is somewhat underwhelming and previous managers have become infuriated by his lack of willingness to track the opposition right-back. Conte must be commended for creating a system that allows him to showcase his attacking qualities without his defensive deficiencies becoming a problem.
Kante is another who has improved since the switch to a 3-4-3. Initially fielded as a lone holding midfielder in Conte's early-season 4-1-4-1, that formation didn't allow the Frenchman to use his incredible stamina to its full extent. In a two-man midfield, the system Kante was accustomed to playing in at Leicester last season, he can buzz around the pitch, cover every blade of grass and seemingly play two roles at once.
"I don't need to speak about N'Golo, everyone knows about him. He's everywhere," said Hazard after Monday night's victory. "I think sometimes when I'm on the pitch I see him twice. One on the left, one on the right. I think I'm playing with twins!"
Kante's extraordinary impact upon Chelsea is difficult to ignore; in fact, he's effectively proven the signing of the season for two consecutive years and Leicester's inability to replace him is telling. His ability to recover possession in a variety of ways -- strong tackles, intelligent interceptions, being first to loose balls -- is superior to anyone else in the Premier League. But is this quite what we want to reward with a Player of the Season award?
Following the last two Premier League weekends, two Kante videos have gone viral. The first supposedly showed him winning possession four times in the space of 20 seconds against Swansea, which sounds fantastic. Analyse the video further and you discover that Kante actually helped concede possession four times, too. Kante had initially given the ball away with a poor pass, then didn't position himself properly to offer a simple pass for Nemanja Matic. His third tackle sent the ball into a teammate, conceding possession again, and his fourth challenge conceded a free-kick, from which Swansea subsequently scored. It looked tremendous but Kante had essentially started the move with the ball on the edge of the opposition box and had ended it allowing the opposition a scoring opportunity.
Monday's game against West Ham, meanwhile, left everyone marvelling at Kante's speed when he effectively "passed to himself" down the left flank. But realistically this was simply Kante mis-controlling the ball with a dodgy first touch but possessing the speed to catch up and keep the ball in play. His pace was clearly impressive but in the same game, Hazard scored that aforementioned wonderful counter-attacking goal and also played a quite breathtaking pass with his shoulder blade to enable a quick break.
Ruthless goalscoring and effective trickery is surely more commendable than sheer running power.
Hazard's run of individual awards is quite sensational. In 2009 and 2010 he was crowned Ligue 1's Young Player of the Year; in 2011 and 2012, he won the outright award. He was nominated for the PFA Player of the Year in 2013, won the Young Player award in 2014 and then the overall award in 2015. Only last season, when he was evidently not giving 100 percent during Jose Mourinho's miserable final half-season in charge, has seen Hazard not get recognised with some kind of individual award or nomination. Another nomination seems inevitable but Kante is more likely to triumph.
In a footballing era where pressing hard seems the most revered attribute, certain individuals have been overwhelmingly praised for the old-fashioned British qualities of working hard and making lots of tackles. Kante can play, too, and is unquestionably a fantastic all-round footballer. But footballers like Hazard, offering guile, creativity and goalscoring ability are what makes top-level football truly special. He, rather than Kante, deserves to be recognised as the Premier League's best footballer.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.