Hazard vs. De Bruyne: Dazzling finesse against dominating power
Until recently, Premier League fans would have struggled to name a famous Belgian. Belgium's contribution to the English top flight was mediocre, with Philippe Albert's legendary chip over Peter Schmeichel in Newcastle's 5-0 victory against Manchester United in 1996 possibly the only standout contribution. It took two decades of Premier League seasons until a Belgian won the title.
Now, however, you can't move for Belgians. There are currently 16 Premier League players who have represented Belgium in the last calendar year alone, a list that includes the Premier League's best centre-back pairing, a £75 million striker and a goalkeeper amongst the best in the world at his position.
Yet none are the country's star attractions, because Belgium currently boast two players who might be the best two footballers in the entire Premier League. This weekend, they will face one another: Chelsea's Eden Hazard will come up against Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne.
Both are arguably best as a No. 10, and yet they're very different. De Bruyne is clearly a midfielder rather than a forward, even more so considering Pep Guardiola has shifted him deeper to become a No. 8 rather than a No.10. Hazard is more of a forward than a midfielder, and the 3-5-1-1 system used by Antonio Conte in the midweek victory at Atletico Madrid means he's essentially becoming used more as a support striker.
Both are genuine attacking all-rounders. In terms of the three basic options when receiving possession -- dribbling, passing or shooting -- both excel in all three aspects, albeit in very different ways.
Hazard is the more elegant of the two. His dribbling is a mixture of sensational acceleration and skill, his low centre of gravity allows him to slalom past challenges seamlessly. It's this quality which makes him so elusive in inside-left positions -- opponents double up, yet Hazard beats them in one movement. Up close you realise how small and delicate Hazard is -- he's just 5-foot-8, and yet commentators rarely mention his height as frequently as Andres Iniesta, for example.
That's partly because Hazard has learned to cope with the rough-and-tumble of the Premier League, and his bravery in possession -- at times when he knows a tough tackle is coming -- is commendable. It's partly because opponents simply can't cope -- Hazard moves his feet so quickly, and keeps the ball so close to him, that it's almost impossible not to trip him. Last season he attempted 5.6 dribbles per 90 minutes, successful with 4.3 of them -- three times as many as De Bruyne.
De Bruyne dribbles in a very different manner. Whereas Hazard always has the ball under close control, De Bruyne thinks about his opponent as much as the ball -- he knocks the ball into the position he wants to move, and then uses his sizable frame to put his body in the way, muscling his way in front of the defender. It means he's fouled only 35 percent as frequently as Hazard, and concedes almost as many free kicks as he wins.
But De Bruyne's ability to beat opponents in central midfield is very rare. Of current Premier League players, arguably only his compatriot Mousa Dembele at Tottenham is equally capable of beating opponents directly in tight spots, and when De Bruyne combines this ability with passing combinations, generally featuring David Silva, it's quite a sight.
Hazard's passing is cute, subtle and nonchalant. He launches huge crossfield balls to switch play, but is increasingly coming shorter and encouraging midfield runners to get beyond him. With his rapidly moving feet, Hazard's distribution almost seems like a casual afterthought, and even brilliant, penetrative through-balls are played with minimal backlift and little warning.
His assist figures, however, have dropped noticeably over the past couple of seasons. Having recorded 11, 7 and 9 in his first three campaigns in the Premier League, that figure fell to three in his famously unhappy 2015-16 campaign, and only recovered slightly to five last time out, despite him being arguably the league's standout attacking player.
That's quite a contrast from De Bruyne, whose assist numbers are off the charts. He recorded a staggering 20 in his final campaign with Wolfsburg, the highest total in Europe's Big 5 leagues, before recording nine in his debut campaign with City in just 22 starts, and then a sensational 18 last time out, the highest in the division.
De Bruyne boasts a tremendous right foot capable of spraying the ball over longer distances than Hazard, and might be the best crosser of the ball in English football since David Beckham departed in 2003. His drifts towards the right flank, before bending the ball into the mixer with both power and precision, have constantly caused teams problems -- including Chelsea last year.
Hazard scores a variety of goals -- curlers from inside-right positions, counter-attacking goals when he rounds the goalkeeper, and snap-shots from cutbacks. But the key is that Hazard always finds the bottom corner, often catching goalkeepers out with quick, sudden efforts. He doesn't generally go for power. He doesn't crash the ball off the crossbar. It's always calm, efficient goals.
The ultimate example was his effort in 1-1 draw at Liverpool in May 2016. Hazard collected the ball wide on the left touchline, played a one-two, assessed his options before dribbling past three players, shaping as if he was to beat a fourth, before not bothering, and calmly rolling his shot into the far corner. His penalties, perennially rolled home, are a similar story.
De Bruyne strikes the ball differently -- more power, more swerve. He uses his instep more forcefully, and his laces more frequently, to launch the ball past goalkeepers fiercely. His strike against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday night was a fine example -- from 25 yards, you couldn't entirely tell whether De Bruyne had driven it past the goalkeeper, or swerved it around him. His previous goal, against West Brom in May, was a similarly powerful shot from the edge of the penalty box, too.
But De Bruyne should score more. He managed double figures in both his full Bundesliga seasons, but has managed only 13 combined in two league campaigns with City -- and Tuesday's strike was his first of the season. That partly owes to his deeper positioning under Guardiola, but De Bruyne should be reaching double figures with his quality.
Your opinion on who is superior probably depends upon what you like from footballers: finesse or power. In that respect it's similar to the Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo debate, but here the roles are reversed -- the attacker is the trickier of the two, the playmaker the more physical.
Belgium is lucky to have them both -- Chelsea could have done but for a transfer mistake with De Bruyne -- and this weekend's showdown is a crucial subplot in what could prove one of the season's defining games.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.