You thought Eden Hazard had a brilliant swansong season at Chelsea in 2018-19? Mesmerized by his magical boots in Baku as he carved Arsenal in half with his aristocratic brilliance?
Just wait till you see the numbers behind his final season with the Blues. The eye test tells us he was absolutely sublime in Maurizio Sarri’s system, and the advanced numbers (or analytics) take his season into a whole different league. Don’t let this season at Real Madrid cloud your judgement – Eden Hazard is a truly magnificent talent and when he gets going, like he did last season, even the best defenders are just chalk on his boots.
He is, in simple terms, elite. His graceful ballet-like movement, his remarkable balance (watch how he rides challenges and still doesn’t lose his footing – the mark of a great player), the way he glides around the pitch enjoying every moment of tormenting the opposition as they struggle to keep up – it all came together during his final season at Chelsea.
Most players look at detailed opposition scouting reports to understand how they can approach the game and make their mark. They tend to change their game according to the league and the talent around them. That’s where Eden Hazard bucks the trend – he made the entire league change their game plan to combat his set of skills. He warped the opposition and bamboozled even the best defenders the English game could throw at him. His gravity was incredible – he could draw 2-3 defenders at a time and open up space for his team mates to waltz into.
He reminds me of Eisenheim in the movie Illusionist. One moment you think you’ve trapped Hazard, the next he’s not even in your vicinity as you wipe the dirt from the seat of your pants.
I love watching Eden Hazard play and had a blast diving into the numbers behind his sublime 2018-19 season. We’re going to analyse two aspects of his play: goal-scoring and creativity. He thrived in both departments but it’s the latter that truly shines out in the advanced numbers.
I’m going to keep it simple – we’ll use terms that even a non-analytics person can follow. We’ll compare his performance against some of the best players in England last season (and the top players in Germany, Spain and Italy).
First, the Goals (and Expected Goals – xG)
Let’s start from the basics. Hazard notched 16 goals in the league last season, finishing as the 8th top scorer. That was the second best scoring season of his career, behind only his astonishing 2011-12 term at Lille (when he netted 20). Per 90 minutes, he had an elite scoring number of 0.49 (bettered only during his last season at Lille).
Only Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Jamie Vardy are ahead of him on that list. Can you spot what’s common among all these players? You guessed it – these are all strikers, playing at the tip of the attack and in much more favourable goal-scoring positions than Hazard was.
What about expected goals (xG)? That’s where Hazard’s genius truly shines out. He was not even in the top 10 for xG! Check out his numbers compared to the other top marksmen in the league:
That’s remarkable. Hazard’s xG was 11.2 – based on various factors like shot location, quality of the shot, position of the defenders, etc., he was only expected to score 11.2 goals all season. He far outperformed that and ended up with 16. Outperforming your xG means one of two things:
- You got lucky that season and can expect your numbers to come crashing down to earth
- You’re an elite talent who makes more of his goalscoring chances than most players
So why can’t we consider the first point? Well, when a player consistently outperforms his xG numbers season over season, it’s safe to say “luck” has little part to play there. And Eden Hazard outperformed his xG numbers in every season at Chelsea. That’s not luck – that’s a world-class finisher.
Assists and Expected Assists (xA)
This is where I started to truly appreciate Hazard’s performances last season. He led the league with 15 assists (15!), matched again only by his last season at Lille. As a side note, it’s worth watching Lille’s 2011-12 season for Hazard alone – it’s worth your time.
Hazard benefitted massively from Sarri’s system in this regard. Deployed often in advanced positions (sometimes even playing as a lone striker), with little expected of him in terms of tracking back, he took the bull by the horns and racked up assist after assist.
But the number of assists alone isn’t a good enough factor to judge a player’s creativity. The assist could have been a simple pass while the goalscorer did all the hard work. The quality of the assist also matters which is where Expected Assists (xA) comes in.
As Opta puts it:
Expected assists (xA) measures the likelihood that a given pass will become a goal assist. It considers several factors including the type of pass, pass end-point and length of pass.
Adding up a player or team’s expected assists gives us an indication of how many assists a player of team should have had based on their build up and attacking play.
Not all assists are the same, but xA aims to bring it all under one umbrella. Now here’s the curious part – Hazard had an xA of 9.2 last season but he delivered 15 dimes. What does this gap tell us?
Again, one of two things:
- Either the player’s teammates were supreme finishers, or
- The player is far more creative than his numbers tell us
Again, it’s safe to say the first part isn’t true. Hazard had Higuain, Giroud, Willian, Pedro and Barkley around him last season. It’s not difficult to see why Hazard’s stats are as elite as we’ve seen – he was so often the only creative spark in the entire team.
Maurizio Sarri’s Possession-Based Style
Maurizio Sarri’s system played to Hazard’s strengths. A quick look at the advanced numbers shows how good of a passing outfit this Chelsea side were.
Here’s how Chelsea ranked in key advanced numbers from last term that show their immense control of the football:
- 3rd in Progressive Distance (total distance that completed passes have traveled towards the opponent’s goal)
- 3rd in Expected Assists (xA)
- 2nd in Key Passes (passes that directly led to a shot)
- 3rd in Progressive Passes (completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent’s goals at least 10 yards from it’s furthest point)
- 4th in Successful Press % (Percentage of time the team won back possession within 5 seconds of applying pressure)
- 3rd in applying Pressure in the attacking third of the pitch
All of these aspects of Sarri’s system played a huge part in Hazard’s scintillating form. It was a system designed to play to Jorginho’s strengths from the base of midfield and that Hazard made the most of up front.
Incidentally, Chelsea were dead last in errors leading to a goal and number of clearances. All of this points towards Sarri’s system working wonders – might be worth revisiting his polarizing season and revising your opinion of the work he did!
Goal-Scoring Actions (GCA) and Shot-Creating Actions (SCA)
Welcome to the word of analytics. If you still aren’t convinced by Hazard’s genius, wait till you watch the magic unfold in this section.
First, let me formally define Goal-Scoring Actions (GCA) and Shot-Creating Actions (SCA):
- GCA: Any offensive action directly leading to a goal, such as passes dribbles and drawing fouls
- SCA: Any offensive action directly leading to a shot, such as passes dribbles and drawing fouls
These two metrics have only recently been open-sourced to the public and have helped elevate Hazard’s season to a whole new level. Both GCA and SCA tell us how creative a player is in terms of all his actions on the pitch. We aren’t just looking at assists anymore – this is an amalgamation of all the things a player does that lead to a shot or a goal.
Here are the GCA and SCA numbers from last season for the top players across Europe (and a few more in England for comparison’s sake):
Wow. Except Messi (who, let’s face it, belongs on a different planet), no one is even close to the creative and offensive output Hazard gave Chelsea last season. I honestly did a double-take at this difference when I first saw it.
The traditional stats tell us players like Salah, David Silva, Papu Gomez (Atalanta), Ryan Fraser had astonishing creative seasons. They’ve all been blown away by Hazard when we combine all the creative actions on the pitch.
Here are the full numbers (sorted in descending order by SCA per 90):
|Player||Goal Scoring Actions per 90||Shot Creating Actions per 90|
Note: I have taken these figures per 90 minutes to bring everyone on the same scale.
There’s no question about it – Eden Hazard had an other-worldly season last year and let’s hope he can pick up his form next term for Real Madrid.