Not for a long time had Real Madrid gone through the whole routine, the one observed for the welcoming of a new ‘Galactico.’
The crowd might not have been of Cristiano Ronaldo proportions, when close to 80,000 fans packed the Santiago Bernabeu to greet the club’s new superstar, but Eden Hazard was still afforded a fitting reception, smiling and waving in between ceremonial keepy-uppies. He was, after all, a true ‘Galactico.’
Since then, though, the Belgian has struggled to get going in the Spanish capital. Injury has fragmented Hazard’s first season as a Real Madrid player, suffering a thigh injury before the start of the season which meant he had to wait until September for his competitive debut, then picking up an ankle injury in a Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain in late November. Now, the season might be over altogether for him, fracturing his ankle for a second time against Levante on Saturday. The Belgian probably won’t return again before the summer.
Hazard’s appearance against Celta Vigo two weeks ago was his first for over two months with the 29-year-old showing flashes of the brilliance Real Madrid paid Chelsea around £100 million for. It was a similar story against Levante. Flashes aren’t enough, though, and with the Spanish title race intensifying and the knockout stages of the Champions League upon us Zinedine Zidane surely pondered whether Hazard is, at this stage of the season, at this stage of his recovery, a luxury.
That the Belgian now looks set for another spell on the sidelines could actually help Real Madrid find their rhythm again having picked up just one point from the two league games Hazard started. Of course, the blame cannot be pinned solely on the summer signing, but his immediate return to the starting lineup proved a disruption.
At the time of his signing, Hazard looked to be exactly what Real Madrid needed. In the post-Ronaldo age, Los Blancos lacked character, a difference-maker. Hazard, arrogant by nature, self-assured in his character, was targeted over a number of years to become the new face of the Santiago Bernabeu club.
In practice, though, Hazard hasn’t been the best of fits. With his tendency for cutting inside, he has been guilty of congesting Real Madrid’s attacking play through the middle. While the pace and directness of Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior creates space for others, most notably Karim Benzema, Zidane’s side aren’t nearly as fluid with their big summer signing on the pitch.
This was evident in the 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo and in the dismal 1-0 defeat to Levante. With Hazard on the left and Gareth Bale on the right for the former match and Isco on the right for the latter. Real Madrid were simply too narrow. Not one of this trio, especially Hazard, is particularly driven to get to the byline. Contrast this to Rodrygo and Vinicius, the two Brazilians who can carry their team 50 yards up the pitch in a matter of seconds.
The biggest criticism that was long angled at Hazard during his time as a Chelsea player was that for an attacker of his ability he didn’t score frequently enough. In fact, the Belgian never managed to break the 20-goal mark in his six seasons in the Premier League. There has so far been little sign that Hazard can lift these numbers as a Real Madrid player.
Hazard is averaging just 1.2 shots per game for his new club this season, finding the net just once and contributing one assist in nine appearances. For context, Casemiro (1.4), a midfield anchor, is maintaining a higher average than this. Signed to be Los Blancos’ attacking hub, the Belgian has disappointed so far in terms of his goal threat.
Dani Carvajal is also matching Hazard for average key passes per game (1.6) - Marcelo is averaging two per game - although the 29-year-old is Real Madrid’s prolific dribbler by quite some distance, averaging 3.5 per game. He is also Real Madrid’s most fouled player this season, winning 3.6 freekicks per game. This suggests opposition sides already see stopping Hazard as the key to stopping Los Blancos.
There’s some credence to the argument that a potential relationship between Benzema and Hazard could become Real Madrid’s attacking core. The pair have certainly looked to be on the same wavelength in the few games they have played together. With Rodrygo or Vinicius on the pitch, however, Real Madrid play with better balance. It’s no coincidence that alongside Hazard against Celta Vigo and Levante Benzema suffered among two of his quietest games this season.
In time it’s possible that Zidane could use Rodrygo on the right side with Hazard on the left. Ferland Mendy, Real Madrid’s second most prolific dribbler this season (2.1 per game) could provide width in behind Hazard, giving them the balance they require. For now, though, Rodrygo looks most comfortable on the left where he can have a real influence.
While the return of Hazard from injury broadened Zidane’s options, this wasn’t the best time to integrate the Belgian into the Real Madrid starting lineup. That was proven in the results achieved with him back in the side. Hazard isn’t the sort of player who can hit the ground running after a spell out - he faced accusations of being overweight after his first injury layoff earlier in the season - and so while Zidane certainly won’t celebrate the loss of such an obviously talented player it means he can revert to using Rodrygo and Vinicius, two players better-suited to his side, without scrutiny.