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Eden Hazard’s defensive trial shows the artists must also play like artisans


Coaches often have to accept a trade-off with skilful players. When in possession they can open up opponents with abilities other players do not possess, such as delivering a defence-splitting pass or dribbling past defenders. But when the opposition has the ball they may fail to do the more prosaic aspects of the game.

Maybe they are lazy, maybe they do not see why a player of their class should do what coaches call “the dirty side of the game”, maybe their brains are wired differently, in particular the part that deals with concentration.

A coach has to make a judgement: do I play him for what he can do, or leave him out because of what he will not, or cannot do. In Juan Mata’s case Jose Mourinho dropped him, then sold him. In Eden Hazard’s case the Belgian, no doubt seeing the example made of Mata, knuckled down and started tracking back.

It does not come naturally. He does not always get his position right and, like many attacking players in defence, he reacts to danger rather than anticipates it. So it proved on Wednesday in the Champions League semi-final second-leg defeat to Atletico Madrid.

For Atletico’s first goal Hazard was in the right position but his body shape meant he was unable to watch both Tiago on the ball and Juanfran. So he did not see the latter start the run that Tiago picked out. He then assumed the ball would go out, unlike Juanfran who clipped it back for Adrian Lopez to score.

Maybe Hazard, who had not played since being injured against Paris Saint-Germain on 8 April, lost concentration as he was feeling the pace as half-time approached, though he still would have got away with it but for other factors such as John Terry’s slip.

Blame for the third goal, from a similar set-up, was also laid at his feet – although it might be more appropriate to praise Atletico’s quality.

“Big matches”, said Mourinho, “are often settled by small details.” He was talking about Thibaut Courtois’ save from Terry and the penalty conceded by Samuel Eto’o, which meant that instead of winning 2-1 after an hour Chelsea were 2-1 behind.

But Atletico’s first goal was more significant because Chelsea were leading, which meant the Spaniards had to make the running, enabling Chelsea to play their preferred counter-puncher’s game.

What did not help was that Hazard did not show his qualities going forward. He only influenced it negatively.

But isn’t blaming Hazard for the defeat like blaming bowlers because they do not score enough runs? When defenders score it is a bonus; when an attacker fails to do the defensive work it’s neglect. It didn’t used to be the case. Critics used to say of Johnny Haynes, England’s first £100-a-week player: “No wonder he’s always in space, he never marks anyone when we don’t have the ball”. That was a different age; now the artists have to be artisans too.