Hazard thriving in free role
It was around two years ago that Eden Hazard was dropped from the Chelsea team, with the defensive work demanded by then-manager Jose Mourinho not coming naturally to a flair winger.
Hazard was the footballer of the year in England at the time and was enduring a mystifying slump in form, clearly uncomfortable at being placed in such a tactical straitjacket.
There's no danger of that under Antonio Conte.
One of the big benefits of switching last season to a 3-4-3 formation, which sparked Chelsea's relentless march to the Premier League title, was the freedom it gave to Hazard. The need to track back - "tactical discipline," as Mourinho called it - was largely a thing of the past for the Belgium international, who could focus his energy on hurting the opposition with his skill and awareness.
Conte has gone one step further this season. In his latest tactical shift, the Italian coach has recently turned to a 3-5-1-1 formation, handing Hazard licence to roam behind striker Alvaro Morata as a drifting No. 10. Hazard even played as a lone striker against Qarabag in the Champions League on Wednesday, while Morata was rested.
It is bringing the best out of Hazard, now aged 26 and a more mature player.
Liverpool had better watch out on Saturday, when Chelsea visits Anfield for the standout game in the 13th round of the Premier League.
Since returning from a broken ankle that caused him to miss the early part of the season, Hazard has six goals in his last seven games, including two against West Bromwich Albion last weekend. It was a breathtaking performance that West Brom manager Tony Pulis, fired two days later, could have done without.
Hazard is playing with a smile on his face again and is likely back on the radar of the big Spanish clubs who have been linked with him for so long. During the recent international break, Hazard, while stressing his happiness at Chelsea, said it would be a "dream" to play under Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, who is openly an admirer of the Belgian.
Barcelona, meanwhile, is likely to again target a move for Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho over the next transfer windows after missing out on signing him during the offseason. If they fail again, Hazard would not be the worst fall-back option.