When Eden Hazard signed for Real Madrid in the summer of 2019, it was with the best wishes of the Chelsea faithful and to the excitement of the hierarchy at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Once again, Los Merengues (The Whites) had affirmed their status as the true aristocracy of football, signing one of the game’s premier footballers and making a €115m splash while doing it. If there were any concerns, they surrounded his age – 28, going on 29 – and how that might affect the degree of his impact in Spain; that he would have an impact was in little doubt. For Hazard himself, it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream: not only was he going to play for Real Madrid, but he would do so under Zinedine Zidane, a man who he idolized as a child.
The reality since then has been rather less dreamy, however. In the ensuing two years, the Belgian international has been more prominent in the treatment than on the pitch and has struggled even when fitness issues have afforded him brief respite. With hindsight, and in light of the difficulties brought on by the outbreak of COVID-19, the exorbitant fee paid to acquire him feels increasingly like an utter waste of money.
So, what gives? Why has this fairytale turned into a nightmare? Why has Real’s glistening chariot turned into a putrid pumpkin?
While it is impossible to answer this question with absolute certainty, it is difficult to look beyond Real Madrid themselves. With 11 injuries in 20 months, the handling of their prize asset must now be called into question.
This is, after all, the same Hazard who, week-on-week, got the absolute daylight kicked out of him in the Premier League while in Chelsea colours. It is the curse of ball-carriers; the Belgian typically took it with good grace, and managed to avoid lengthy injury lay-offs just the same, despite playing in a league notorious for its physicality. Even Zidane acknowledged as much recently, saying “Something is going on because he’s a player who had never had injuries in his career.”
Why is it different in Spain? We cannot speak to the work the medical staff does, but we can speculate as to the training methods of Zidane himself.
The Madrid manager is known to place a tremendous emphasis on physical conditioning, and has been praised for upping the intensity at the club. A legacy of his time at Juventus, it has driven a number of his players to excellence, but has similarly seen some others struggle, most notably Gareth Bale and Hazard himself, both players who enjoyed a certain degree of indulgence under previous managers. It is not a stretch to imagine that, as far as Zidane is concerned, the way for Hazard to attain full fitness is to work himself to the absolute maximum like everyone else.
While it is easy for fans and players alike to get on board with the socialist idea that every member of the squad ought to be treated the same, in reality it is a notion that is counterproductive to the very idea of management.
The task of a manager, before all else, is to maximize the resources at his disposal in service of results. However, it appears now that this objective has been relegated by the ego of the modern manager: everyone comes in with an idea, demands physical and emotional buy-in right away, and is applauded for getting rid of expensive assets deemed to not be on the same page. Bela Guttman once compared the job of a manager to that of a lion tamer; now, it is more akin to that of a drill sergeant.
As coaching has increasingly shifted into the theoretical, a crucial human element has been lost: the understanding that, sometimes, different players respond to different stimuli. It has long been an open secret Hazard is not as driven as other players, and has never been given to training as rigorously. Instead, it sufficed for him to simply turn up on matchdays, and it is a trade-off a number of managers (and even teammates) have been minded to accept through history: Alex Ferguson, the fearsome dragon that he was, famously did the same with Eric Cantona, as did Arsene Wenger with Mesut Ozil.
Such allowances are now seen as taboo among modern coaches: everyone has to go crash, bang, wallop at full pelt in training, or they are not good enough to play. Ironically, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is much lazier than taking the time and effort to connect emotionally and psychologically with players, finding out what makes them tick as individuals, and tailoring your approach to each person.
Now, it is no longer enough to win; managers must win their own way, which invariably means no ‘sacred cows’, and no special treatment. Is it any coincidence then that, as it has become unacceptable to make allowances for mavericks, there are now fewer of them around in football?