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Kevin De Bruyne vs Eden Hazard: Battle of the Belgians

Former teammates meet in a top of the table clash at the weekend.

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Hungary v Belgium - Round of 16: UEFA Euro 2016 Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Vision. You can teach footwork, you can teach finishing, and you can even teach positioning, but the one thing that can’t be taught is vision. Vision separates the handful of world-class midfielders across the globe from the simply great ones. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are world-class midfielders. And while both men possess the ability to pass anyone on their squad open at any given moment, their vision away from the pitch never could have prepared them for their respective career paths.

“He’s a top player,” said Hazard when speaking of De Bruyne. "He didn’t get his chance here at Chelsea but did very well in Germany and, since he went to City, he’s been on fire." De Bruyne, who failed to make an impact at Chelsea during his time at Stamford Bridge, was the victim of a Jose Mourinho system that didn’t suit him, according to Hazard. “Sometimes you don’t get the chance to play, or the system the manager uses isn’t right for you, but now he’s full of confidence. I hope next week he’ll have less confidence!” Hazard added. The systems in place at Chelsea have clearly worked for Hazard, who arrived from Ligue 1 squad Lille in 2012. The midfielder has netted 48 times in 150 matches for the Blues. While Hazard believes it was systematic differences that led to his compatriot’s departure, De Bruyne feels differently.

When Jose Mourinho claimed De Bruyne left because he was too young and didn’t want to fight for his place, De Bruyne quickly acknowledged that rationale as ‘strange’, given the Blues were regularly playing Hazard at the same point. “I think [Chelsea] had a different view than I had of myself. I was young but also experienced,’ De Bruyne told the Daily Mail. The Belgian claimed “if I had come through the youth then maybe I would be happy to play 10 games there. As far as I was concerned, I was ready to play.” De Bruyne continued “I think Eden Hazard was the same age as me when he played so it’s a little bit strange to say this guy is young and the other guy is old enough to play. It’s just another way of saying that somebody isn’t good enough.” De Bruyne’s realization — and subsequent success in the Bundesliga — has led him back to a top of the table, midseason clash with his former team, this time wearing a different shade of blue.

Two tactical midfielders with irrepressible vision. But what allows these two to dictate the attacking play of their squads? Let’s take a closer look.


Eden Hazard


25 years old

Best Position: Left Midfield

Hazard's creativity, speed, and technical ability are widely acknowledged. His natural position is left midfield, with the ability to incisively cut through opponents back lines. One of the many things that makes Hazard shine along the left touchline is his ability to change his pace in the blink of an eye. The type of player who can lure a defender to sleep before taking that incisive touch into space, Hazard won PFA Player of the Year in Chelsea’s title-winning 2014/15 campaign for good cause: he registered 14 goals and 9 assists in the Premier League. Such play doesn’t go unnoticed by the sport’s finest, with Thierry Henry stating in March 2015, "On his day, nobody can stop him. He has such great quality on the ball. He can create something from nothing and this is the sign of a special player."

Above: Remember that incisive touch I was talking about?

At the core of the Belgians’ similarities is their ability to make something out of nothing. During the aforementioned accolade-riddled campaign, Hazard also led the league in chances created (99), with all but one of those coming from open play. However, the 25-year-old hit a brick wall the following campaign, partly in thanks to a mid-season managerial change after Mourinho’s rocky start to his title defense.

Pictured above are Hazard’s stats from the 2014/15 campaign. As expected, his dribbling and passing stats were through the roof. What was not expected at all was his 14-goal explosion. While outside midfielders can produce goals, it’s not standard procedure. As you can see below, the transition into a new system under Gus Hiddink did not bode well for the Belgian after Mourinho left.

Eden’s goals were nonexistent during the title-defense campaign, as documented by the upper left portion of the chart, which disappears between graphics. Hazard didn’t net a goal for Chelsea in the Premier League until April of the following season. With that, his shooting percentage also plummeted, as seen in the upper-right section. And while Hazard’s drop in scoring could have been made up for through plentiful assists, he declined in that aspect, too. The bottom-right corner of the graphic shows that Hazard went from averaging almost 0.28 assists/match to a mere 0.13. For the returning PFA Player of the Year to have such a massive dip in form, players, fans, and managers alike had questions.

Enter Antonio Conte. Impossible to duplicate the disappointing nature of his previous season, Hazard was dead-set that he would improve. The battle-tested Italian manager’s 3-4-3 formation has resurrected the young Belgian: Hazard's numbers back up the notion that his adjusted position allows him to be a bigger threat.

This season in the Premier League he is averaging just under six touches per game in the opposition penalty area (5.98), second only to Costa (7.54) among Chelsea players. He is also taking a career-high 1.08 shots per game from inside the box, where he has scored six of his seven goals.

At his current rate, Hazard is on track to score 26 goals in the Premier League this season.

While that level of play may not end up being sustainable, Hazard just seems happy to be in a different system. "I just have a bit more freedom when we have the ball and without the ball," said Eden when speaking of Conte’s newly-implemented system. The Belgian continued on to voice his pleasure with not having to worry about what’s behind him, due to the fact that the back-three have been playing so well.

While no one would dare question his natural talent, critics have doubted his ability to impose his will on a match, though many others say the proof is circumstantial.

Above: a statistical comparison of Hazard’s entire 2015/16 campaign and Hazard’s partially-completed 2016/17 campaign.

"He's never afraid to play and take responsibility," Mourinho said of Hazard in an interview with the Telegraph in October 2014. Speaking after their win against Everton in November, Hazard stated "I try to shoot [more]. People talk to me and say: 'You don't shoot enough.' Now I try to shoot a lot because if you don't shoot you can't score. I don't know if the ball will go in but I have more chance if I shoot. This is my job."

For a team that’s won 7 straight league matches — 6 of which were clean sheets — the thought of Hazard finding the net to add to his current tally of 7 goals so far this season is... well... scary. The type of run Hazard is on so far is surely unrivaled in the league, right?

Kevin De Bruyne


25 years old

Best Position: Right Midfield / Center Attacking Midfield

In July 2015, Jose Mourinho insisted he had no regrets about selling De Bruyne from Chelsea and said the player did not have the right mentality to succeed at the club. "I wanted to keep him and he told me that it was not in his personality to be competing for a position in the team," he said. "He needed a team where he knows he can play every game. He needs to know that he is important."

Up until his move to Manchester City, De Bruyne never let Mourinho’s statements about him go unaddressed because he knew they were incorrect, that Mourinho was painting the wrong picture of him as a player. "It's a pity he told a press conference that I wasn't doing well on the training pitch. That's not me. I'm always a player who gives the full 100 per cent in training. Those remarks created a wrong image,” De Bruyne claimed.

After completing his move to the Eastlands in the summer of 2015, the Belgian stated, "I want to reach the highest level possible as a player and I think the most important thing is that at the end of the season we can be happy and maybe have some titles."

His new manager, Manuel Pellegrini, didn’t shy away from heaping praise on the young midfielder: "It takes a special player to improve our squad. We like to play attacking, attractive football. Bringing in a player like this will only aid us. He has all of the mental, physical, tactical and technical attributes required to fit straight in."

Above: a statistical comparison of De Bruyne’s entire 2015/16 campaign and De Bruyne’s partially-completed 2016/17 campaign.

And fit straight in he did.

Despite missing 13 matches for City due to a knee injury that occurred in January 2016— just as he was hitting his stride — De Bruyne came back and picked up where he left off.

The Belgian’s tally of 7 goals and 9 assists is a total most midfielders would be satisfied with after a grueling 38-match campaign in the Premier League. Much like Hazard, De Bruyne’s ability to create space for his teammates is awe-inspiring.

While his three additional inches in height mean he is not quite as quick as Hazard, De Bruyne’s passing ability while squaring up defenders exceeds that of his compatriot’s. The City midfielder averaged 3.2 key passes/match last season while the Chelsea star completed a mere 2.1 of those same key passes per match.

Coming into a new season, De Bruyne’s new manager had plenty of positive things to say about him. Pellegrini's successor Pep Guardiola stated in September of this year, "Messi is on his own in the table but Kevin is in the next table and he is right up there.”

Above: Manchester City’s performances with De Bruyne and without De Bruyne

While it is evident that both players are the catalysts for their teams success, they do have subtle differences in their games that make them just as different as they are enjoyable.

While De Bruyne has seemed to adopt an ever more central position this season, he really made his name as a winger for Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, albeit playing a very distinctly different style from his countryman in England.

As Hazard and Chelsea took on newly promoted Burnley to open their title-winning 2014/2015 campaign, De Bruyne was leading Wolfsburg into the Allianz Arena to take on a Pep Guardiola-led Bayern Munich squad, also kicking off a season that would end in glory.

Both players started in identical left wing positions, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Take a look at their passes in the attacking third in those respective matchups.

De Bruyne’s passing pattern is strakly different from Hazard’s. The current City man hit much longer passes from his wide position, showing off his vision to a Bayern coach who would one day utilize that vision centrally as KDB’s coach in England. De Bruyne hit predominately long balls and through balls, with less of a fondness for taking on players, especially in the final third.

Hazard on the other hand shows a fondness for using his vision in different ways. While De Bruyne saw his teammates as targets to play to (or play in), Hazard sees his teammates as targets to play OFF.

Usually receiving and immediately engaging in a one-two combo on an isolated defender, or simply gliding by him with a devastating first touch, Hazard creates room for himself to cut in on his lethal right foot and get a strike off, or find another teammate to combine with on his march to the goal.

De Bruyne certainly has the ability to run past players, but it is usually once he has built up a head of steam. Think more Yaya, less Agüero.

Nowhere is this more evident than in those same two games a few seasons ago.

De Bruyne chose to combine through long passes, while Hazard picked apart a Burnley side admittedly far less talented than the Bayern side Kevin was leading Wolfsburg up against.

On the left Hazard makes the pitch look like the Big Dipper, while De Bruyne takes on far fewer opponents, and finding far less success when he does.

Hazard tormented Burnley, unleashing shots similar to the one against Tottenham Hotspur late last season to hand the title to Leicester City. He also used the space he created by beating his man to get Diego Costa and the other Chelsea attackers into dangerous areas with his well-curated passing.

While both Hazard and De Bruyne have established themselves as world-class players and team up for Belgium to give them one of the most menacing midfields in the world, they have created their own identities on the pitch and off. Their continued evolution will determine the height their clubs and country can ultimately reach.

I wouldn’t bet against them.