Chelsea are going to win the Premier League, in case you haven’t already heard.
While many would argue, perfectly plausibly, that Tottenham are in fact the league’s form side, few of sound mind would suggest that a league title will be their ultimate reward. To Chelsea go the spoils this season, and attention in many quarters has already turned to Player of the Year rather than Team of the Year.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been sublime, perhaps even bypassing his lofty expectations of himself, while the stock of Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez has done nothing but rise this season. In truth, however, there are two standout players on the PFA Player of the Year shortlist released on Thursday: N’Golo Kanté and Eden Hazard.
When Kanté and Hazard haven’t been felling opponents through takedowns and trickery, pundits have been falling over themselves lavishing the duo with praise typically reserved for those few La Liga luminaries accepted to be the world’s best. Each execute their crafts better than anyone else in the league. Where Kanté stymies and stifles, Hazard creates and conjures. And Chelsea are a changed team as a result.
Indeed, even Frank Lampard has been effusive in praising both, although hesitant to highlight one above the other. Just last month the Chelsea legend described Kanté as “the best central midfield player in the world right now”. But in the wake of Chelsea’s win at Bournemouth last weekend he rushed to laud Hazard as “the best player in the league for me at the moment”. Not even Chelsea’s all-time leading goalscorer can separate the two, but separate them we must.
Hazard has long been identified as Chelsea’s best player, their most creative in possession and most threatening to opposition defences. Free from Mourinho’s insistence that he not deign his defensive duties, Hazard’s dedication to dismantling defences has been a joy to behold. His creative genius and relentless energy are spellbinding at times and his ability to produce such performances on a weekly basis is possibly the most staggering thing about him.
In a league full of top class players, the world’s most expensive among them, Hazard, looks the most likely pretender to the pantheon of global megastars over which La Liga have something of a monopoly. Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez developed crucial aspects of their game in the Premier League before joining the game’s elite in Spain. Hazard has clearly grown as a player at Stamford Bridge and frequenters of the Shed End will hope that he still dons Chelsea blue upon his inevitable ascent to becoming one of the world’s very best.
And for every threat Hazard initiates, Kante nullifies one at the opposite end. Indeed, the level of importance he assumes is best exemplified by the team he no longer plays for. It now looks easy to blame Claudio Ranieri for Leicester City’s calamitous title defence, or with the players for losing all motivation once the tide turned. The loss of Kante, however, can’t be overstated.
The 26-year-old isn’t just the glue holding Chelsea’s defensive systems together, he is the foundation upon which all of the side’s creative guile is built.
The Frenchman is the hard edge of Chelsea and his impact on those around him is almost as impressive as his staggering stamina. The joke that Nemanja Matic appears a better player with Kante either side of him is hardly entirely fictitious.
Ultimately, however, one player relies more on the other. Hazard’s panache is heavily dependent on the exploits of Kante behind him. Not only does it provide him with the ball, but the assurance that the ex-Leicester man exhumes frees Hazard of any notion that he must work back. Kante’s dominance of his domain allows Hazard to dictate the team’s direction unencumbered.
Last year’s Football Writers’ Player of the Year went to Jamie Vardy. Riyad Mahrez earned the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, Kante could rightly have felt hard done by, and given the exploits of the trio this season, many voters may regret their decision.
2014/15 saw Hazard net both gongs and something would feel out of place if he doubled his hoard this year while Kante goes without. Chelsea’s two midfield maestros can’t really be separated by examining their on-field performances, but there’s gaping chasm between their trophy cabinets.
This year’s Player of the Year awards offer a good opportunity to address that.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena