If you didn’t know (which would mean ignorance truly is bliss), Eden Hazard was snubbed from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Premier League Team of the Year on Thursday, in favour of Sadio Mane.
He is the only player nominated for the PFA’s Player of the Year award to miss out.
This was not ok.
It’s not that Sadio Mane is not an ok player – he’s more than ok, he’s good, sometimes very good – he’s just not Eden Hazard. No one is, and no one even warrants comparison to him on this side of the channel. No one. Which is what made the PFA’s decision so erroneous.
Let’s start with the stats, ’cause we love those, and then get into the murky nitty-gritty of what players actually do in front of your eyes (yikes!).
So, the first two are the big boys, the statman’s bread and butter. The bread? Goals. The butter? Assists. As you might know, the Liverpool man is ahead by two scores in the first category, with 18 to the Belgian’s 16.
Actually, let’s delay the butter for just one second, because one of those players is playing for the second-best attack in the league, goal-wise, while the other is slugging it out with the sixth-best. Indeed, Mane’s goals account for 22.7% of his side’s tally, while the Chelsea man boasts a 27.6% share.
He is also forced to do far more work than Mane. Because of the relative quality around him, the Senegalese forward can afford to coast through games, should he wish, before pouncing on a perfect through-ball or terrible defensive error to nab a goal. This is reflected by the number of touches he’s amassed this term: 1,604.
As any Chelsea fan will attest to, the Belgian is not so lucky. Not by a long shot, and not one of his 2,400 touches are a surprise. That’s 796 more than Mane, which equates to the entire impact of Romelu Lukaku in 2018/19 PLUS another 32 – or, if you prefer, the entire input of Bournemouth’s Jack Simpson (???).
This is all with 91 fewer minutes than the Reds player.
Which takes us to assists and, by proxy, the great God of them all, the combined goals and assists tally – or, if you prefer, the bread and butter sandwich. Hazard has 13 assists, already two ahead of his greatest previous record for the Blues, and the best of any one in the Premier League.
Mane has one.
One lonely, only child of an assist. One meagre helping hand in a 3-0 win against Watford. Just for the record, that’s the same amount as the perennially injured Daniel Sturridge, the perennially left out Divock Origi and the improved N’Golo Kante turned summer flop Naby Keita, one less than Virgil van Dijk, Xherdan Shaqiri, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, and three less than James Milner.
13 is also, incidentally, the combined total that Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, Mane’s frontline friends, have mustered, assists-wise.
12 is the place that Mane occupies on the combined goals and assists table, you know, the one that Hazard sits atop of, two clear of anyone else, enjoying his bread and butter (and you just know it’s proper artisan French pain, probably with a side of vin) in peace. Salah is fourth, for what it’s worth.
As you can see, what the terms of this selection boil down to has very little to do with statistics, and much more to do with narrative. You might think that something like narrative would come in to play far more at the Football Writers’ Association (FWA), but this is not necessarily the case.
Writers watch football for a living. Players play football for a living. Who do you reckon has to rely more on what they see written/said about a player than their actual opinion after watching them? Sure, they play every single player in the league, give or take, but your focus in a football match isn’t on assessing the merits of player x. It’s how can I beat team y.
And, despite Eden Hazard already surpassing his PFA POTY-winning total of 14 goals and 10 assists from 2014/15, despite already matching his previous record-scoring total from 2016/17, his colleagues have neglected these facts in favour of a fresh face. A new Prince of the wing.
This is not about begrudging Sadio Mane his good season. Despite several seasons of merit before this, it has been a quasi-breakout for the 27-year-old, certainly in terms of breaking out of the shadow of his peers. And he’s been part of a team with a far greater tale to tell than that of Maurizio Sarri’s band of estranged step-brothers. But he’s not Eden Hazard.
When attempting to criticise Hazard – and it is always just an ‘attempt’, it’s difficult to lay a proper glove on him – people often lean on the Belgian’s inability to consistantly deliver in front of goal for his team.
And yet, he’s done that this season more than ever.
Most sentient people would proclaim him as the league’s most talented player, but this is also a stick they use to beat him over the head with: “WhY Isn’T hE DOIng moRe?!!??!?!?!”
The thing is, this year he has, more than ever, and it’s still not enough. This summer, the Premier League will likely lose its most talented player for pastures new. Perhaps, as is so often the case, they will only realise what they had when it’s gone.