COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
“I’m signing for the Champions League winner.”
After a drawn-out transfer saga that involved many of Europe's top clubs, Eden Hazard finally made his decision to move to Chelsea a week after their Champions League success against Bayern Munich in May 2012.
I'm signing for the champion's league winner.— Eden Hazard (@hazardeden10) May 28, 2012
Frankly, acquiring the talented tricky Lille star, who had been likened to a hybrid of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo was a coup for the West London club, as they beat rivals Manchester United to his signature.
The signing of the Belgian somewhat culminated a project at Cobham where the club sought out young, talented players across the globe with the intention of watching them grow together in hope that they’ll challenge for titles, ostensibly signifying a change in Roman Abramovich’s modus operandi.
Buys in and around that time were an indication of that: Ramires, David Luiz, Oriol Romeu, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata, Cesar Azpilicueta, Victor Moses and Oscar all signed for the Stamford Bridge side within a period of two years from 2010 to 2012, while Mohamed Salah joined in January 2014.
Unfortunately, the entrenched dysfunction in the Blues’ way of operating saw them lose that design along the way, and a glut of those promising players who signed between ages 18-23 departed without truly realising their potential.
With the two-time Premier League champion allegedly on his way out of the club in the summer-Real Madrid have been heavily linked to his signature-the club may return to their previous strategy and consider Nicolas Pepe.
Coincidentally, as Hazard was back in 2012, the right winger also plays for Les Dogues and has shown he isn’t the one-season wonder that many predicted following his break-out campaign in 2017/18.
The wideman netted 13 goals and recorded four assists in what was a tumultuous campaign which saw the northerners narrowly escape relegation as they ended the season in 17th.
He has kicked on from where he left off at the backend of last term by scoring 16 goals and recording eight assists in 25 appearances so far this year, and sits third on the scorers chart behind Paris Saint-Germain duo of Kylian Mbappe (18) and Edinson Cavani (17) – and above Neymar (13).
Admittedly, the Ivory Coast international has played more games than the aforementioned trio, but his return is still exceptional, both for a wideman and one playing in a team that were battling the drop last term.
They’ve scored 42 times in the league, and Pepe has directly contributed to 24 goals – a staggering 57 percent of their goals. Hazard, meanwhile, has been involved in 22 goals in the league (12 goals and 10 assists) which is 49 percent of Chelsea’s 45 strikes.
While the higher-ups in West London have half-heartedly attempted to persist with their club policy of building around budding players, the summer represents their best chance of revamping a stale attack.
For years, Hazard, Willian and Pedro Rodriguez have acted as the Blues’ primary widemen, responsible for scoring and creating for various frontmen.
They’ve failed to freshen up their frontline for years – with only the number nine changing hands a few times – and have lost the element of surprise, resulting in insipid displays.
Is there also a sense of complacency among widemen confident of not losing their spot in the side?
Returning to their previous forward-thinking plan is imperative as they seek to rejig an attack that’s lost its vitality. With all three senior forwards having less than 18 months on their contracts, it's imperative that the club begin to consider a succession plan.
The five-time English champions already have Christian Pulisic – on loan at Borussia Dortmund – and the prodigiously talented Callum Hudson-Odoi (who notably has less than two years on his current contract) at the club, so the rebuilding process doesn't need to be as daunting as it first appears.
Wantaway Hudson-Odoi is considering his future owing to a lack of gametime, but the sale of the more experienced heads may convince him to stay.
Electing to plump for a like-for-like marquee signing if Hazard switches clubs may generate more fanfare, but wouldn’t necessarily solve the club’s problems.
From a financial point of view, Pepe, who would have three years left on his current deal in the summer, shouldn’t cost as much as the man he could potentially replace, so that could give Maurizio Sarri a bit of wiggle room as he looks to strengthen elsewhere, with midfield another area of concern.
Of the preferred trio in the heart of the park, N’Golo Kante is the club’s highest-scoring midfielder in the league and a lack of ample contribution from other heads has severely handicapped them.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek may be Sarri’s top scorer amongst the midfielders in all competitions but the England international’s fitness issues often consign him to the treatment table. Ross Barkley remains inconsistent and seemingly unable to hit anywhere near his Everton form, while Mateo Kovacic may leave at the end of the season once his loan spell ends.
Clearly, a bit more quality is needed in that area of the squad, and Pepe’s purchase could have a positive knock-on-effect as the team look to evolve.
Chelsea may have suffered some dark days during Sarri's tenure, but it’s not all doom and gloom in West London.
There’s definitely light at the end of what currently seems to be a pretty lengthy tunnel, and Pepe could be a beacon of promise for the beleaguered Blues.