Spain

Analysis: Real Madrid must solve the Eden Hazard puzzle ahead of Madrid derby

With Karim Benzema’s injury, Real Madrid have a difficult puzzle to solve up front. Los Blancos will have to find a new way of formulating their attack if Eden Hazard is going to act as its focal point.

The former Chelsea star replaced Benzema from the bench against Celtic in the Champions League and while he did manage to net his 7th goal for the whites that evening, that was more of a case of sheer quality eventually winning out over the impressively energetic home side, and Hazard didn’t exactly shine in Glasgow, although he slowly grew into the game.

Against Mallorca on Sunday afternoon, the Belgian was again chosen as the man to play in the absence of the potential Ballon d’Or winner, but again Hazard struggled to leave much of a mark on the game. He was eventually substituted after an hour with the scores level.

The positions the former Chelsea player takes up differ greatly with those Benzema normally occupies, and the genius of the Frenchman can often be enough to make Madrid’s attacking unit click on its own. Hazard isn’t a natural striker, so his usual mental reference points on the pitch are completely scrambled when he plays there. This is a problem for both himself and all his teammates around him who would look to link with the centre forward.

The Mallorca game at the Bernabéu saw the Belgian often vacate the centre forward position to drop deep and get involved in the build-up play, sometimes leaving nobody in the box to finish moves off. Early on against the Balearic Islanders, Vinícius made an attacking run from the left wing, zigzagging his way through defenders, but Hazard had dropped to the edge of the penalty area leaving no targets for the Brazilian to aim for in the box. In his hour on the pitch, Hazard completed just one successful dribble and his only shot on goal was blocked.

Carlo Ancelotti vowed not to change the system just because of Benzema’s injury, but the system is naturally going to look very different with two very differing players in the centre forward position. The attacking unit was complemented by Rodrygo’s diagonal runs into a more central position when Hazard sometimes dropped deep and left space behind, and this at least gave Mallorca a different problem to worry about.

But what really won the game for Los Blancos was the powerful dribbling skills from some star performers. Fede Valverde’s run of nearly the length of the pitch to score the vital equaliser was an exceptional moment of individual quality and determination, and Rodrygo’s bravery in taking on defenders and breaking lines was key in setting up the second and third goals; first to set up Vinícius, before sealing the victory himself late on.

There is no natural replacement for the best striker in the world, that’s taken for granted, and the quality of players like Vinícius, Rodrygo, Modric, and Valverde will see Madrid through in many games. But next up in La Liga is Atletico Madrid, and Benzema may not be fully fit to make that hugely important fixture. Unless Hazard can fit into the system in the central role a lot better than he’s shown so far, this could turn into a major issue for the champions.

On the flip side, crisis can sometimes be viewed optimistically as opportunity, and Benzema’s spell on the sidelines, for however long it lasts, could be the perfect excuse to give Hazard a consistent run of games in the starting line-up. Madridistas will hope that can act as a catalyst to finally get his Real Madrid career going.