Benefoot JPL Player of the Year: Chelsea-loanee Thorgan Hazard

Zulte Waregem surprised a lot of clubs and fans when they signed Thorgan Hazard in 2012. Bringing in the younger brother of Eden was always seen as a compassionate signing, making sure the main man wasn’t alone in London such is Chelsea’s wealth they could afford to shell out a bit of cash for a player they didn’t really intend on playing after all. It was seen as a gift for the Hazard family at that time.

When Francky Dury, manager of Zulte Waregem, proudly announced the transfer of Thorgan Hazard to the press there was a lot of interest from the media – particularly in England – but only because he was the ‘brother of Eden’, Thorgan still wasn’t being seen as a player in his own right. Zulte had already scouted Thorgan from his years in the north of France, where they also bought Junior Malanda who just wasn’t good enough for title challenging Lille.

Zulte Waregem are always on the look out for young talented players with heaps of potential, especially ones who may be struggling at their club. Due to the Belgian side’s low budget it is hard for them to convince players from other countries to come to Belgium when so many people see Belgium as a stepping stone to the rest of the world, so Zulte Waregem operate a shrewd game in the transfer market looking for ill fitting and disillusioned players. Their scouts had already noticed Hazard long before his brother’s move to England, he had always been on their radar so his signing wasn’t prompted by the elder brothers move.

It was an intriguing occurence, we had a player from whom we expected amazing things but not entirely because of his own work, but mostly because of his surname which was suddenly the name on everybodies lips. In fact when he came to Belgium even ardent supporters within the borders didn’t know what to expect from Thorgan after his period with RC Lens. Lens played in Ligue 2 in France so we all thought that Thorgan would struggle his first months with Zulte Waregem, and even when in France he wasn’t a regular for the side. Whilst the Belgian Jupiler Pro League is not the toughest of all competitions it’s still probably a step above Ligue 2, so it was hard to believe a player receving sporadic playing time would be a central figure to a clubs ambitions.

Thorgan Hazard played his first match for Zulte Waregem on September 15, 2012 in a 1-0 win away to OH Leuven. He scored his first important goal against Club Brugge, who sacked their trainer Georges Leekens after their loss against Zulte Waregem. Leekens is the former national coach of Belgium and was no stranger to incidents with brother Eden during his spell, giving some sweet revenge for the Hazard family.

After that period, Thorgan Hazard became more and more important for Zulte Waregem. Franck Berrier, who had been the club’s playmaker until then and so heavily relied upon to produce was struggling to find his best form. Furthermore the French midfielder was also having some personal problems with striker Mbaye Leye, even on the pitch it came to a fight – or at least a semi-meant slap the cheek. Things got so heated that the latter asked the club to sell Berrier or otherwise he would leave himself and it threatened to derail the fairytale story of Zulte Waregem who were chasing an improbable league title.

When Zulte Waregem loaned Franck Berrier to KV Oostende some time later the Frenchman had already been displaced as the go-to man by the younger, more skillful Hazard whose impact was still rising astronomically. The youth team international played 34 matches for Zulte Waregem in his first season alone and together with Junior Malanda and Jonathan Delaplace they formed the best midfield trio in Belgium. The strength of Junior Malanda, the ball recovery of Delaplace and the technique and flair of Thorgan Hazard was too much for most clubs to overcome with each player given his own job to excel at.

Zulte Waregem fought until the last match of the season for the title where it came down to a win or bust match with Anderlecht, they were that close. Everybody was ready for the decider, the final match of the Play Off 1 system – which while flawed had produced arguably the most entertaining close to a season in Europe. In the second half, striker Jens Naessen gave Zulte the lead in the Anderlecht’s own “Constant Vanden Stock” stadium. At that moment it put the minnows into the ascendancy of the league, a win for Zulte and they would win the league – anything else meant Anderlecht would take home number 32. The joy was short lived though as just minutes after Naessens’ header, Argentinian midfielder Lucas Biglia equalised for Anderlecht and there would be no more scoring on the day ensuring Anderlecht won yet another title and the fairytale for Zulte would not come to fruition. Despite the heartbreaking loss, Hazard had another good game for his club even if he did struggle to score. Second place was enough for a Champions League qualifying spot for Zulte, a massive achievement that was largley lead by the arrival of Hazard.

In the summer transfer period, Anderlecht and Racing Genk were very interested to loan or even buy Hazard but Chelsea didn’t want to sell their talented midfielder or loan him with a clause to buy him. Anderlecht was only interested in the latter, something they would openly regret afterwards. Racing Genk agreed terms with both Chelsea and Hazard. However, the manager of Hazard surprised everybody by letting his player sign a new loan contract with Zulte Waregem. We would all know later how things happened.

John Bico, the manager of Hazard, had demanded some clauses in Thorgan Hazard his new contract. The midfielder would be the new captain of the club, he would take all penalties, corners and free kicks and many more. A long list of demands, which Zulte Waregem all agreed to. Coach Francky Dury was afraid to give Hazard the captaincy after some players didn’t agree with that clause and Thorgan Hazard made an intelligent and mature decision and refused the captaincy himself, although it does beg the question why the clause was there in the first place.

This season Thorgan Hazard played 21 games for Zulte Waregem and already scored 9 goals. He also was involved in 46% of all goals of Zulte Waregem and already gave 10 assists. Some nice stats for a 21-year-old playmaker. At this moment Hazard already is one of the best players of the Jupiler Pro League and shwoing everybody that while the surname carries a lot of weight, his own performances back up the expectations. He’s mature for his age and you can see the passion he has for football in every movement and pass he gives, right now Hazard is ready for a next step in his career, it would be tough to see him leave Zulte Waregem – the likelihood of them continuing with their good form if Hazard leaves is slim to none, add in that Malanda will join Wolfsburg in January and Delaplace left in summer and the heartbeat of the team has been well and truly stripped out.

Hazard’s time at least years runner up Zulte Waregem may well be at an end according to some Belgian media. The Chelsea-loanee is yet to publicly announce where he hopes to be come January but given compatriot Kevin De Bruyne looks to be on his way for Stamford Bridge there is no chance Eden’s younger brother will be on Mourninho’s radar anytime soon. Thorgan has made mention that he would like to stay in Belgium, seemingly quashing a rumour that was taking him to PSV and thus making the only likely option available Anderlecht.

It may not be the neutral’s choice. To see the man who gave Zulte Waregem the closest thing to a fairytale story you could imagine join the imperious Anderlecht machine may not be to everyone’s liking but there is no doubt that the team would instantaneously improve with his inclusion. An attacking line that currently consists of the likes of Praet and Bruno, with the addition of Thorgan Hazard could well be the exact recipe Anderlecht need to haul Standard in and make it a 33rd league title.

Hazard’s great year means he has beaten Maxime Lestienne in our “BeNeFoot Player of the Year Award” for 2013 and believe us, that’s quite an achievement after such a great year from the winger for Club Brugge. Both players are also the biggest favourites for the “Golden Boot Award” in Belgium. This award is elected by journalists, general managers and referees for the best player of that year. It has been since 1994 that a ‘small’ club has won that award when former Belgian international Gilles De Bilde won the trophy while he played for Eendracht Aalst. Could Hazard be the next in line?

(Featured image: RTBF/BENEFOOT)

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