Eden Hazard appears to be the top target for Manchester United in the summer transfer window, with Sir Alex Ferguson taking special interest in the Belgian playmaker having personally scouted him at Lille.
Most United supporters will agree that at least one midfield signing is needed ahead of next season, especially given the current reliance on the already once-retired Paul Scholes. Hazard is beyond question one of the most exciting young midfield talents in Europe at the moment, but is he the right player for United?
Hazard is undoubtedly a talented player, and he possesses all the attributes you want from a creative midfielder. He has pace in abundance and fantastic technical ability. Passing, dribbling, scoring and keeping possession—Hazard can do it all.
The biggest asset that Hazard brings to a team is arguably his ability to play the final ball, something that United have sometimes struggled with in recent seasons.
Hazard has been so impressive for Lille that he was named Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2010-11. His current teammate, Joe Cole, has praised the 21-year-old Belgian for his performances this season, and even gone as far as to compare him to Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi at that age.
Given all the acclaim he has received, it comes as no surprise that Hazard is one of the most sought-after young talents in Europe and that United are among a long list of suitors.
However, considering the biggest concern for United at the moment must be finding a suitable replacement for Scholes, Hazard seems an unusual player to be pursuing. Hazard is utilized primarily as an attacking midfielder or winger, having made the majority of his appearances for Lille this season on the left wing.
Hazard has made 22 of his 34 starts this season operating as a left winger. He has excelled in that role, scoring eight goals and contributing six assists.
While he has primarily been deployed on the left, Hazard has proven an all-around threat in the attacking third. He has three goals and three assists from five starts on the right and two goals and three assists in seven starts as a central attacking midfielder.
This makes it all the more confusing that Hazard could be viewed as a replacement for Scholes, who is currently used as a deep-lying playmaker.
Like Scholes, Hazard is playmaker, and with 14 goals and 13 assists this season, he’s a very good one. However, Hazard clearly operates in far more advanced positions than Scholes, and it is difficult to see how the Belgian star could replace United’s long-serving legend.
Although Hazard clearly operates more frequently as a winger, Ferguson surely must believe the Belgian playmaker’s future is in a central role given the abundance of depth United already possesses on the wings with Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Nani and Park Ji-Sung.
Perhaps the idea is to use Hazard in a two-man midfield alongside a deep-lying player like Michael Carrick, who could shield the defense and allow Hazard the freedom to operate in a more attacking role.
The overwhelming drawback to that is Hazard’s glaring weakness—his lack of contribution in defense. It is very hard to operate in a two-man midfield when one player fails to perform his fair share of the defensive duties.
It is worth noting, however, that one of Hazard's greatest assets is his confidence in his own ability. If presented with the challenge of adapting to a new role, he would no doubt rise to the occasion.
Of course, this theory begs the question if his talents would be wasted playing in a deeper role. Indeed that would be a significant concern. Hazard’s attributes suggest he is best suited for more advanced role, and it is certainly possible that United would not be getting the best out of him in a deeper position.
The far more likely possibility is that any move for Hazard could signal a transition from Ferguson's tried-and-trusted 4-4-2 to the more modern 4-2-3-1 that has become popular especially in European competition. Adopting the 4-2-3-1, United could deploy Hazard as the advanced playmaker and transition away from using a deep-lying playmaker, such as Scholes.
Given the squad's shortcomings in Europe this season, it would be reasonable that Ferguson is looking for a new system to improve the club's fortunes in the Champions League. Many clubs have adopted the 4-2-3-1, and it is extremely difficult to control the midfield against such tactics when operating in a 4-4-2.
Hazard would certainly be a move forward in the pursuit of another Champions League title, and United already have the necessary players at their disposal to perform in a 4-2-3-1. Hazard would most likely be viewed as the final piece of the puzzle in completing the transition to a new formation.
Any move for Hazard would surely cost in excess of a £25 million, and it is reported that his buyout clause with Lille is £33 million. It is completely feasible that United would have to smash their transfer record of £30.75 million to secure one of the hottest prospects in Europe.
Whether or not United are willing to pay that much remains to be seen, but there is certainly interest coming from Old Trafford. If Hazard is indeed viewed as the missing piece for a 4-2-3-1, then it may be worth such a hefty financial outlay.
Hazard is one of the best options to add creativity to the current squad, and such a player is always going to prove costly. If United do decide to spend big and bring Hazard to Old Trafford, Ferguson will have landed one of the best young talents in the game.
Following the heartbreak of Champions League failure this season, Hazard may well be the ideal player to take United to the next level in Europe.