Eden Hazard has grown used to the stream of instruction barked from the touchline. He puts his head down, stays in the zone as best he can, and might occasionally flit over to the opposite flank in search of some respite.
But there is never any real escaping Antonio Conte’s exhortations or, even when spied out of the corner of his eye, the Chelsea head coach’s accompanying histrionics. Just as well, then, that he would not have it any other way.
There is no questioning the manager of the moment’s unwavering intensity when his team have won five games on the bounce without conceding a goal, putting all comers to the sword en route, and their stellar playmaker’s form has soared to new levels.
“If someone had told us before the season that, if we did everything Conte asked of us, we’d have a chance to become champions again, we’d all have signed up,” says Hazard, the Premier League’s player of the month award, as well as the world, at his feet. “We have bought into it. This is what he wants from us and believes we need to do to achieve something special.
“He kicks every ball, heads every ball. If he could, he’d be out there with us, our 12th man on the pitch. You can see he was a player. It’s only now and again, when he’s screaming at you to do this or that, demanding you concentrate or work even harder, you find yourself thinking: ‘Hold on a second, we’re 4-0 up with five minutes to play. Easy now, boss. Calm down…’
But that’s the way he is. That’s his personality. That’s how he works. He expects a lot of us, he’s demanding, and he never stops wanting more from his players. But when you’re in his side winning matches every week, it’s obvious his methods work.”
Last season had damaged reputations up and down this Chelsea side, but Hazard’s in particular took a pummelling. The previous campaign’s player of the year and title-winning inspiration had been diminished, his form blunted by a series of niggling injuries.
It took him until April even to register a league goal. Now that nagging ache in his hip has receded, his commitment to the cause reaffirmed in a face-to-face meeting with Conte back in March, as he revels in his role on the left of a front three.
“I’m playing without pain,” he says. “Last year was complicated. Some people didn’t believe it, but I played with an injury [he points at his hip] for a long time. I was never 100%, and when you’re not completely fit it’s hard to play at your best. But I had a good break after the Euros, a good pre-season, and was ready. Liberated, yes. It feels like that sometimes, being injury-free and if a system brings the best out of you.
“Back in March I’d spoken [to Conte] about the difficult season I’d had up to then, and what he expected of me in the year to come. I’d not scored many goals, but he saw me as a goalscorer. He spoke to me about his preferred systems, the 3-4-3 or even with two up front.
”His passion and enthusiasm for the job were obvious. I made clear I had no intention of leaving after such a poor year. I didn’t want to go out like that. If I ever leave, it’ll be after winning a championship. You need to go out on a high so that people remember you for the right reasons.
“Up to now, under him, we’re being rewarded for the work we’re putting in. Everything changed at Arsenal. A turning point. We were losing 3-0, we were beaten, but we got together – coaching staff and players – and determined then things would improve. It was a crossroads.
”From the first day I arrived at Chelsea four years ago, and even last season, I’ve never sensed ‘panic’ among the players. We are professionals. We know when we’re playing badly so, if you have a poor game, you work in training to put things right so form comes back. So that is what we did. We reminded ourselves we are good players, we know our qualities. We have to work, work, work and make things better. Something just clicked.
“The change in system has made an impact. It’s such a difficult formation to play against: I played for Belgium against [Conte’s] Italy at the Euros and, even though we saw plenty of the ball, it was so hard to break down that defensive block. They only conceded once from open play in five matches, and when teams come up against us now they find they don’t have many sights of goal, either.
”Personally, it allows me to concentrate more on the attacking parts of the game, the offensive side. I play this way with Belgium, too. Defensively, with the national team I have [Yannick Ferreira] Carrasco close to me. Here I have Alonso just behind me who defends a bit more, and has those responsibilities. That allows me to concentrate more on hurting teams going forward. And it’s worked. I’ve managed to make a positive impact in games, and my form is there.”
One of the quirks of Hazard’s time in England is the reality he has scored the decisive goals that claimed the title for Chelsea in 2015 and – courtesy of an equaliser whipped right-footed and emphatically into the top corner against Spurs – Leicester City earlier this year. The celebrations among the majority at Stamford Bridge that night were almost as raucous as those up in the east Midlands.
“That was the best memory of last year because of the rivalry with Tottenham,” he adds. “I was on the bench, we were losing 2-0 at the break and had been up against it, and at half-time we were in that dressing-room saying: ‘Lads, it’s 26 years since we last lost to Tottenham here. This isn’t the day that record is going to end.’
“It kick-started us. Gary Cahill scored from a corner, and then my goal … Even a 2-2 draw felt like a victory because it had been such a difficult season, and we knew we had wounded our local rivals in Tottenham. Leicester were the ones who really enjoyed that night, of course.
So yes, I’ve scored the goals that have decided the title in the last two years, but hopefully this season I’ll be scoring one to bring the trophy back to Chelsea.” That might have sounded fanciful a little over seven weeks ago. Now it feels far from outlandish.