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Eden Hazard exists in his own unique realm, both in terms of performance level and style. The Belgian has always presided somewhere just beneath the truly elite attackers – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – and above the rest. He is also a very distinct type of player, with his stocky build and quick feet combo something no-one else can replicate, at least not to the same success.
It is this uniqueness that makes him someone Chelsea cannot afford to sell. The rumours have piled up in recent months, with the 26-year-old emerging as a serious Real Madrid target. But the chances such a move might happen have at the very least been postponed temporarily due to an injury that will see him miss the start of next season.
However, if Hazard ever left in future, Antonio Conte would have a hard task on his hands finding an adequate replacement, someone who could fill the attacking midfielder’s luxuriously large boots. Perhaps the most suitable candidate would be Lorenzo Insigne.
The 26-year-old Italian has, over the course of the last half-decade, developed into one of the most thrilling and effective forward players in Serie A. The last two seasons in particular have seen him undergo a stunning ascension from obviously gifted to consistently productive.
Insigne is right-footed, but he prefers to play on the left. He acts as a winger, but only in a nominal sense. In reality, he is more of an attacking midfielder who relishes occupying more dangerous central zones. He’s short, quick-footed without necessarily being explosively athletic, and possesses a sophisticated touch.
Basically, he’s as close as can be to Hazard without being Hazard.
INSIGNE: THE PERFECT HAZARD REPLACEMENT
The 4-3-3 is traditionally associated with a lone centre-forward and wingers, but this isn’t the case at Napoli. Since his arrival as head coach in 2015, Maurizio Sarri has imbued the club with his own ideals, one of which is having plenty of positional rotations.
The wingers in his 4-3-3 are integral to these interchanges. They don’t solely hug the line and look to take on the full-backs; rather, they mix up dominating the touchline with seeking to come inside and knit attacks together, or dropping deeper to aid build-up.
Insigne, operating on the left-hand side of Napoli’s front three, has played his best football in this system. Rather than being limited to dribbling and crossing, he has been able to display the full extent of his intelligent movement, exceptional control and fluid combination play.
At his best when drifting infield with the ball at feet, the creator takes up similar spaces and responsibilities to those assigned to Hazard at Chelsea in 2016/17. Conte’s implementation of the 3-4-2-1 system allowed the player to occupy an inside forward position within the team, rather than being stuck out on the left wing in a less involved role.
Statistically, Insigne compares quite well to his Chelsea counterpart. Last season, he had a comparatively higher pass completion rate and made significantly more successful passes, as well as setting up and scoring more goals per 90 minutes.
When it came to chances created and shot accuracy, Hazard has a slight advantage, while he had a much higher success rate with dribbles, completing far more per 90, as well as a far higher percentage of the take-ons he attempted.
INSIGNE: THE PERFECT HAZARD PARTNER
Some say it is possible to have too much of a good thing, but Chelsea fans wouldn’t mind having two outstanding inside forwards in their team. Insigne could act as an ideal replacement were Hazard ever to move on, but an even sunnier scenario would be the pair playing together, alongside each other as twin playmakers.
The Napoli man is perhaps the more subtle force of the two. It could reasonably be argued that he is not as fast, but is a more thoughtful mover. He can both create and exploit space, and that is a trait that could quite feasibly be carried over to the other side of the pitch if necessary.
While playing in the right-sided inside forward role would take away the possibility of Insigne cutting in onto his favoured right foot, he would still be able to drag defenders away with his control and dribbling and spatial awareness.
With the freedom offered in the position, he would be able to move into different areas. In the attacking phase, he wouldn’t be restricted. Theoretically, then, while it might not be the ideal setup, Insigne and Hazard could play together.
INSIGNE’S NAPOLI LEGACY
Unfortunately for Chelsea, the idea of Insigne operating alongside Hazard will almost certainly remain entirely theoretical. As soon as rumours linking him with a move to the Premier League champions surfaced, one of his representatives, Franco Della Monica, stated: “He has always been in the sights of many clubs. The priority for Lorenzo, though, is to be wearing the Napoli shirt.”
Insigne has played for Conte before, for the Italian national team, and the working relationship wasn’t always a positive one. Indeed, it took what felt like an eternity for the manager to recognise the player’s good work before eventually including him in the Azzurri’s Euro 2016 squad.
Even more pertinent is the fact that the attacking midfielder has a contract with Napoli that lasts until 2022, and it will take exceptional circumstances for him to leave before – or even after – that time.
Playing for the Partenopei is about more than money and titles for Insigne. He was born and raised in the city, came through the club’s youth system, and has a strong emotional connection not only with the team, but with the wider community.
So important is he to Napoli that in 2015/16 there was some talk of the club un-retiring the No.10 shirt that has been without an occupant since the iconic Diego Maradona wore it for the last time in 1991. He is on track to be a proud bandiera, a one-club man, and losing with his home team is preferable to winning with anyone else.
Chelsea can dream of an Insigne/Hazard combination, but those dreams are unlikely to materialise.