Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus, Mario Götze and Raphael Guerreiro are among the welcoming committee of fellow potent forwards awaiting Thorgan Hazard at Borussia Dortmund - but where will the Belgian fit in?
Watch: What makes Thorgan Hazard so deadly?
The wing man
By trade, Hazard is an inverted left winger. And the sight of the 26-year-old collecting the ball on the left flank, driving past bemused defenders and either cutting inside or going on the outside of his opposition is a familiar one that tends to lead to goals. It is also on regular exhibition at Signal Iduna Park, where Sancho has become one of the most devastating forwards in European football in much the same vein but from the other side of the pitch.
The Hazard-Sancho dovetail poses an ominous threat to Bundesliga full-backs, who will find little respite from Dortmund’s wingers next season - especially when you consider the impact Lucien Favre has had on shaping both Hazard and Sancho into the players they are today. Both were given their big breaks by Favre: Hazard unearthed as a 21-year-old at Gladbach after YouTube videos suggested to the Swiss "he had huge talent", and Sancho now benefiting from regular first-team opportunities under the 61-year-old tactician, too.
Hazard one side and Sancho the other is the most likely BVB pairing, and such is the fluidity of Favre’s forwards, that they will interchange and swap wings regularly. One minute Hazard can be shifting inside and scoring from the left, the next going beyond a left-back and picking out his teammates from the right. He provided more crosses (65) than any Dortmund player this season, which should mean even greater productivity for the likes of Götze, Reus and Paco Alcacer and even more nightmares for opposition defenders.
Watch: Hazard's goals and magical skills
The Wolf, the brother, the 10
Another man to have played a major part in Hazard’s remarkable development since arriving in Germany’s top-flight is Dieter Hecking, the Gladbach coach who has brought consistency out of Hazard and a talismanic quality that has enabled the Belgium international to hit double figures for goals in two successive seasons.
Hecking had a similar impact on Hazard’s countryman, Kevin De Bruyne, at Wolfsburg, where the Manchester City man developed into a world beater from behind the striker. Hazard shares De Bruyne’s preference for the position, saying previously: "I always feel great confidence and belief from Dieter Hecking in my abilities. [His] system almost always gives me the chance to score goals and assist. And that, all without my playing once in my favourite position, in the middle."
De Bruyne has since gone on to develop into one of the world’s best central midfielders and Hazard could even find himself orchestrating Dortmund attacks alongside Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel as a six or an eight in much the same way De Bruyne does for both club and country. But it is as a No.10 that Hazard can make crucial contributions to games.
Like elder brother, Eden, Thorgan is a menace from the left and petrifying through the middle. From here, Hazard offers an alternative to Dortmund captain Reus playing off the striker. Driving from deep, Hazard’s movement, vision and direct running - he trailed only four players, Sancho included, on the list of most sprints - can break defensive lines and create crucial space in between opposition banks of players.
The leading man
"I don’t think it’s easy every day to be compared to your big brother because your big brother has already done some good things in football," said Eden of Thorgan when the latter was named Belgium’s Player of the Year in 2014. "I think it’s harder for him. He has always had to contend with, 'He’s the brother of Eden…'"
It’s a valid point, especially when your brother has already achieved so much in the game, but Thorgan has well and truly stepped out from Eden’s shadows. They are equals in the national team and Thorgan has become one of the most exciting players in the Bundesliga in his own right. However, the similarities in their style and deployment are unmistakable: the dazzling footwork, the tightrope-walker balance and sixth sense awareness of teammates and space are clearly part and parcel of the Hazard DNA.
As is an eye for goal and control that sees the ball stick to their boots like glue. It means Thorgan, like Eden, is another fine option as a false nine. Favre is a clear advocate for the role, too, with Götze having been deployed in the role in 19 out of his 29 Bundesliga appearances this season, and despite out-and-out striker Alcacer’s 18 league goals which were only bettered by Robert Lewandowski.
"When we were little, I went in goal and Eden would shoot at me like a madman," recalls Thorgan. As the furthest forward man in Black and Yellow, he may well start shooting like a madman himself. It would be fitting retribution for all the time he spent in goal back in the Garden with Eden.
Some left-field thinking
Hazard may also find opportunity to shine from further back in the Dortmund pack. He has this season been used as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 under Hecking and this could allow Favre to operate using a wider range of formations to combat other sides.
Guerreiro and Marius Wolf are prime examples of attacking players Favre has utilised from full-back positions to offer even greater threat from deep and Hazard would be a further option should his new coach need another forward-thinking outlet from defence.
It may well be in Favre’s thinking as a last resort or a stop-gap for cover, but once again highlights the talent that Dortmund have signed in Hazard. A versatile and complete attacker itching to cause havoc from all over the pitch.
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