The 2021/22 season promised so much for Chelsea, but ultimately delivered little.
Thomas Tuchel’s team were widely expected to challenge for the Premier League title, yet fell away quickly after a strong start. They also let slip their grip on the Champions League, losing to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, and lost both cup finals to Liverpool.
A trophy-less campaign was underpinned by uncertainty around Chelsea’s ownership with Roman Abramovich forced to sell the club due to sanctions imposed on him by the UK Government related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For months, the Blues had their finances frozen. Tuchel couldn’t plan for the future.
Now, though, with LA Dodgers owner Todd Boehly close to completing a takeover, Tuchel must look ahead and his immediate focus must be on Chelsea’s defence which will be decimated by the departure of three key players this summer: Cesar Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger.
Between them, Azpilicueta, Christensen and Rudiger made 80 Premier League appearances this season. Only Edouard Mendy played more minutes than the latter who has been Chelsea’s defence bedrock since Tuchel’s appointment in January 2021.
Rudiger’s exit is the biggest loss to the Stamford Bridge club since Eden Hazard’s departure three years ago.
Rudiger averages 5.31 progressive carries per 90 minutes for Chelsea, placing him in the 93rd percentile among defenders in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues over the last 12 months. The German is crucial to the way Tuchel’s team plays out from the back. Chelsea need him to link the lines of defence and midfield.
On top of this, Rudiger is extremely press resistant, illustrated by his average of 6.83 passes under pressure per 90 minutes. In an age where opposition sides are increasingly proactive in their attempts to win the ball back, the 29-year-old is the perfect modern centre back. His physical attributes are matched by his technical attributes.
All this explains why Real Madrid were so keen to sign Rudiger, but his exit gives Chelsea a problem to solve. Where can they find another central defender with these same qualities to plug the hole in their backline? Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly has a similar profile to Rudiger, but would Chelsea spend big on a player set to turn 31 this summer?
The loss of Azpilicueta will also be significant, and not just from an on-the-pitch perspective. The 32-year-old is Chelsea captain. His leadership qualities and experience will be missed, especially if Tuchel is forced to fast-track academy graduates into his squad to compensate for the exit of so many first team defenders.
Azpilicueta has been used on the right side of Chelsea’s back three and as a right-sided wing back. His versatility has been extremely useful for Tuchel and has been one of the reasons the German coach has been able to deploy a back three. Azpilicueta helped grease the tactical wheels. Between him and Reece James, Tuchel has genuine fluidity down the right side.
Statistics show Azpilicueta is also in the 92nd percentile for blocks per 90 minutes (2.54). At 32 years old, he is entering the twilight of his career and is fading as a physical force, but the Spaniard’s defensive instincts remain sharp. This is underlined further by his average of 2.82 clearances per 90 minutes.
Christensen’s departure could be absorbed given he started just 17 Premier League games for Chelsea this season, but the Dane might have been one of the options capable of stepping up to fill in for Azpilicueta and Rudiger. His exit only exacerbates Chelsea’s looming defensive problems further.
Josko Gvardiol has been mentioned as a potential target with the Croatian accustomed to playing on the left side of a back three for RB Leipzig just as Rudiger did for Chelsea. The 20-year-old averages 5.45 progressive carries per 90 minutes and is comfortable bringing the ball out from the back. His signing could be a shrewd one.
Jules Kounde is a long-term target for Chelsea who have tried and failed to sign the Sevilla defender more than once. The Frenchman is most effective on the right side of a back three and can play as a right wing back too – like Azpilicueta. Kounde averages 7.47 passes under pressure and is only 23 years old. He is already playing at a high level and could improve even further.
Other names such as Matthijs de Ligt, Alessandro Bastoni and Pau Torres have been put forward as potential solutions with John Stones another possible option, but Chelsea need three new defenders to replenish their squad ahead of next season.
They must be smart in the transfer market. Spending big on one player won’t compensate Tuchel for what he has lost. The German’s approach is founded on sound defensive principles. He needs players that play by these principles.