Despite there being a handful of games remaining, and Chelsea still having a very real chance of winning two competitions over the coming weeks, the fact is that we are approaching the end of another season. This means two things: 1. The World Cup is nearly upon us! 2. Silly Season is nearly upon us! Or maybe it already is...
You could be forgiven for thinking of this summer as "The Summer of the Strikers", with clubs like Arsenal, Everton and Inter Milan joining Chelsea themselves in the hunt for a frontman. Not to mention the mind-numbingly incessant rumours surrounding the futures of big name strikers such as Diego Costa, Edinson Cavani, Mario Mandzukic, Radamel Falcao, Jackson Martinez and our own Romelu Lukaku. However, in my opinion this summer will be defined by the battle to strengthen another notoriously tricky position, and a deal for one could have huge ramifications for destination of the others. The position in question (the clue's in the title...) is left back.
The seemingly inevitable departures of soon-to-be-free-agent Ashley Cole and Ryan "I want to start" Bertrand make left back an obvious position of need for Chelsea, despite the near flawless performances of Cesar Azpilicueta. Most fans would admit that buying a natural left back and allowing 'Dave' to switch back to the right would make a great deal of sense. Throw into this mix the likes of: Liverpool, whose lack of options have resulted in an unproven right back filling in on the left; Manchester United, who will lose Patrice Evra in a similar manner to Cole; Real Madrid, who face the imminent departure of Fabio Coentrao; and Manchester City, who inexplicably feel the need to buy a new left back despite having Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov on their books, and you have something of a royal rumble involving several of Europe's footballing elite.
So, who are the options?
1. Luke Shaw (Southampton, England)
The most popular both in terms of interest from clubs and seemingly in terms of preference amongst fans, but quite possibly the most expensive too. Shaw does not turn 19 until July, but has already made his England debut and has a very real chance of being on the plane to Brazil. He's quick, tall, strong, extremely athletic and has a great left foot. Although his focus is on getting forward whenever possible, his work rate and tackling ability make him defensively reliable as well as a threat going forward (remind you of anyone? *cough*ASHLEY*cough*). The fees being thrown around are in the £25-30 million range - staggering for an 18 year old defender - but the opportunity to snap up a Premier League-proven, homegrown player with bags of potential is a rare thing.
VERDICT FOR CHELSEA: I won't say 'Sign at all costs', but I'm nearly there. He's undoubtedly pricey but could nail down the position for the next decade and would be the perfect replacement for Ashley Cole.
2. Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg, Switzerland)
Another youngster who seems ready to make the jump to the next level, Rodriguez is a Swiss international who will certainly be on show for Switzerland during the World Cup. He's strong, disciplined and has the sort of extraordinary stamina that a team playing twice a week will always look for. He's not as quick as you might like, but he offers an attacking threat in another sense: set pieces (his freekicks and corners will doubtless come in handy). Unfortunately, his price tag of ~£20 million is likely to put some clubs off, but expect all who miss out on Shaw to take a serious look at the 21 year old.
VERDICT FOR CHELSEA: On the surface a less attractive option than Shaw, but could be invaluable in terms of fitness and set pieces (an area of weakness for Chelsea right now). Not cheap, but an excellent option should we miss out on Shaw.
3. Alberto Moreno (Sevilla, Spain)
Another youngster who has already made his debut for his national side (particularly impressive given that his national side is Spain). Unfortunately, despite Moreno's possible inclusion in Spain's World Cup squad, we're not likely to see him on the pitch much in Brazil because Jordi Alba. He's excellent going forward, and remarkably strong in the air despite standing at just 5'7". He's also pretty quick and possesses a maturity far beyond his years. Although his crossing could use some work, he offers a dynamic threat out wide and under the guidance of a top class manager will surely improve rapidly. Yet again, he won't come cheap at ~£25 million, but is young enough that he may represent excellent value over the years.
VERDICT FOR CHELSEA: An exciting, if somewhat raw, prospect. His shy personality and the fact that he is Sevilla born and bred may make a move to the Premier League a challenging one. More likely to be picked up by Real Madrid, but a very viable option, especially if his price tag drops a little.
4. Alex Sandro (Porto, Brazil)
Like Moreno, Alex Sandro isn't likely to see much of the pitch in Brazil this summer (he's essentially a backup for Marcelo) but has shown this season that his international pedigree is on the rise. He's lightning fast for a full back, offering as much going forward as any of the other options here not least because of his fine crossing ability. He's also excellent on the ball and composed in his tackling. However, although his pace allows him some margin for error, his tendency to attack is often reckless (think Marcelo or even Andre Santos, though he's undoubtedly better than the latter) and he's really more of a wing back than a true full back. With a price tag of around £15 million though, clubs may feel willing to take a punt on the affordable Brazilian.
VERDICT FOR CHELSEA: A potentially shrewd option in the FFP era - he'd certainly come cheaper than the first three. But he could struggle to adapt to the Premier League and would be a real gamble. Personally, I'd say coughing up the extra cash for other options would be wiser.
5. Ben Davies (Swansea, Wales)
An eyebrow-raiser, perhaps, but Davies has been excellent for Swansea all season, keeping Neil Taylor out of the side. He's another who likes to get forward, flying up the left wing where he seems to prefer cutting inside to sending crosses in. He's raw, particularly with regard to his passing, and is probably not quite ready for the step up to a Champions League club. But he'd represent a far cheaper option than the others, at around £10 million. Not glamourous, for sure, but a decent option if the likes of Shaw and Rodriguez become unavailable.
VERDICT FOR CHELSEA: Something of a last resort, as far as I'm concerned. He'd be a useful rotation option, but he's probably no better than Ryan Bertrand or Patrick Van Aanholt right now (though he has more potential).
FINAL VERDICT: You can see why everyone's after Shaw. His price tag might be inflated, but it's the same story for the other premier left back options on the market right now. It's nice to know there are some excellent alternatives in Moreno and Rodriguez, but Shaw's youth, potential and the fact that he's English (and a Chelsea fan) means he's likely worth every penny. In all likelihood, his transfer will likely dictate the rest of the summer, as the clubs who lose out on him will look towards the other left back options listed here.