The Danny Drinkwater deal will prove to be a great bit of business for Chelsea

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English midfielder and Spongebob Squarepants outcast Danny Drinkwater has left the 2015-16 Premier League champions for the 2016-17 title holders, and done so for a fee in the region of £35 million. Despite being a homegrown player in his prime and one who has proven to have a good relationship with Chelsea's N'Golo Kanté, supporters of the London club have reacted in a way that can be most adequately summed up in this GIF.


I would argue that we ought to be thrilled with the acquisition, not least because the club struggled to sign any depth at all as the window wore on.

Danny Drinkwater is the Missing Piece in Chelsea's Midfield

Chelsea's midfield during last season's title-winning run was considered an area of strength. Kanté and Nemanja Matić simply dominated the center of the park against strong rivals, while Cesc Fàbregas was available to orchestrate breaking down the defenses of weaker competition, and often featured as a super sub as Chelsea switched to lead-protecting tactics late on in matches. With Matić gone off to pretend at friendship with the artist formerly known as "the Special Happy One," Tiemoue Bakayoko was brought in as a like-for-like replacement. Indeed, the battering ram of a Frenchman has already shown he will be at least as capable as the Spiderbeast was at shutting down attackers and driving forward in transition. My guess is, his contributions and consistency will outshine what Matić has done in his second spell in blue.* Nevertheless, with the Champions League trophy in contention for Chelsea this season, and a tougher competition expected for the FA trophies/title, Chelsea were always going to need more depth, especially after the departures of Messrs. Chalobah and Loftus-Cheek. More than that, Chelsea were missing something that could help them improve and be more flexible as a squad.

*Can we take a moment to appreciate the weird number of parallels between Matić and Mourinho? They both begin with some level of failure, but re-invent themselves in Portugal and rise to the elite level in their role, when they are brought to Chelsea. They both leave Chelsea at one point in their careers, and make a triumphant return. They both demonstrate wild inconsistency on the pitch, with little staying power season-to-season. They both wind up at United. Weird.

At Conte's Juventus, Paul Pogba was a world-beater. Now, before I go any further, I am not suggesting that Danny Drinkwater is on Pogba's level. However, I think it's incredibly important to look at Conte's moves in midfield since joining, and compare our squad now to the sides he's put together in the past. With Juventus' 3-5-2, Antonio Conte ran out a midfield of Pogba and box-to-box boy Claudio Marchisio alternating alongside the maniacal Arturo Vidal and human laser targeting system that is Andrea Pirlo. In Vidal, he had a player in the mould of Kanté and Matic. In Pirlo, his Cesc Fàbregas. At Chelsea, the closest thing to Pogba and Marchisio have been Chalobah and Loftus-Cheek, and if you've paid any attention to the European scene over the past decade, you don't need me to tell you that those boys aren't at that level. Maybe they will be someday, but not now, and not likely soon. So there's something Conte's Chelsea haven't had that Conte's Juventus did. More on that later.

That, and the presence of Eden Hazard as Chelsea's best player, is in large part why Conte opted for the 3-4-3 over his supposedly preferred formation of the 3-5-2. There are no certainties in football, but I'm guessing that Conte would indeed rather see a 3-5-2 employed, which explains the Fernando Llorente rumours; however, unless Hazard is lured away by Zidane's siren call in the next few seasons, I think we'll see Conte stick to formations that employ two out-and-out wingers.

So, what were Chelsea missing in midfield, between the likes of Fàbregas, Kanté, and Bakayoko. It's really quite simple: versatility. Should Kanté be out for a big match, you wouldn't want Fàbregas stepping in to fill his shoes defensively. Chelsea have already seen that at work, and it wasn't pretty.

Exhibit A:


Exhibit B:


Likewise, we don't want to be relying on Kanté or Bakayoko in a situation where we need to be creating chances against parked bus. Very few in the game can rival Fàbregas' ability to put the ball on a dime from 45 yards away, but Danny Drinkwater is actually quite a gifted passer. Sure, you can watch his highlights to see him dropping them in for Jamie Vardy as the striker gets in behind defensive lines, but what's almost always a better representation is statistics with an explanation of the circumstances in which the stats were achieved. Below you'll find a comparison of the two players in the season which their clubs won the premier league title.


As you might expect, Drinkwater lags behind Cesc in both assists and key passes. Meanwhile, he beats Cesc in the through ball and long ball categories, with the long balls especially eye-catching as one reviews his tapes. For the sake of additional context, it's important to consider that Drinkwater featured in just about every match for Leicester, whereas Cesc was often used situationally, as mentioned above. This means Drinkwater has a larger sample size, and faced more difficult teams over the course of the season. He was also working with Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who were obviously no slouches, but still not quite the level of Diego Costa and Hazard. It's clear that Drinkwater has something in his locker going forward. For the sake of comparison, demi-god N'Golo Kanté has just 0.6 key passes per game, and despite finishing last season as PFA Player of the Year, totaled only one assist.

As for the defensive side of things, a comparison of Kanté and Drinkwater yields a similar picture:


N'Golo outpaces Danny in the obvious categories, tackles and interceptions. It may surprise some that Drinkwater led in clearances and blocks. The term "fighter" comes to mind, and I know a certain Italian manager that greatly appreciates that in his players. I wouldn't read too much into Drinkwater's Rating being superior to both Cesc's and Kanté's. Those should generally be taken with a grain of salt, and really only indicate how important a player is to his own team.* When you look at Drinkwater's defensive contribution next to Fàbregas', you can see that Drinkwater is the vastly superior option for that side of the game. Cesc only manages 1 tackle per game, 0.6 interceptions, 0.6 clearances, and 0.1 blocks. Again, part of this can be traced back to the situations in which the Spaniard is utilized, but only partly. Moreover, Conte is obviously selecting Fàbregas for those situations because he believes it better suits the player's strengths and weaknesses.

*Random side note brought on by not needing to type "his or her team" there: It blows my mind that women's football doesn't get the same attention that men's does. It's been fantastic keeping up with the Chelsea Ladies, and I think we can be proud of what the club has done to support them.

So what does this all boil down to? What does Drinkwater offer that Chelsea have lacked? The answer comes in three parts. 1) He gives the Blues a more defensive option than Fàbregas, without having to take such a step down in terms of link-up play as we had with Matic, and might do with Bakayoko, a relatively unknown and untested quantity. 2) He offers a more attacking option than Kanté or Bakayoko, should we find ourselves a goal down against the likes of Stoke, or without Fàbregas due to suspension/injury. 3) As I mentioned earlier, we'd come back to the question of the differences between Conte's Chelsea and his unstoppable Juventus side. This final contribution is something that Pirlo and Marchisio excelled at that we haven't been seeing from our midfielders since Lampard left (with the exception of the few times Luiz has been pushed up into the center of the park). Long balls. Yes, Cesc can pull them off, but he's actually better at the short passes, and orchestrates play at his best when close to the action. Drinkwater is a superior option in this regard, and will be a key tactical option for Conte as we adjust our approach to different opposition.

Drinkwater is far more likely to feature in Chelsea matches than I imagine most supporters would guess right now. He is a homegrown player in his prime years, and has been purchased from a rival, for what amounts to a modest fee in today's market. For heaven's sake, Ross "I haven't done anything of note in a while" Barkley was earmarked for a similar fee, and he hasn't even won a Premier League title!

So toss a rec on this post and give a cheer, Chelsea fans. We've got a winner on our hands! What do you say to that?


That's better. KTBFFH!

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