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Who is Emerson Palmieri, Chelsea’s newest left wing-back?

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Chelsea could be making a great deal here.

AS Roma v SS Lazio - TIM Cup Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Since the appointment of Antonio Conte as head coach, Chelsea’s transfers have taken on a decidedly Italian Serie A flavor, especially in terms of defensive reinforcements. Emerson Palmieri’s impending arrival will make it four defenders (including three wing-backs) to arrive at Stamford Bridge in the last 18 months, including Marcos Alonso, Davide Zappacosta, and Emerson’s former teammate Antonio Rüdiger. This is not necessarily a criticsms, especially given Alonso’s and Rüdiger’s quick adaptation and usefulness (jury still out on Zappacosta). Which group will Emerson fall into? Only time will tell. For now, let’s see what he should be bringing to the squad if and when he signs.


MEET EMERSON PALMIERI DOS SANTOS

Not to be confused with other famous Emersons of Brazilian football (including, first and foremost, the Puma, Emerson Ferreira da Rosa, or Chelsea’s own Emerson Thome), Emerson is a 23-year-old left back, born and raised in the city of Santos in Brazil, though thanks to Italian ancestry on his mother’s side, he was able to become an Italian citizen last March and switch allegiance to the Italian national team as well, who called him up in June (but thanks to his untimely injury, he remains uncapped).

Emerson took his first steps as a professional footballer back in 2011, making his debut at 16 for Santos FC, the club in which he spent his years as a youth prospect as well. By 18, he had established himself a place in the first-team, after being an integral part of Santos U20s’ effort to win the 2013 Copa São Paulo de Futebol Júnior, Brazil’s main competition in the category that year.

His performances for Santos were noticed by Italian club Palermo, who opened the doors to the Old Continent with a yearlong loan deal and buy option for the 2014-15 season. However, the youngster had few chances to showcase his talents as merely a backup and Palermo passed on their option. Their loss was Roma’s benefit, who also brought in the by then 21-year-old on loan, which they made permanent in December 2016 for just €2m.

By then, he had become one of the Serie A’s best left-backs.

Unfortunately for him, his breakout campaign ended in an ACL tear on the very last day of the 2016-17 season. Since his return in November, he has only taken to the pitch twice (and once for the reserves), in part due to taking it easy still with his recovery and in part due to Aleksandar Kolarov’s performances for Roma in his position in the meantime.

AS Roma v Juventus FC - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

STATS

Given that Marcos Alonso has been essentially the one and only left wing-back at Chelsea since last season, and will be Emerson’s main competitor, comparisons between the two will be plentiful.

We can start off by acknowledging that Emerson is just as versatile as Alonso, if not more, lining up usually as a left back, but also capable further up the wing, on the other flank, or even in a more central-ish midfield position. He is left footed.

A quick Google search will bring up many articles claiming Emerson to be one of the best left backs in Serie A — and thus the world — but the statistical evidence (limited as that may be) actually does support such claims. Last season, he was basically on par with £60 million Alex Sandro, facing the same level of competition week in and week out.

As a defender, Emerson’s main task will be to protect Chelsea’s left flank. In this aspect he’s done very well against Serie A opposition, posting higher success rate percentages than Sandro in tackles (84%) and aerial duels (68.42%). He also put completed a good number of clearances (2.2) and blocks (2.3) per 90 minutes, showing good anticipation in defence for a player his age, while rarely conceding fouls (0.6 per 90) or getting booked (1 yellow card in the entire season).

The great folks of SB Nation’s Roma blog, Chiesa di Totti had Emerson as the club’s top young prospect by the end of last season, praising his attacking prowess as well as his defensive abilities. With regards to the former, Emerson shines even when compared to Europe’s best.

He had the fewest direct contributions by a good margin when compared with Sandro, Alosno, Kolasinac, and Filipe Luis, with just 1 assist and 0 goals to his name in almost 2000 minutes of league play, but his other metrics compare very well. He was best of the five in dribbling with ball, winning 72.41% of his 2.9 attempted take-ons and drawing at least 2 fouls per every 90 minutes on the pitch — almost three times as much in the latter two categories as Marcos Alonso.

Chiesa di Totti’s also praised Emerson’s passing skills, passing volume, and general involvement with the ball on his feet, highlighting one of the youngster’s best performances of the 2016-17 season in Roma’s derby against Lazio, arguably their biggest game of the year and one which he featured as a wing-back.

Once again, the statistical evidence shows that their praise for Emerson is well deserved.

Throughout the 2016-17 term, Emerson registered more accurate (short) passing numbers than his competition — 88% pass success averaging 46.5 passes per 90 minutes. His crossing and long-ball numbers could use improvement, though he did set up more shots than all but Alex Sandro (1.4 “key” passes). (Though, as a rule, “crosses are bad”, to quote @11tegen11 or @MacAree or many others.)

THE EYE TEST

One of Emerson’s major characteristics is how he seems to love running at markers and beating them with a good set of dribbling skills, speed and balance. Step-overs are commonplace in his game, as well as elásticos to leave opposing defenders eating his dust and grasping for fouls. It is no surprise that he draws so many of them, putting his average sized frame (1.76m or 5ft 9in) to good use.

He is not averse to cutting inside and infiltrating defences with runs from left to centre, or attempting to play one-twos with his teammates to keep the flow of play going. He may not enjoy as much space in England as he’s had in Italy, but his penchant for taking-on and beating his man is certainly something that he could provide as a benefit over Alonso.

Highlight videos tend to concentrate on flashy attacking skills, and on the few occasions his defensive skills are shown, they tend to be last-ditch sliding tackles or spectacular clearances, which really shouldn’t happen too often. It’s good to have those kinds of skills on his back pocket of course.

Some issues that we can see include a tendency to dwell on the ball and to overcomplicate and go for tricks and flair moves when simple plays would make for better choices. The former can lead to wasted counters, while the latter could leave him and the team in trouble.

BUT...

Since his debut in 2011, Emerson has made only 89 senior appearances. Granted, he was a teenager for half of that span, but outside of last season, the one that ended in the ACL injury, he has not put together a full campaign at one of his stops. There is certain bit of risk that he is nothing more than a one-season wonder.

The ACL tear mentioned previously should not go unignored either. With any luck, he will follow in the footsteps of Antonio Rüdiger and recover without any issues. Despite modern medical techniques, there is still no guarantee that a player will be the same post-injury as prior. Rüdiger (and Azpilicueta, for example) stand testament to how players can become stronger, but we’ve seen with others like Baba Rahman and Kurt Zouma, that recovery is not always quick or straightforward.

Chelsea are playing a high risk, high reward game with Emerson.

VERDICT

The best case scenario is that Emerson shows no ill effects from the injury, starts as Alonso’s backup, and with Conte’s (or whoever’s) guidance becomes one of the best in the world. At just 23, he should have plenty of time and room to grow and improve. Chelsea have unearthed several bargains over the years — César Azpilicueta comes to mind straight away — and while £20m is certainly not £8m, the market may no longer allow such low fees as what Chelsea paid Marseille back in 2012.

The worst case scenario is that Emerson does not recover, and with a game based on speed and quick feet, is never able to reproduce his form from last season. He plays the odd game, draws the fans’ ire, and goes on loan back to Italy.

Obviously, we’ll be hoping for the best case, which would mean that Chelsea will have hit the jackpot without giving £60+ million to Juventus!

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Emerson Palmieri as Chelsea’s next left wing-back?

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