I was making my way north from the Sonoran Desert, through the Coconino Forest, to the South Rim. In front of me, the Grandest of Canyons. On my radio, the grandest of Chelsea performances. Four goals without reply against the Old Lady, which on rewatch as a nightcap, was as dominant a performance against top-class opposition as we’ve ever seen at Stamford Bridge.
The win however did not come without cost. N’Golo Kanté was withdrawn in the first-half as precaution for a potential knee problem, and while he may have avoided serious damager, the same cannot be said for Ben Chilwell. While not yet officially confirmed, it seems almost a certainty that he will miss the rest of the season with an ACL injury. It certainly “looked” like an ACL injury, triggering my PTSD. And those of us who have had to deal with this injury first-hand — and are not named Antonio Rüdiger — also know that full recovery can take up to two years.
Fortunately, these days ACL injuries are not career-ending. Chilwell will be back, aged 25, and perhaps even stronger than ever, with an upgrade to the tendons in question. But until he returns, hopefully in time for next season and the 2022 World Cup, Chelsea will have to cope without him.
So how will we do that? There’s no need to panic; we have plenty of good options.
The obvious replacement is Marcos Alonso, who has not seen much action recently, but was practically ever-present the first couple months of the season while Chilwell was getting himself into playing shape physically and mentally.
Alonso started our first six Premier League games and the Juve match was the first Champions League match in which he did not feature. He has one goal and one assist and has captained the side twice in his twelve total appearances. He is a perfect fit for the wing-back role and while not quite as dynamic as Chilwell, he will undoubtedly do well. We have only lost four games he started under Tuchel (including, unfortunately, last year’s FA Cup final).
Alonso has 18 months left on a long-term contract he signed back in 2018 that at times had seen ill-advised, but he’s one of the longest serving players on the team at this point as he closes in on 200 club appearances. There’s little question of his qualifications or suitability. The questions start behind and below him.
The in-game replacement for Chilwell on Tuesday was not Alonso but Azpilicueta. Alonso was initially called on to get ready, but with the game well in hand at 3-0, told to sit down perhaps to not risk another injury.
Azpilicueta is certainly versatile enough to fill in at left wing-back, but he’s already a downgrade offensively on his natural right side and would essentially be a purely defensive option on the left. That might be a useful option at times, but we probably won’t see him start too many games.
CALLUM HUDSON-ODOI / CHRISTIAN PULISIC
On the opposite end of the Azpi spectrum, we could see Hudson-Odoi or Pulisic play at wing-back as purely attacking options. Hudson-Odoi has plenty of experience at this point playing the role on the right flank, and switching to the left would be a small adjustment. Tuchel has also spoken of Pulisic’s versatility in a similar vein.
Again, not ideal options, but options that could be useful in specific situation.
Emerson Palmieri is on loan at Olympique Lyonnais this season and has been ever-present for them since joining after a four-minute cameo in our opening Premier League match. The 27-year-old extended his Chelsea contract by a year before leaving, though Lyon also have a €15m buy-option.
Unfortunately, it’s unclear if Chelsea have a recall option, though most loans can be broken during transfer windows regardless of initial agreements — i.e. even if we do not have an express option, we can negotiate one perhaps by refunding loan fees, paying “penalties” in a sense, etc. If there is a will, there is a way.
Would there be a will? That’s a much tougher question.
Emerson hardly featured under Tuchel last season — literally two minutes in two Champions League cameos (he did score once!) and zero Premier League minutes — while he’s been a key player for Lyon. But if he can be convinced to be Alonso’s backup for the rest of the season, he would be a no-brainer (re-)addition to the squad. He’s already familiar with the system as well.
Maatsen upgraded his loan from League One-level last season at Charlton Athletic to Championship-level this season at Coventry City, and he’s hardly missed a beat. Just 19, the teenager’s been impressing, and we apparently do have a recall clause. Coventry are reportedly already concerned by his potential departure.
The risk with recalling Maatsen is the obvious one regarding his development. He would probably be better served by staying and playing, though if he’s deemed ready to make the jump, this could be his Chalobah-moment. Alonso can’t and won’t play every game.
Another young left back on loan, also in the Championship. Castillo has however hardly featured for Birmingham City, just four appearances so far this season, so recalling him in January might be a necessity anyway.
Castillo, who arrived from Ajax’s academy in 2016, has looked a foot out the door for a while, though he’s still just 21 and maybe this is his unexpected chance to stake a claim?
We should not forget about Baba, who finally looks over his series of knee injuries and featuring regularly for Reading, also in the Championship, as well as for the Ghana National Team. If Emerson can’t (or won’t) come back, and we decide the Maatsen is better served by staying at Coventry, could Baba yet get his own unexpected chance at Chelsea? Stranger things have happened...
Unsurprisingly, there are multiple young players just waiting in the wings. Whether they are ready is another question, but we only have to look at Valention Livramento at Southampton (or Tariq Lamptey at Brighton) for players able to make the jump immediately at a very young age.
George Nunn, who just turned 20, has been featuring as the left wing-back for the U23s in the EFL Trophy, while Silko Thomas, just 17, has done the same a few times for the U19s in the UEFA Youth League, as has fellow 17-year-old Lewis Hall. It wouldn’t surprise me if Nunn proved capable in Cup games, for example.
(There’s a ton of versatility in the Academy, too, it should be noted, which has seen Harvey Vale play on the left flank at times as well, for what it’s worth.)
We’re talking about Chelsea here, so of course we’ll be linked with any and all available (and probably not available) left backs as well. AC Milan’s Theo Hernández is the first in that line, though Chilwell will be back, and perhaps sooner than prognosticated, so spending untold millions on a short-term solution would not make much sense. In years past, I’d say that means we’ll do it anyway, but our business these days seems more targeted and sensical, so hopefully this section stays a footnote.