It was quite the January at Chelsea, where the Todd Boehly-Clearlake consortium committed a record-breaking transfer spend of £292m. Different players, with different profiles, playing in different positions were recruited. From a ball-playing centre-back in Benoit Badiashile to the crafty loan-addition of João Félix, the newly gathered recruitment team had their hands full last month. However, the most expensive addition came in the form of World Cup-winner, Enzo Fernández.
The young midfielder was the subject of several bids from Chelsea and the deal finally got done with only a handful of minutes remaining in the transfer window. Led by co-owner Behdad Eghbali, Chelsea showed strong determination to get the 22-year-old right now, and he’s already made his full debut just a few days after signing.
But, what type of player is Enzo, and where does he fit into Graham Potter’s side?
Enzo is very much a passing midfielder, and a world-class one at that. During his short, but impressive spell at Benfica, he attempted 1679 passes, completing over 86% of them. The distribution of these types of passes are fairly even, with 683 short passes and 592 medium passes attempted. In terms of long passes, Enzo ranked higher than any other outfield player with 326. There are always caveats for making comparisons across different leagues and teams, but in the Premier League the top three midfielders in terms of long-passes attempted are Rúben Neves (270), Rodri (238), James Ward-Prowse (214).
Enzo resembles a deep-lying playmaker, quite similar to the style of latter-stage Cesc Fàbregas. He enjoys taking up different positions at the base of midfield, and holds various passing types in his arsenal to dictate play as he sees fit. His passing metrics and percentiles from FBRef are really quite something!
Of course, tempo-setting in midfield was also a feature of Jorginho’s, but creativity was often absent from whichever pair of players sat in the centre. Can Enzo alleviate this? The numbers once again show that he most probably can!
Enzo recorded 183 progressive passes, the most in the Portuguese domestic league this year (33 more than the next player, Mathias Uribe from FC Porto). Enzo’s 30 key passes ranked 10th, and his xA ranked 3rd. Interestingly, two Benfica players are ahead of him in the latter category, a reference to the type of attacking side that Enzo was a part of. In terms of shot-creating actions per 90 (SCA per 90), Enzo’s 4.42 places 13th in the Portuguese league, but his numbers are better than any Chelsea player who has played at least five matches this year. Hakim Ziyech ranks 1st on the team with 3.88, and the closest to him are Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling with 3.15 and 3.14, respectively.
Again, there are caveats with the comparisons across leagues & clubs, but it does show that Enzo’s creative ability can make an almost immediate difference to a Chelsea currently starving of it.
This chart shows a summary of where Enzo ranked in Benfica’s squad across several metrics, pointing to a midfield profile that Potter should be happy to get his hands on:
While Enzo’s creative numbers from a central midfield position are impressive, there are doubts as to whether he can translate that to the Premier League. His defensive-actions numbers (tackles and interceptions) don’t quite stand out as much as his passing metrics, ranking in the 66th percentile with 3.61. However, it’s important to take Benfica’s playing style into consideration here. Enzo’s responsibilities weren’t centered on breaking up play, and regaining possession. That was usually left to midfield partner Florentino Luis though Enzo’s tackling ability is solid as well, ranking 13th domestically, and in the 81st percentile overall.
Fortunately, the recent World Cup shows that Enzo can take on various different roles, varying from a deep-lying playmaker to a sitting protector and even to a roaming, more advanced creator. Although he didn’t start against Saudi Arabia and Mexico (even if he did score a peach of a goal!), Enzo’s arrival into Argentina’s starting XI for their crucial final group stage contest with Poland was almost seamless. Finishing with 94 passes & 99 touches, second only to midfield counterpart Rodrigo de Paul (150 and 165, respectively), Fernández proved his worth and kept his place for the remainder of the tournament.
His touchmap shows that he was counted on to provide a balanced attack across the field, whereas De Paul mostly covered the right-hand side. Lionel Scaloni, Argentina’s head coach, trusted Enzo to roam across midfield, even picking up higher positions than usual, to help push the opposition back further. It was comfortably Argentina’s best, and most controlling performance, with Enzo’s inclusion proving key.
This was the final game where De Paul would out-touch Enzo, perhaps pointing to a realisation from Scaloni as to how effective the latter really is at dictating the intensity of these big games. Against Australia in the last sixteen, Enzo finished with 100 passes, made 3-of-4 tackles (most of any player) and took up a more central role with De Paul and Alexis Mac Allister operating on either flank.
The semi-final clash against Croatia saw Enzo take up a different role once again, one of a disruptor in a deeper role, most likely due to Argentina taking an early 2-0 lead. Although he recorded only 48 passes, that was still the highest for his side, even with Leandro Paredes’ inclusion into the team to provide a four-man central midfield (to counter Croatia’s well-known strength in this area). Enzo also attempted the most tackles with 6, and provided a majority of his 62 touches on the left-hand side. By comparison, Mateo Kovačić had almost double the amount of touches (110), with both players dominating the left-hand side for their respective teams.
There are some murmurings about Kovačić’s future at Chelsea, and although Enzo doesn’t possess the ball-carrying skills of the veteran midifled, star, he does operate in similar zones.
The biggest game of the tournament, and of Enzo’s short career thus far, was the World Cup final versus holders France. And Fernández arguably had his best performance here, as he dominated midfield in a game that called for control. Enzo had 91 touches, more than De Paul (70), Mac Allister (52) and his France counterpart, Aurélien Tchoauméni, who finished with 70.
And it wasn’t just passing where Enzo shone, fi. He finished with a game-leading 16 attempted tackles (no-one came close to this number), winning a more than respectable 10 of them. Although he committed more fouls than any other midfielder with 3, and also picked up a yellow card for his troubles, it showed that he was more than happy, and effective, to take up the role of breaking up opposition play, and helping restart attacks. The majority of his 118 touches were spread in two phases; During build-up moments he operated on the right-hand side, but as he pushed higher up the pitch, he was more prevalent on the left-hand side.
Apparently this performance led Todd Boehly to “demand” his new recruitment team bring him Enzo, and although I’m skeptical that ever happened, you really couldn’t blame him if it did. It was an almost-perfect, balanced, all-around midfield performance. Doubts over Enzo’s ability to play a deeper, disruptor role or a perceived inability to push higher-up than usual with Benfica, were firmly put to bed. It might have only been one game, but the stats throughout the tournament show there is an ability there to carry out varied tasks, if required.
In terms of passing, Enzo’s true strength, he ranked similarly to most of his midfield counterparts. The chart below counts total passes throughout the tournament, with Enzo ranking 6th, despite only starting in the final group stage game. His pass success also ranks at the same level of established deep, tempo-setting playmakers such as Frenkie de Jong, Marcelo Brozović and Luka Modrić.
Much like his performance against France, it wasn’t just passing where Enzo left his mark.
In a combined chart of defensive actions (tackles, interceptions, recoveries), Enzo ranks higher than the likes of Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, and Rodrigo Bentancur. Tchoauméni just about edged him due to interceptions, but bear in mind Enzo started two fewer games, and played a slightly more advanced role at times. Noteworthy is that Sofyan Amrabat, the warrior-defensive protector of the tournament, just about outranks Enzo in interceptions, and actually made fewer tackles.
While Enzo’s strength lies in his passing output (ranking in the 99th percentile for midfielders in just about every metric, according to FBRef), he is also able to perform in adapted roles more centrally, and in breaking-up play. According to FBRef, Enzo ranked in the 96th percentile for all midfielders with 3.51 tackles per 90.
That probably won’t be the role he is put into at Chelsea, nor should it be, but realising the tactical flexibility Enzo offers has to be a dream for Potter, who has had to deal with a midfield full of shortcomings since taking over in September.
As far as Enzo’s creative ability, he created a similar amount of chances as any of his midfield counterparts, but did so by providing a better quality pass, as shown by the xA numbers. (Ignoring the anomaly that is Messi because, duh!)
Another chart that reinforces Enzo taking up a different role than at Benfica, and in a team with a different playing style, is one that looks at his passing attempts per 90. This shows that despite various passing types in his arsenal under Roger Schmidt, Enzo was able to adjust based on his role with Argentina. Again, short leads the way but with more of a preference this time around, with his % of passes being long passes dropping from over 20% at Benfica, to 10% with his country.
Last but certainly not least, Enzo has been able to display his true qualities is in this year’s Champions League. Benfica topped a group containing PSG, Juventus and Maccabi Haifa, which is no mean feat of course. Fernández’ performances across those six group games had a lot to do with this, and in different roles. When Benfica came up against PSG, the Benfica averaged 37% possession, a rarity for a team whose possession in their domestic league sits at 67%.
This provided another opportunity for Enzo to show that while his passing qualities are clear to see, he isn’t a liability when asked to defend deeper and protect his back four. Enzo finished with 5.90 tackles and interceptions per90, good to rank in the 94th percentile across all midfielders in the competition. He also placed in the 97th percentile for dribblers tackled with 1.70 per 90.
It was against the riches of PSG where Enzo really had to adapt to his usual possession-dominating style in midfield. In the 1-1 home draw, Enzo had just 47 passes, stark contrast to his counterpart Marco Verratti, who had 103. He did however make 5 tackles, second only to his midfield partner Florentino Luis, who had 9, in an example of the work both players were asked to do in the middle of the park to neutralise PSG’s star-studded attack. It was a similar story in the return fixture, where Enzo had a 60% success rate from 5 attempted tackles, and also made 3 interceptions, again similar numbers as Luis. Both contests called for Fernandez to limit his passing abilities in return for a more defensive version of the Argentinian.
This wasn’t quite the case against Juventus. The struggling Serie A giants were outplayed by Benfica in both contests, and once again Enzo was at the heart of his side’s success. In their famous 2-1 win in Turin, Enzo had a match-leading 73 passes, most of which came on the left-hand side. By comparison, Leandro Paredes, his teammate had 66.
And that wasn’t all, as during the World Cup final, when the stakes were the highest, Enzo came through in shining colours, completing 3 dribbles (even more than his left-wing buddies João Mário & Alex Grimaldo) and winning all 7 tackles he attempted. It was another fine all-around performance, reinforcing his ability of playing both sides of the midfield perfectly well.
It’s been a successful first season in Europe’s premier competition for Enzo, where he ranks at least in the 80th percentile in all the following categories (just to name a select few);
- Long passes completed
- Progressive passes distance
- Total passing distance
- Passes completed
- Passes attempted
- Passes into final third
Chelsea have really found a passing master here, and long may his continental success continue heading into next week’s encounter with Borussia Dortmund.
But how might that compare to a select few midfielders (stats via OptaAnalyst)?
Interestingly, Enzo has had a similar campaign to Jorginho, the player he’s most likely to replace in the short-term. Both players had over 300 passes, at least 90% pass success and a similar number of tackles, interceptions and recoveries. Enzo is more effective at creating attempts at goal when he drives from midfield, but that’s really where the difference starts and ends.
Perhaps even more useful may be that Enzo’s role in the Champions League has differed significantly from the role of Kovačić, who has fewer defensive stats to show, but has created more clear-cut chances and completed more take-ons. Kovačić and Enzo may clash in terms of what the long-term plan looks like for the Chelsea midfield, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were paired together in the centre for the remainder of this season, preferably with a sitting midfielder behind to protect the defensive line.
It might be worthwhile to compare Enzo to a few others in his position. On the passing scale, Enzo had more of a similarity to Luka Modrić, though he is far less involved on the defensive side than Toni Kroos, who has similar numbers to Enzo.
Again, there are most definitely caveats here. Real Madrid would never need to defend as deep as Benfica had in the group stages, and thus Kroos and Modrić are unlikely to be required to partake in too much defensive work. However, on the flip side Enzo didn’t have the opportunity to play alongside the likes of Vinícius, Karim Benzema or Rodrygo. What the table does show, as well as the other stats mentioned earlier, is that Enzo is able to do one thing exceptionally well, but also does a whole bunch of other stuff very well, as well. That’s a hard profile combination to find!
Over the next few months, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Enzo were to keep playing in the same deeper No.6 role that he was tasked with during his debut versus Fulham last Friday night — although that isn’t the position in which he performs the best. Pushing higher up, with a well-rounded defensive protector as his midfield partner is where Enzo would excel the most, where he could show his fondness for a key pass to unlock low defensive blocks. That’s something Chelsea have struggled with since Eden Hazard departed in the summer of 2019.
One thing is for certain however, wherever Enzo is asked to play, and whichever responsibilities are handed to him, he’s more than capable of abiding by them. There’s no further proof of the type of quality that Chelsea have brought in than the World Cup Winners medal (and best Young Player of the Tournament award!) that sit in his trophy cabinet.