In the previous article we looked at how Chelsea might approach the goalkeeping situation this summer, and next in this series we’re turning to defenders. This should be a bit more straightforward as Chelsea don’t have too many issues on this side, but there are still questions over approach and personnel heading into the transfer window. (Stats accurate as of at least April 30th)
Again, this is more an opinion based on what I think will happen, rather than what I would want to happen…
A lot of things have gone wrong for Chelsea this season, too many to list here. Arguably one issue we don’t have is relating to the defensive side of the ball. There have been individual mistakes from players, and we’ll get to them in a while, but as a collective, it’s hard to see too much being done with this position group, apart from a couple of necessary exits.
Looking at the numbers, as a whole, Chelsea are in the top half for the season, ranking 10th in xGA, and 7th in actual goals conceded (we were 3rd until the last couple of weeks where we conceded 8 goals across our final 4 league games). We have overperformed numbers by conceding around 7 fewer goals than expected, which is the seventh-highest in the league, and sixth-highest if we’re counting only the teams above them (Numbers via Understat):
Looking at the numbers, Chelsea aren’t the only team to have had a “lucky” year, as Fulham have had incredible luck with their opponents chance conversions, as have Liverpool. Interestingly, this is the highest Chelsea have outperformed our defensive metrics in the last 5 years, as we have tended to concede more goals than expected:
As is the case with most football statistics, the xGA metric is hard to pinpoint an actual cause. Some might say it’s due to poor defenders, who get beaten too easily by their opponents. Others will blame the structure & set-up of a team out of possession, while the lack of an adequate holding midfielder in front of the back four can also be referenced in this case. The truth is, it’s usually a combination of all three, but in Chelsea’s case, the last option here likely has more of an effect than the others.
Chelsea have neglected reinforcing that area of midfield for a few years now, with heavy speculation of an eventual defensive midfielder signing being completed this summer. The team as is aren’t set up to prevent transitions, with a more robust type of holding player required to help address this weakness. Interestingly, Chelsea rank second in OPC (opponent passes completed within 20 yards of the area), just behind Manchester City, 5th in clearances and 1st in PPDA. The latter is more of a pressing stat than pointing to any real defensive skill, but it does show that the side are capable of applying pressure, and when needed to sit in a mid-block, are able to disrupt the opponents passing. It’s in transition, where we are exposed to counter-attacking chances, that it feels like Chelsea need to improve to become more of a solid defensive side.
So, where does that leave the club in the summer with this position? It’s more of a midfielder than a defender that’s needed to improve here, but what should the transfer committee of experienced recruitment personnel do with the defensive group?
First off, let’s list the players that are very likely to stay unless something crazy happens over the next few months (not that anything can be considered too crazy to happen for this club if recent times are anything to go by).
Thiago Silva, Reece James, Wesley Fofana, Benoît Badiashile, Ben Chilwell, Malo Gusto
All of these players have committed to their futures to the club recently by either signing an extension to their current contract, or just signing, period. There have been online murmurs regarding Silva potentially wanting to return to his homeland, Brazil, in the summer but having signed an extension a few weeks ago, it seems unlikely. Silva has recently confirmed his desire to stay for at least another year as well.
Marc Cucurella, Lewis Hall, Levi Colwill
Cucurella is a tough one to analyse here. Having signed for £60m last summer from Brighton, his performances have been disappointing, and that’s putting it lightly. He certainly hasn’t lived up to expectations considering the price tag, although it has been revealed that he was dealing with personal issues at some point throughout the year so some leeway has to be given.
Personally, I think Cucurella will stay. It’s unlikely his value can fall any further, and there’s always a chance that under a different manager (a.k.a. Mauricio Pochettino), he can bounce back to his previous performance levels. It will also be easier to sell him next summer from a pure financial perspective, as his book value will have decreased another estimated £10m so the asking price will be less (falling around the same £40m that Manchester City valued him at). If there was a willing buyer at a price tag this summer where Chelsea weren’t going to have to offset any losses, then I would imagine all parties would gladly accept his departure. However, there’s already an uphill task to align with FFP targets, and taking a significant loss on a recent acquisition will only worsen things.
Statistically, Cucurella does have plenty of room for improvement. Possession-wise, he’s 5th in progressive passes per-90 amongst all defenders for Chelsea, and ranks second for short passes attempted per-90, just behind Reece James, per FBRef. He clearly has a part to play in how we build-up from our own half, reinforced by his placement of second for xGBuildup score for Chelsea defenders, behind Kalidou Koulibaly, as per Understat. However, once he gets into the final third he struggles to have much of an impact.
The below chart shows the year-on-year change in attacking metrics. Simply put, Chelsea have not ended up with the player we thought we were buying. Almost all of Cucurella’s numbers are down from when he won player of the season at Brighton (all stats per-90):
Despite his ball-playing ability being a key reason for his signing, his defensive numbers need to be improved upon if he is going to have a longer career at the club. In some metrics, he’s been mostly fine. For players with at least ten 90s (according to FBRef), Cucurella ranks 1st overall for Chelsea in tackles made per-90 in the defensive third, is 2nd for all defenders with tackles made in the middle third, and is 3rd overall for tackles made in the attacking area. His tackling percentage isn’t too impressive though, succeeding just 50% of the time, good for last amongst his fellow defensive players, and his 1.61 lost tackles per-90 is second worst amongst all players, although it’s worth noting that he attempts 1.27 more tackles than any other defender (3.23 vs Koulibaly’s 1.96). He often finds himself drifting out of position, and his aggressive pressing constantly leaves too much space in-behind for the opposition to exploit.
Again, it feels like Chelsea would have to take a sufficient loss to offload Cucurella, and given there is some proof he can perform adequately at a Premier League level, Poch might not have much choice but to evaluate any and every avenue to getting him back to the level he once was. Whether or not that is achievable, remains to be seen.
Lewis Hall had nine appearances in the Premier League this season, with his role increasing for the post-Christmas schedule. Chelsea had a lengthy injury list, and with signings being shuffled in throughout the whole of January, Hall was entrusted to play a significant part in those weeks by Graham Potter. Hall certainly had ups and downs early on, as any 18-year-old would, and he disappeared for a long stint after starting in the 0-0 draw at Anfield in mid-January. That seemed harsh given his impressive performances, and with Hall having the versatility to play in different positions (LB, CM, LWB), it felt like there was ample opportunity to get him involved. Frank Lampard brought him back into the fold, and Hall took his opportunity really well. His lack of starts might skew his numbers, but he finished the season ranked just behind N’Golo Kanté for xAG per-90 minutes with 0.31. I’d like to see him kept around next year to push Chilwell & Cucurella, as well as be used as an alternative to various positions/ an extra option for system tweaks.
Colwill was on-loan at Brighton, but rumours suggest he will have a part to play in the senior squad next season. There are no lack of suitors for the Cobham graduate, as Brighton have recently had a £30m bid rejected for him, and potentially lining up a follow-up offer of £40m, but his impressive play this year, and last year with Championship play-off finalists Huddersfield Town, suggest he at the very least deserves an opportunity to prove his worth at Stamford Bridge.
Azpi looked like he was on the verge of ending his now-11-year-spell at the club last summer when Barcelona showed interest. Thomas Tuchel convinced him to stay for another year at least, but with a youth revival happening and Malo Gusto being brought in to deputise for Reece James, the writing looks to be on the wall for the club captain. It’s not inconceivable that our legendary defender sticks around for one more year, perhaps to provide a veteran voice in an ever-younger dressing room. Ultimately, it feels like the decision might rest with the player more than the transfer committee.
Koulibaly has had an up-and-down first year at Stamford Bridge, which is to be expected for a 31-year-old plying his trade in the Premier League for the first time. It’s likely that Koulibaly will want to leave, given the recent reshuffling of the centre backs, as well as wanting to compete in the Champions League while he can. The Senegal international has seen his best performances coming in Europe, which isn’t a surprise given the game tends to be played at a slower, less intense pace than the domestic league.
Koulibaly plays a clear role in build-up from the back, and attempts the 3rd-most passes among the current defenders at the club. Given the transfer fee (£34m) and wages that the former Napoli man is on, it may be difficult to find a perfect deal to move him on. Keeping him around for another year, again for the sake of a leadership voice, might be tempting.
Chalobah is a really good player, and one who is very reliable in a squad which relies on heavy rotation. Upon being integrated into the first-team by Tuchel off the back of a Champions League win, Chalobah made 30 appearances across all competitions last year, and once held a record of never losing while being a starter until Brighton’s 4-1 thrashing of Chelsea back in October.
Towards the end of last season, Chalobah was unexpectedly omitted from several of Tuchel’s line-ups, without much rhyme or reason. With Malang Sarr, Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rüdiger ahead of him in the pecking order (all four had uncertain futures at the time), it seemed as if Chalobah might be on the way out of the club in the summer. That didn’t happen, despite numerous loan offers, but the Cobham graduate is in a similar situation again. Despite being one of the side’s best players in the lead-up to the World Cup break, Chalobah didn’t make another start in the league from January until a return against Brighton on April 15th. The recent signings of Fofana and Badiashile, coupled with Colwill potentially returning, are likely to leave Chalobah on the outside looking in this summer, and beyond. A player of his talent deserves to be playing far more regularly.
I think Chalobah is very underrated, and has been one of the more consistent performers over the last two years, when called upon. He’s a player who should be kept around, but the lack of game time, and an outside chance of pushing for Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2024 England squad makes me less confident he sticks around. There’s a theme here for quite a few of these players, but given the lack of European football, and potential offers of £25m for Chalobah means he’s likely leaving over the next few months.
Sarr spent the season on loan at Monaco, but spent the majority of that time on the bench, so it’s hard to envision the Ligue 1 side pushing for a permanent deal. There were rumours of a £10m transfer option being inserted into the loan deal, and this would represent a large chunk of profit on the FFP books seeing that he signed as a free agent. However, it looks likely it will be another loan deal for Sarr, although his age and experience might sway some team into paying a transfer fee to acquire him permanently.
Now also with a World Cup appearance in Qatar, Ampadu could have several suitors. Mainly deployed as a centre-back for Spezia this season in the Serie A, but also played in central midfield, he has shown some impressive numbers. He ranks in the 84th percentile for all centre backs in Italy for blocks per-90 (1.65), 80th percentile for tackles (2.34), 87th percentile for progressive passes (4.52) and 87th percentile for shot creating actions (1.35), per FBRef. He can push up from the defensive line, and plays a key part in the side’s in-possession gameplan, but also has the ability of covering and sweeping up when called upon.
Ampadu also pushes high up effectively, placing in the 96th percentile for tackles won in the attacking third (1.09), and his ball recoveries are eye-catching with 7.08 per game (good for 93rd percentile). I would love to see the Wales international being integrated into the squad next season, as an extra player in midfield but given that European Football is no longer on the cards, and Chelsea’s recent high-spend means younger, homegrown players have to be let go, Ampadu is the prime candidate for such a move.
Maatsen is an interesting case-study, and what happens to him this summer will likely be down to the poorly advised high-spending strategy last summer, more than any reflection of how highly he is thought of at Chelsea. Deployed as a left-back/left wing-back in Vincent Kompany’s champions of the Championship, Burnley, and having been named in the EFL Championship Team of the Year, the future is bright for Maatsen. However, within the current squad, his position rivals seem rooted to the spot for the next couple of years at least.
Chilwell has recently signed a contract extension, and as mentioned on above, Cucurella cost too much money for Chelsea to sell him a year later. It’s very likely Maatsen will be sold, perhaps with a buy-back clause inserted for further down the line if he develops into the player many expect him to be.
The above radar chart shows how effective Maatsen has been in the Championship this year, in a Burnley team that have dominated a league that is usually quite difficult to navigate out of. The 21-year-old would be a perfect player to bring into a Chelsea team that is crying out for a more technical full-back opposite James, and the thought of Maatsen linking up with the likes of Mykhailo Mudryk on the left-hand side is quite exciting.
Unfortunately, I would expect this to remain more of a nice thought than anything which resembles reality. Maatsen will want to continue his solid play consistently, especially ahead of Euro 2024 for the Netherlands, and potentially being third option in a team that will only be playing once a week, isn’t going to be very appealing. Given Burnley have already submitted an offer of £15m, which has been rejected, then it’s likely Maatsen will soon be moving on.
Here’s how I expect the summer to look like in terms of activity. There are players (Chalobah, Ampadu, Maatsen) whom I would like to keep around but it’s well-known Chelsea have to offload multiple players over the next few months, and they seem like the most likeliest given the interest in them, and their chances of serious game-time given the significant investments pumped into their positions.
Keep; Thiago Silva, Reece James, Wesley Fofana, Benoît Badiashile, Ben Chilwell, Malo Gusto, Marc Cucurella, Lewis Hall, Levi Colwill
Loan; Ethan Ampadu, Kalidou Koulibaly
Sell; Malang Sarr, César Azpilicueta, Trevoh Chalobah, Ian Maatsen