I was surprised to see that when I woke up this morning, Chelsea had been linked to one of my favorite prospects in Europe. Bernard Malanda-Adje (better known as 'Junior') is an 18-year old Belgian midfielder, and spent last season playing behind Thorgan Hazard at Zulte Waregem. Prior to that he was at Lille, where he would have spent time training with the other Hazard Chelsea have on the books.
Malanda was a bit of an unknown before last season, but immediately caught the attention of Belgian fans once last season got underway. he was an important part of Zulte's hot start to last season, and became more and more important to the club as they pushed on to the playoffs. He's one of the main reasons the Belgian club have a chance to qualify for the Champions League, so it's a bit of a shame that he won't be rejoining Thorgan Hazard to help them do so.
Malanda surprised many when he terminated his contract with the Belgian club earlier this month, using Belgian labor laws to make himself a free agent. Since then he's been linked to basically every team in England, with Fulham being the most common club to be favored for his signature.
The appeal of Malanda is easy to see if you've regularly watched the Belgian play, and it's easy to see signs of a future superstar while watching him. The first thing that stands out is his raw athleticism. He stands about 6' tall, and has a very muscular build for an 18-year old kid. He's got good top end speed and changes direction quickly. The best part about that? Those are about the only physical traits Malanda displays that don't make your eyes pop out of your head.
Malanda has exceptional strength, shows excellent balance, and jumps surprisingly well for such a big (young) man. That combination would lead most to believe he's best suited for the center of the defense, which is a position he's played in the past. Malanda is well suited to many roles though, as he's got an absolutely fantastic workrate to go along with the rest of his impressive, physical gifts.
While the physical gifts are unmistakable, the rest of Malada's game still has plenty of room to get better. He's excellent in the air, and he's also shown a knack for tackling without fouling, but both could be far more useful strengths if his positioning on the pitch was better.
Those of you screaming for a deep-lying passer that will quickly start the counter won't be getting your guy with Malanda either. He generally looked tidy with his passing last season, but that was largely due to taking the safe route and moving the ball to a more experienced teammate to start the attack.
Where Malanda is best suited on the pitch is a matter that's up for debate. At first glance, he looks like a central defender based on his massive build and physical presence. Using him in this role has its drawbacks though, as his speed and fantastic workrate are somewhat wasted in this regard.
Malanda is capable of playing on the right as well (his left foot isn't a strength), and this role makes far better use of his ability to endlessly run up and down the pitch. That role limits how much of a factor his aerial strength is during open play though, and he currently adds next to nothing from wide areas in attack.
He was primarily used in a midfield role at Zulte, which seemed to do the best job of making use of all of his physical gifts. He's an excellent shield for the defense, and should only get better as he gets more experience on the pitch. He's also got a little more license to join the attack in that role, something that better utilizes his ability to run for the entire 90 minutes.
Should Chelsea add Malanda, he'd be an interesting one to watch. He's good enough to fill a reserve midfielder role now, and may well get as much out of training with the first team and playing with the U21 side as being loaned out to a division where his physical gifts allow him to dominate despite being very raw. He's also the type of matchup nightmare Jose Mourinho loves, and it's not hard to picture him carving out a role at Chelsea despite his lack of polish. That said, a loan would certainly have it's perks as well, as Malanda made massive improvements to his all-around game as the season wore on last year. More minutes would help, and he'd almost certainly get those minutes on loan.
From a personal standpoint, I've been hoping Chelsea would be linked to Malanda since I first started watching Zulte games last season. He's a rare athlete that has the size and tools to play almost anywhere, and with only a minimal training compensation fee owed to Zulte Waregem for his services, he'd have basically no risk for the club. If he really is interested in joining the Blues as this morning's news suggests, we ought to be tying him up and keeping him in Cobham until the paperwork is ready for him to sign.
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