One of the biggest emerging trends in football is elite players running down their contracts and moving clubs on free transfers. With January approaching, these players will soon have the ability to negotiate with new clubs and sign pre-contracts for next season. While free transfers are nothing new, what has changed is the caliber of players available — there are a number of players in this situation that can improve even the very best teams in the world.
While Paul Pogba is probably the biggest name among these potential free agents, our very own Antonio Rüdiger is the player with the potential to improve a new team the most. As a result, he has been heavily linked with some of the biggest clubs in the world — primarily Real Madrid, PSG, Juventus, and Bayern Munich. Although Chelsea have been negotiating with Rüdiger’s agent for quite a while on a new and improved contract, and clearly want to keep him, Rüdiger is looking for a significant pay raise and the two sides seem far from an agreement.
In order to analyze this situation and find the most likely outcome, we need to review from Chelsea’s perspective, Rüdiger’s perspective, and the perspective of a potential new club. We can get a sense of everyone’s perspective by reviewing updates from the press (some official, some leaked). With that information, we can break down the pros and cons for each party based on where things stand today — first Chelsea, then potential destination clubs, then Rüdiger himself.
Would letting Antonio Rüdiger go or signing him to a new contract make more sense for Chelsea?
Under Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Rüdiger has developed into one of the very best central defenders in the world. He plays with power and aggression, has top-notch timing and anticipation, and covers large amounts of space. He stifles even the very best forwards, covers for other defenders (allowing Marcos Alonso and Ben Chilwell to focus more on getting forward at left wing-back), and plays with determination and attitude that sets the overall tone for the best defense in the world. While he isn’t left footed, he plays on the left side of central defense, which is generally a harder position to fill than right side (or center in a back three). With his speed and athleticism he can play a high-line and fits in well in a team that presses aggressively. At 28 years old, Rüdiger is in his prime right now, and with his conditioning and work ethic, should continue to perform at the highest level for several more years.
From a pure footballing perspective, keeping Rüdiger is an easy choice for Chelsea. He is an elite player and will likely continue to perform at an elite level. He also plays a key position in the team as the left-side central defender. His position adds significant value — while Chelsea have a number of strong central defenders, almost all of them play on the right or in the center. Malang Sarr appears to be Rüdiger’s primary backup right now, and while he is a talented prospect, he simply isn’t ready to be a starter for Chelsea yet. So if Rüdiger were to leave, or be out for an extended period of time, another defender would have to be shifted out of position (Andreas Christensen? Trevoh Chalobah?).
Chelsea also have to take into account the ages and contract situations of the other first team central defenders. Christensen is also in the last year of his contract and hasn’t signed an extension — though terms supposedly had been agreed, the latest reports claim that he feels undervalued with the wages offered. Thiago Silva is 37, César Azpilicueta is 32, and both are also out of contract at the end of the season. All three will likely extend, but losing Rüdiger and another one of the central defenders in the summer would be a problem.
So if extending Rüdiger’s contract seems like a simple choice for Chelsea, what is causing the delay in getting it done? The simple answer is money.
As a 28-year-old elite performer, Rüdiger is looking for one last big contract. He wants to be paid on par with the club’s highest earners, which would put him at over £250k per week. Chelsea, on the other hand, want to slot him into the middle of the existing wage structure — he has been offered a raise (£150k per week), but not in our top salary tier.
This initially seems a bit odd because Chelsea can clearly afford to pay a key starter the wages Rüdiger is looking for. And Rüdiger’s performances under Tuchel merit him being at the top of the wage bracket. However, there seem to be two issues causing hesitation. The first is how a raise for Rüdiger impacts other necessary contract extensions. Every other center back will be looking for similar money if Chelsea meet Rüdiger’s demands, which could impact the overall wage bill significantly.
Second, and more importantly, the club seem reluctant to reward players for running down their contracts. If players see Rüdiger “win” this power struggle more key players will be incentivized to turn down extensions and seek maximum wages in the open market. This would put Chelsea in the position of not being able to properly manage the roster, and would result in the club having to pay significantly higher wages to all players or let key performers leave for free (taking a large financial hit in either case).
Overall, the club seem to be drawing a line in the sand over this issue, and seem to be counting on Rüdiger wanting to stay and willing to accept less money to do so. Otherwise, it should be easy to come to an agreement on a significant raise that puts Rüdiger in the top wage bracket without being the top earner — his performance and value to the team easily warrant that and can be justified without breaking the overall wage structure.
What are the benefits to potential buyers?
The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the ability of even the biggest clubs to spend, and Rüdiger (and every other player who can be signed on a free) are appealing because without a transfer fee the annualized costs are lower than a comparable player with a transfer fee — even with higher wages.
For example, the all-in annual cost of a £50 million player on a five year contract at £200k per week would be £20 million (£10 million amortized transfer fee plus £10 million of wages). Because no transfer fee is required, Rüdiger at £300k per week would carry an annual cost of only £15.5 million. So any team who sign him would end up with a superior player at a lower cost when compared to dipping into the transfer market.
Who are the potential buyers?
Rüdiger has been linked with some of the biggest teams in Europe and he could slot right in for most of them. The leading candidates are Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, and Juventus. Although these are some of the richest clubs in football, if they can improve the first team for a discount, they will happily take advantage.
Madrid changed both their center backs last summer with both Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane moving on. David Alaba (coincidentally signed on a free last summer) and Eder Militao are the starters and while both are very good, Rüdiger is probably a slight upgrade. In addition, Madrid’s center back quality drops off drastically from there, and adding Rüdiger would give them three high quality center backs to rotate and provide depth (or even play a back three at times). Madrid also have the wage structure to pay Rüdiger more than he could expect to earn at Chelsea (£250k to £300k).
PSG took advantage of the Real Madrid restructuring and added Sergio Ramos to partner Marquinhos at center back. Presnel Kimpembe is another good option so depth is not a huge issue for them, but Rüdiger would step in as a starter and allow Ramos to rotate and provide depth (especially as he is 35). PSG have no issues paying very high wages (Neymar!), and could certainly exceed any offer from Chelsea or match any offer from Madrid.
Bayern would love to add Rüdiger, particularly because he would give them another German international. He would pair sensationally with Dayot Upamecano or Lucas Hernandez and fit perfectly in the high-tempo system Julian Nagelsmann is implementing. Similar to Madrid, Rüdiger would be a slight upgrade as a starter but would give them three top-tier center backs to rotate. Bayern also pay very well and could afford to offer Rüdiger £250k to £300k without impacting their wage structure.
Juventus have added a lot of players on free transfers in the past so know this market very well already. Rüdiger would be a great fit and allow them to have four strong center backs if they kept De Ligt and the ageless duo of Chiellini and Bonucci. They could also offer £200k to £250k without impacting their wage structure. With that said, Juve (and the rest of Serie A) have been hit hard by the pandemic and Juve are actively trying to lower their wage bill. It’s hard to see them giving Rüdiger £250k or more without clearing salary, or even moving De Ligt for a big fee, which seems unlikely.
In addition to the European giants, there are a few teams in the Premier League that could afford Rüdiger. Liverpool, Manchester City, and Manchester United could all offer him wages at £250k and could partner him with another elite center back to solidify their defenses. However, Premier League teams can’t speak to him in January and so are at a bit of a disadvantage versus the European elite. It also seems less likely he would want to stay in the Premier League, but if he holds out until the summer to fully evaluate his options then other Premier League teams will look more attractive.
Would leaving Chelsea make sense for Rüdiger?
Similar to Chelsea, from a pure footballing perspective it doesn’t make much sense for Rüdiger to move on. Rüdiger is a key starter for the defending European champions and the club will remain legitimate challengers for the Champions League and Premier League titles for the next few years (at least). While the Premier League is more competitive than Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga and so Chelsea aren’t virtual “locks” to win a domestic trophy every season like PSG or Bayern, the competitive nature of the Premier League seems to appeal to him. There is also the argument that playing in a strong domestic league enhances the chances of winning European trophies — Premier League teams are battle-tested and forced to play at their best throughout the entire domestic calendar. Based on his position and the club’s prospects Rüdiger is unlikely to leave for sporting reasons.
While the pure footballing perspective points to Rüdiger staying, the financial story is the completely opposite. Moving to another elite club could make a huge difference in the amount of money Rüdiger will make over the rest of his career. The difference between £150k and £250k over a three year contract is almost £15 million. It’s hard to see Rüdiger (or anyone) passing up that amount of money (or even more if he can get higher wages or a longer contract, which seems likely).
So, unless Chelsea significantly increase our offer (£200k minimum), the money involved will likely force Rüdiger to move. But this is where this type of analysis gets hard. Rüdiger appears to be happy at Chelsea and doesn’t want to leave. So there is at least a possibility he accepts less money to stay (after all, he will still make a huge amount of money if he stays).
Is it too late for Chelsea to keep Rüdiger?
Until the papers are signed, it’s never too late. And Chelsea are not out of it because Rüdiger clearly wants to stay. However, the club has about six weeks to show him that we value him or to convince him that staying on a lower salary is better than moving. Obviously the simplest thing to do to get him to stay would be to offer him what he wants, but if the club intended to do that, we probably would have done it already, so that seems an unlikely outcome.
Unfortunately, it looks like Rüdiger will be moving on this summer. It does not appear that Chelsea are going to agree to pay him £200k or higher, and Madrid, Bayern, and PSG will likely all offer significantly more than that. I expect Rüdiger to sign a pre-contract with one of them (most likely Madrid) close to the end of January. I do think he will give Chelsea an opportunity to match any offer, but given that the club could have already locked him up for less money than others are expected to offer, I can’t see the club matching.
Where does that leave Chelsea?
It looks like Chelsea need to prepare for life without Rüdiger — whether that means replacing him in the transfer market, replacing from within the current first team squad, or promoting from within.
This could be part of a bigger change to the center back depth chart as well. We need to address the long-term situation at center back, with replacements for Silva and Azpilicueta needed within the next few windows, and Christensen’s contract another critical item.
The good news is that Chelsea do have good options for the future, including going back to Sevilla for Jules Kounde (although he will cost more than just keeping Rüdiger, as would any starter bought in the market), buying back Marc Guehi, or promoting Levi Colwill and/or Xavier Mbuyamba. So while it would be best to keep Rüdiger for a few more seasons, it won’t be disastrous if he ends up leaving.