Since the turn of the year, the discourse surrounding Chelsea has been troubling and odd. Most Chelsea fans will admit to mixed feelings in regards to the Abramovich situation, but even more so towards the drab second half of the season. Sure, they reached two domestic cup finals, but the club’s entire ethos champions winning at all costs and winning now. In that respect, they failed.
They are no longer the reigning champions of Europe, and once again finished miles off Manchester City and Liverpool. (I had actually predicted them to win the league this year. Shame on me, really)
They’re set to lose the core of their defense in Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, Marcos Alonso, and Cesar Azpilicueta, and still haven’t figured out how to get anything out of Romelu Lukaku (although I thought he looked relatively promising towards the end of the season). It’s now looking likely that be going back on loan to Inter.
Yet life has given Chelsea one of the biggest lemons possible: a new American owner who has already promised Thomas Tuchel a “war chest” for the summer. Links to new players may not feel as concrete as they do with their Premier League rivals, but they will come. They have to.
Defensive outgoings and the need for depth
While it’d be safe to assume Chelsea have a massive budget every summer, it’s especially crucial this year. The squad has looked fairly similar for the last two years, and certain players are either aging or looking like they’ve run their course at the club.
The big-name outgoings – notably Rudiger and Azpilicueta – need immediate, starting-quality replacements. Sevilla’s Jules Koundé has been linked for over a year and makes perfect sense given his versatility and CV. Comfortable and bold on the ball for a possession-based side, he has all but solidified his place in the France XI as the right-sided center-back in a back five or right-back in a four. He ranks in the 95+ percentile amongst center-backs across the five major European leagues in metrics such as progressive passes received (is always an outlet), dribbles completed (nice), and shot-creating actions (wow). Given the reported interest and quoted asking price (give-or-take £60 million), I’d be shocked if this isn’t confirmed soon. The fit is that good.
Many other names will be thrown into the hat in the coming weeks, most likely at lower prices. Nico Schlotterbeck – who has just moved to Dortmund from Freiburg – would have felt ideal, but the club’s financial limbo was probably an impassable hurdle at that point. It’s a shame Marc Guéhi and Fikayo Tomori are no longer around…
One of the best things that will happen to Chelsea this summer is the return of Levi Colwill, who spent last season on loan at Huddersfield Town in the Championship. Colwill was a star in the second tier this season and should fight for a starting place come next season. Tall, courageous, and – most notably – left-footed, the 19-year-old should get chances given that his current primary competition is… Malang Sarr. Twitter chatter is saying he may be loaned out once more, but bar several star signings in his position, I bet he sticks around (and plays a role like Chalobah did last season).
Just to his left, Chilwell will hopefully be returning from his ACL injury for good. The partnership he shared with Reece James in the early stages of last season looked really, really promising.
With Marcos Alonso gone (sigh of relief for Chelsea fans?), Chilwell’s deputies will comprise of Kenedy (?) and a pair of returning loanees in Emerson (who looks like he’s leaving) and Ian Maatsen. Maatsen is particularly interesting: a Dutch academy product who, like Colwill, spent last season in the Championship with Coventry City. Slight in stature but clearly technical, he managed three goals from left-wing-back. I expect Chelsea to sign someone, but it’d be nice to see him get a chance.
On the right, Reece James is already one of the best right-backs in the world, but he’ll need a backup. Djed Spence of Middlesbrough would be a cool option, but Spurs seem to already be in advanced talks with him.
Conor Gallagher and the Declan Rice profile
I’ll start this section by saying that I think the Chelsea hierarchy is devastated they weren’t able to lure Aurélien Tchouaméni to Stamford Bridge. It’s possible his transfer to Madrid had been in place for a while, but I’m sure he was originally a top priority for Chelsea. The main reason for that is West Ham’s current asking price for Declan Rice (who boasts a comparable 6ish-8ish profile with supreme defensive stability) sits at £150 million-plus. Tchouaméni’s eventual cost was around £85 million, but that’s still close to half the price.
Chelsea’s long-standing interest in a player of that mold says more about the direction they want to take the midfield than their opinions of their current personnel, but it’s still worth contemplating each player’s current situation.
Jorginho played the majority of games last season, while Kanté and Kovacic took turns as his partner due to the Frenchman’s injuries and the Croat’s impressive form. Loftus-Cheek looked promising as he was given more minutes than expected, but doesn’t seem to be at the level Chelsea require from that role. Maybe that will change.
While it shouldn’t be surprising considering the club’s tokenized nickname of the “Loan Army,” Conor Gallagher’s return should give the club a massive boost. Already known for his relentless engine, he demonstrated an innate ability to arrive late in the box for Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace and finished the season with eight goals. I think he’ll have an immediate impact (albeit minor at first) and further enable Tuchel to press high up the pitch. In their usual 3-4-2-1 setup, he’d probably be best suited as a replacement for Kanté, alongside Jorginho.
A carousel of attackers and Lukaku’s future
Tuchel usually selects his forwards based on form and availability rather than specific tactical requirements for a certain opposition. Werner and Havertz especially have both taken turns as center-forwards, second strikers, and wide forwards. Pulisic and Ziyech are often second-choice but are more than adequate enough to fulfill the current roles that are asked of them. Callum Hudson-Odoi remains in the picture but should continue to play the same role if the system remains the same.
That still leaves a Lukaku-shaped hole as the focal point up front, something Tuchel seems to require except for in big games against Liverpool and City – who play with much higher lines. It’s a massive shame Lukaku hasn’t worked out thus far, as last summer it felt like he was the missing piece to their jigsaw. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be allowed to go back to Inter. History has shown that has worked for him before (West Brom and Everton).
Batshuayi will be returning from his loan spell at Besiktas, which only means he should prepare himself to leave once again. More importantly, Armando Broja will be back from his season at Southampton, which wasn’t necessarily as lethal as it was promising. He only scored six goals but ranked really well among all top five league forwards in aerials won (always nice for a striker) and dribbles completed (Chelsea’s attackers are tasked with a lot of carrying).
Like Colwill and Maatsen, he should get opportunities if he sticks around, but that could hinge on a potential marquee signing.
If Ousmane Dembele signs, expect a back four
That headline singing may well be free agent Ousmane Dembélé, who looks unlikely as ever to re-sign with Barcelona despite a marvelous comeback campaign in which he recorded 13 assists. A classic winger with a unique ambidextrous quality, Dembélé broke out under Tuchel at Dortmund where he was also sending in crosses and cutbacks for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His injury record and reported lack of professionalism have been his downfall at Barcelona, making his original expensive move a failure, but he remains one of the more gifted footballers on the planet. This is a guy who was once regarded as the future of France alongside Kylian Mbappé.
If he does indeed sign for Chelsea, the club will immediately improve. Not because he slots in as a starter as one of those withdrawn forwards – a role he can fulfill – but because he’ll fully enable Tuchel to move away from a back five to a more expansive back four.
While it has arguably been the pillar for their success under Tuchel, Chelsea’s back five naturally inhibits attacking potency. Top possession-oriented teams in the league and across Europe attack with five across the top of the pitch in order to occupy all the channels. City attack with a winger – midfielder – forward – midfielder – winger combination; Liverpool attack with a full-back – inside forward – forward – midfielder – inside forward combination. Chelsea attack with both wing-backs high with three attackers in between. There was indeed more variation this season as Tuchel asked both Chilwell and James to come inside more often, but that plan was derailed when Chilwell got injured. Marcos Alonso was nowhere near as competent despite scoring several crucial goals. Chelsea’s attacking options don’t currently suit a more conventional front three, as nobody serves as a like-for-like replacement for another.
They may have created the third-best amount and quality of chances in the Premier League (1.77 expected goals per game this year, only behind Liverpool with 2.34 and City with 2.35), but those chances were falling to – in essence – the wrong players. If the ball is wide right and is quickly shifted to the left to a player in open space, there is no doubt that you’d rather that player be a forward rather than a wing-back.
Tuchel actually tinkered with a back four in the middle of the campaign but didn’t have the right players for it to stick. He occasionally played Malang Sarr at left-back and Loftus-Cheek at right-wing-back. Astute from a tactical standpoint, but not optimal.
The signing of Dembélé unlocks Chelsea tactically from the get-go and creates a ripple effect throughout the squad. First, it gives the side natural width, as he reminded us this year that he was unbearable in 1v1 situations and in space. His two-footedness enables him to swiftly shift inside in order to combine with the center-forward. That width, in turn, allows Reece James to play in the half-space just behind him. There is an argument to be had on whether his deliveries are better than Alexander-Arnold’s. I’ll leave that there for now.
Balanced attacks demand some level of symmetry. The Dembélé-James relationship could have so much potential that it would require something comparable on the opposite flank, potentially meaning a shift to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, Tuchel’s most used systems during his time at Dortmund. Pulisic and Werner could effectively fulfill roles as inside forwards as Chilwell overlaps. More interestingly, however, given that Chilwell showed an ability to tuck inside as Reece James does so well, it could allow Hudson-Odoi to play his most suitable role as a classic winger, tasked with carrying the ball and attacking full-backs in one-on-one scenarios. That would create an aesthetically pleasing symmetry à la Manchester City. But it doesn’t mean it’s the best option.
While Mount could potentially serve as a good inside forward, I do think he’ll eventually settle as the most attacking player in a midfield three. He’s fantastic at receiving the ball in between the lines and connects play really well. He’d probably look best in a trio with Jorginho and Kanté, but that leaves out Kovacic, who arguably had the best campaign out of the four. That could mean phasing out Jorginho for a Declan Rice-like player. Mount may have been Chelsea’s top scorer this season, but that isn’t normal, and his skill set isn’t necessarily suited to being that guy that you rely on for goals.
That’s an argument to move away from a back five on its own.
Switching to a back four would mean trouble for Thiago Silva, who has apparently had conversations with Tuchel about no longer being comfortable with a single center-back partner. The brother will be 38 in September, and while he’s still performing at a very high level, that should only mean Chelsea need to find a long-term replacement quickly.
Tuchel has always been a student of Pep. During his sabbatical year in between his jobs at Mainz and Dortmund, the German had multiple dinners with Guardiola discussing how to master positional play and to attack as efficiently as possible. They share very similar footballing ideas and philosophies, to the point where Pep considers Tuchel his successor as the face of positional play in the game. Tuchel wants to dominate games in the same way Pep does. Yet his Chelsea side can often look sluggish, laboring in possession and failing to create good opportunities.
If he reunites with Dembélé, he’ll unlock a new dimension within the squad. Expect dominos to fall. Expect a back four sooner rather than later.