The general consensus amongst Chelsea fans is that left back is a priority position to improve come the summer, but there is a lack of standout options in the market. Ben Chilwell is thought to be Frank Lampard’s priority signing, but his late season form and the extortionate price tag it would command makes him a much less attractive proposition. Alternatives such as Alex Telles and Alejandro Grimaldo are also very unknown entities, and despite their undoubted technical ability there’s a very big question as to whether or not they could succeed in the Premier League. The lack of clear solutions on the market prompted me to look outside the box for alternative options – up steps Burnley’s Dwight McNeil.
McNeil plays as a very traditional left midfielder for Sean Dyche’s Burnley side, focusing his game largely on beating his man and crossing the ball. The player’s talent is clear to see, and at just 20 years old he is clearly a level above his teammates from a technical point of view. He has the talent to play for a top team in the future, but his game doesn’t suit that of a modern winger, especially for a top side. Instead, if McNeil is to make it at the top level, he needs to become a left back.
McNeil’s strengths very much suit that of a modern-day fullback. He’s very tidy in possession and is rarely dispossessed, lending his skillset nicely to a side who like to keep hold of the ball. Being good in possession is crucial for a left back at a top side because the defence needs to be able to control the ball when playing out from the back, especially coming up against an aggressive pressing side like Liverpool when the defenders are put under a lot of pressure, big games like this are where McNeil’s press resistance would be very useful.
Another strength of McNeil’s is his dribbling, completing 2.17 per 90, better than 96% of fullback’s in Europe’s top 5 leagues (according to “Organized Chaos”). Dribbling as a fullback is a huge strength, and it’s a big part of why Alphonso Davies has been such a success as a left back. When Chelsea came up against Davies his dribbling ability was a big part of his game as he dominated our right-hand side, McNeil could look to replicate this and have the same dominating effect as a left back.
This combination of dribbling and being good in possession means that McNeil as a left back would be a great outlet for ball progression, especially when you consider the long cross-field ball he loves. Having players able to progress the ball from defence to midfield and then further forward into the attack is crucial for a big side. It makes it a lot harder just to man-mark the key man and limit a team’s entire game plan, like we’ve seen in the past with Jorginho getting marked out of a game. Having Reece James and Dwight McNeil at full back as options to progress the ball as well as the whole midfield would make moving up the field light work for Chelsea.
The biggest strength of McNeil though, is his crossing. His delivery from crosses is phenomenal boasting a 27.46% completion rate, comparable to the 20.77% of Trent Alexander-Arnold, 19.79% of Andy Robertson and 24.04% of Reece James (again courtesy of Organized Chaos). Stats never show the full story with crossing though, but from watching the player it’s clear that his crossing is a huge strength. He’s a left footed dead ball specialist, can hit the low driven square ball across the box, the high loopy cross and the more aggressive whipped cross. Reece James has shown us this season the benefits of a fullback who can cross, having someone like McNeil on the other side would make us so much more dangerous offensively.
However, there is obviously a lot more to life as a fullback than just the offensive ability, and this is where the biggest questions lie with McNeil, but playing as a left midfielder for Burnley is a much more defensive role than the majority of wingers have to play, and that defensive nous will have developed a lot already. He also havs the physical traits to do the defensive work of a fullback, standing at 183cm (according to whoscored) he’s tall enough to win aerial duels an defend balls over the top and crosses into the box. Positionally there will need to be work done, but at 20 years old there is a lot of time to learn and he’s at an age where he can be easily moulded and will pick things up quickly, just as Bukayo Saka and Alphonso Davies have done to great effect this season already. Fortunately, he’s not a slouch either, so whilst he’s still learning the positioning he should have sufficient recovery pace to bail himself out of the mistakes he makes early on.
Moving McNeil to left back would be a very bold move from the club, but one I believe they would reap the rewards of long term. An excellent crosser of the ball, who is tidy in possession and can beat a man, and with more defensive work in training could train his already developed defensive abilities to become a very complete fullback. In my opinion, Dwight McNeil will never become a top winger, but as a fullback he could go a very long way.
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