With Leicester playing hard ball over a potential fee for Ben Chilwell, and Alex Telles flirting with PSG, it is conceivable that Chelsea could turn to Nicolás Tagliafico to take up the reigns as the long awaited heir to Ashley Cole’s left back slot. He would prove a price-effective option, with figures as low as £22.5 million being thrown around by sources including The Telegraph, and he has the quality and experience to be an extremely shrewd addition to Chelsea’s blossoming squad for the 2020/21 season. But how did he get to the where he is today, and what exactly will he bring to the team? That is what we will be exploring in this article.
It has been a long journey to the top for the Argentinian. Now one of the most coveted left backs in Europe, Tagliafico has not always been held in such high regard. Like most South American footballers, he dreamed of a move to Europe. However, unlike most who make the journey across the Atlantic, Tagliafico was made to wait until the age of 25 before getting his big move, as he swapped Argentinian outfit Independiente for Ajax in January 2018 for a mere £3.6 million. He had previously played on Europe shores, on loan for then Segunda División (Spain’s second tier) side Real Murcia in the 2012/13 season as they barely staved off relegation, making 27 appearances for the minnows before returning to home club CA Banfield. However, this harsh experience did not stop him from progressing in his career, as he made the move to Argentinian giants Independiente in 2015. He made 105 appearances for them, as he captained the side to the 2016/17 Copa Sudamericana, before Ajax saw his talent and brought him to the Netherlands. After such a meteoric rise from a middling Argentinian side to one of Europe’s most exciting teams, Tagliafico has shown he has the determination and desire to play at the top level, characteristics Chelsea should be looking for in potential recruits.
Turning 28 years old before the likely start of next season, Tagliafico does not seem to fit the general age profile of Frank Lampard’s side, with other rumoured interest Ben Chilwell a whole four years his junior. However, with the likes of Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham regularly turning out for us, we could really do with someone of Tagliafico’s pedigree, someone who has big game experience and can guide his young teammates through critical parts of the season as we hunt for silverware. Part of the incredible Ajax team who stunned Europe by knocking out holders Real Madrid and a Cristiano Ronaldo led Juventus en-route to the Champions League semi-finals last season, he knows what it is like to be part of a run deep into European’s elite competition. He has been part of a title and domestic cup winning side as well, and so he has a winning mentality firmly instilled, something which he can ingrain into his teammates.
Tagliafico looks the perfect fit for a Premier League full back, as he is not only strong offensively but defensively as well. This season he has combined 7 goals and assists in 23 Eredivisie starts with a huge 4.2 tackles and interceptions per game, despite being part of an extremely possession dominant Ajax side, who average 60% of the ball every game. This means that when he does rarely find himself being ran at by opposition attackers, he regularly comes out on top. So not only is he a capable creator, he can also hold his own when faced by opposition forwards, something neither Emerson or Marcos Alonso at Chelsea can currently claim to do (averaging 2.9 and 3.1 respectively in the same metric). Unlike Marcos Alonso, who also has an exceptional attacking output, he does not require to be played as a wing back in a back five in order to excel, as he has played all of his league games this season as a left back in a back four. Unlike Conte, Lampard has shown a preference to playing four at the back so Tagliafico fits the system perfectly.
Averaging a key pass every game as well as completing 86% of his average of 53 passes every league game, Tagliafico has proven himself to be a strong distributor, with his number of passes and their accuracy superior to our current left back options. On top of his impressive tackles and interceptions, he also manages to make 2.1 clearances a game, and he regularly prevents opposition wingers from getting dangerous crosses into the box with 0.3 blocks a match. This may be an area of his game that he can build on further, as Chelsea concede a large proportion of our goals to crosses which are usually unclaimed by the hapless Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Despite being more defensively-minded than Marcos Alonso, Tagliafico is able to match the Spaniard’s 0.7 successful crosses per game, emphasising his ability to create opportunities whilst remaining positionally disciplined. From his heat map you can see that he occupies his opposition’s half more often that not, partly due to Ajax’s dominance in a relatively weak league, but also because he is always looking for the ball down the left flank, making overlapping runs to give Quincy Promes passing options in the wide channel. Now picture a potential left flank of Tagliafico and Timo Werner (who has all but been confirmed as a huge signing for the Blues’ this summer) next season, with the rapid German forward constantly running in behind defences and latching onto balls from Tagliafico, as well as the Argentinian making overlapping runs past Werner and whipping in crosses. The duo would be a terrifying prospect for even the best defences in Europe.
Amazingly the Eredivisie currently ranks as the 9th strongest league in Europe (somewhat unfairly placed behind the Russian and Belgian leagues), concerning many fans over how serious a prospect Tagliafico can be, due to the weak opposition he regularly faces. There are two reasons that this should not overly worry us. Firstly, the talent produced by the Dutch top tier is widely known to be incredible, with players such as Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong coming out of the league (and Ajax) last summer and holding their own in Serie A and La Liga respectively. Historically, many players have thrived outside of the Netherlands, with Luis Suarez and Arjen Robben also great examples of the Eredivisie’s extraordinary alumni. Let’s not forget that Hakim Ziyech will also he joining us this summer, and there is no doubting just how good a player he is: so why doubt Tagliafico? The second reason is that, like the aforementioned players, Tagliafico has put up excellent numbers in Europe’s premier competition. He has managed to bag a goal and an assist in this year’s Champions League to go with his haul of three goals last season, showing that he can produce going forwards against the very best. However, it is his defensive numbers which particularly stand out. He made an astronomical 7.5 tackles and interceptions in this year’s group stage as he helped an out of sorts Ajax keep 3 clean sheets in 6 games. This was no fluke, his 5.6 tackles and interceptions per game in last season’s European campaign coming against some of the best attacks in Europe, including the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus.
Finally, with a very attacking focussed right flank lined up for next season, with Reece James and Hakim Ziyech looking like a tantalising prospect going forward, it might be worth having a solid defensive left back. Just like in Jose Mourinho’s first spell when he deployed William Gallas (a centre back by trade) as a very defensive full back to balance out the extremely advanced Paulo Ferreira at right back, we could use Tagliafico’s defensive reliability to even out James’ attacking instincts. It is also worth bearing in mind that Ziyech and Tagliafico often link up at Ajax and spray long, cross-field balls to each other as they look to break down opposition defences, and so we could see the exciting duo get back together at Stamford Bridge next season.
In summary, it looks like we may be prioritising signing Chilwell at left back this summer, and Tagliafico might even be the board’s third choice (behind Telles of Porto as well). However, the Argentinian is the strongest defensively of the trio by far, he fits naturally into a flat back four, he has excelled in the Champions League for a couple of season’s now and would bring a winning mentality and vast experience with him to a young squad. Throw in his 25 caps for Argentina, his previous position as club captain at Independiente and his experience playing in the World Cup and Copa America and signing him becomes a no-brainer! An absolute bargain (at potentially just £22.5 million), he is the cheapest option available and we could do much worse than to secure his services this summer. It has been a very long journey to the top indeed for Tagliafico, but it is not over yet. Will the next stage in his voyage take him to Stamford Bridge?
Written by Daniel New