Over the past few days, rumours of the “new Van Dijk”, Xavier Mbuyamba, making his way to SW6 have been heating up, with the Dutchman expected to sign with Chelsea early next week before exploring the possibility of going out on loan for a season. When the rumours first started gathering, I spoke to one of Xavier’s friends, who said that he’d trialled at Cobham in summer 2019, but was unable to join the Blues due to our transfer ban. After searching the opinions of Chelsea fans on Mbuyamba, I quickly realised the most us as a fanbase know is that he stands at 195cm tall (just below 6’5) and that he spent last season at Barcelona. Luckily for you, I watched full game footage of his match against Slavia Praha in the UEFA Youth League, which gave me the ability to analyse his play style, his strengths, and of course, his weaknesses.
During this match, Xavier lined up alongside Spaniard Mika Medina, where the two formed a very functional and successful partnership. Mbuyamba would be the aggressor, constantly applying pressure on his attacker and stepping out of the defensive line while Medina would swoop behind and cover the Dutchman excellently.
From early on in the game Mbuyamba showcased his impressive ability to read the game. On many occasions would the 18 year old anticipate the pass which allowed him to jump in front of the defender and intercept the pass. It was also clear that he had a habit of jumping out of the defensive line in order to meet the incoming attacker head on and make the tackle. Yes, this would create a load of room behind him but due to his centre-back partner’s constant covering, jumping out of the defensive line wasn’t as risky as it may have looked during the game. Defensively, his reading of the game was risky but successful. It was very rare that he would make the wrong decision in terms of his positioning on the defensive end.
The ability to successfully play out from the back is something Frank Lampard clearly looks for in his centre backs, and from watching Xavier during this game, he seemed to tick all the boxes. Once again, his decision making (this time in possession) was very impressive. He never forced the pass and tended to play short passes to the feet of the defensive midfielder or the right back. It’s worth noting that the weight of his passes were good – they got to his team-mates at a good speed which made it very hard for the opposition to intercept them. If I were to be very picky and critical, I’d say that some of his passes to the right back were right into his feet, which made progressing the play slightly harder than it could’ve been if he’d have played his passes in front of/to the back foot of the right back. This would allow the right back to push the ball into the space ahead and therefore progress the play more quickly and simply. The Dutchman was very safe in his passing and very rarely chose the incorrect passing option, however, he wasn’t afraid of playing a long switch of play off his left or right foot if needed. There were occasions where the opposite winger would be in space and he’d effortlessly spray the ball out towards him. His long passing was a clear case of ‘quality over quantity’.
His positional play within possession was very positive. I felt his positioning when his team-mates had the ball allowed him to always offer as a passing option. For example, when the goalkeeper had the ball he would push wide in order to create space in midfield or offer as an option out wide. He’d also leave his defensive line and step into midfield when one of the central midfielders were struggling to find a pass. These are very good signs for a player who’ll be seeing a lot of possession in a Frank Lampard system.
He also showcased his aerial ability from a corner while marking zonally (similarly to Chelsea for the majority of this season). He was stood just below the penalty spot and managed to beat the attacker who was making a late run into the box. This may seem like something very simple, but if you’re a Chelsea fan, you’d know this is something we’ve been dying for the last two seasons due to our set-piece defending being so poor.
Every player possesses their own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s no different with Xavier. There are clear weaknesses in his game that could be a result of his age and inexperience. I noticed early on in the game that he was always the first to a challenge, but would eventually lose the 50/50 due to not being firm enough in the tackle. I feel if he was stronger (or just slightly more confident) going into the challenge, he’d win the ball with ease, but, as mentioned, he’d often win the ball initially but end up losing out due to not being strong enough. This was the case on a few occasions and is a habit that could be costly in the Premier League if not improved (which I’m sure it will – we have to remember that he’s still 18 and has a long way to go in his development). Throughout the game, there were occasions where he’d attempt to dribble past attackers (if there was no passing option) and get caught out. It was clear that his body position when protecting the ball needs to improve as he came across as sloppy when attempting to dribble out of the defensive line. Once again, this fault in his game could be a result of his age and his team-mates not making a good enough effort to create a passing option.
As I said previously, his positional play in and out of possession was excellent, but on occasions Mbuyamba would get sucked out wide in order to help his right back. This could create space behind him near the box, but due to his centre back partners positioning and sweeping, it wasn’t a major issue.
From watching the full 90 minutes, it’s clear Xavier Mbuyamba is a player with a lot of promise and potential. Is the “new Van Dijk” label correct to use? No, because stylistically they’re not similar players at all. If Mbuyamba was to come into this Chelsea starting eleven, I’d play him alongside someone who has good sweeping ability and strong recovery pace to get the best out of his aggressive defensive nature. An Mbuyamba/Tomori or Zouma partnership would work best, based off what I’ve seen of the young Dutch prodigy.
In order to maximise the massive potential he has, Xavier must eliminate those weaknesses out of his game, which I’m sure is more than possible due to his age and current raw ability.
So, what do you think, Chelsea fans? Let us know on our Twitter and Instagram @TheChelseaSpot!