How Chelsea can survive without their star wing-backs

The day after it was announced that Ben Chilwell would be out for the rest of the season due to having to undergo surgery on an anterior cruciate ligament injury, Reece James picked up what looked like a nasty hamstring injury in action against Brighton. The pair of wing-backs are instrumental to Thomas Tuchel’s side and even more so this season, having contributed a whopping 15 goals and assists between them so far, but the Blues will have to do without them for the foreseeable future (the length of James’ absence is yet to be determined). So, how might they be able to manage it without too much of a drop in quality?

The truth is that Chilwell’s absence alone has been a big factor in Chelsea’s recent struggles. Regardless of James’ injury, Chelsea will have certainly been considering potential January plans to put in place to at least in part replace what Chilwell brings to the team, because it does not exist in the skillsets of the players currently at the club. Although Marcos Alonso has been a wing-back specialist in the past, he is not what he used to be in terms of quality and his lax style does not suit the way Tuchel has Chelsea playing. Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi have both occasionally been trialled at left wing-back, but their right-footedness makes it an awkward fit and both are more comfortable playing further forward anyway. Saúl Ñíguez has played there earlier in his career, though he has been very poor overall for Chelsea so far, and Reece James was trialled there as an option against Brighton before being halted by injury 27 minutes in. 

As a result, Chelsea need a new player in the squad capable of playing as a Tuchel left-wing-back if they want to maintain their standards as a title-chasing side. There are a few options, perhaps the most shrewd being to recall Ian Maatsen, who is excelling on loan at Coventry City in a very similar shape and style to the one Tuchel is currently employing. The 19-year-old took a considerable step up this season from his previous loan at League One Charlton Athletic, but he has looked more than at home in the Championship play-off race. His playing style is not immediately similar to Chilwell’s, but he does offer quite a few of the things that Chelsea have so sorely been missing in the England international’s absence: dynamism, high intensity running, and strong attacking thrust. 

There is certainly a point to be made about letting Maatsen stay on his natural development path – he is doing excellently and projects well for the future as a potential Chelsea player – but sometimes in football, and especially with young players at clubs where it can be hard to break through, it’s worth taking a risk on potential openings like these. Whether he’d actually get a decent amount of minutes is certainly in question: Pulisic, Hudson-Odoi and Saúl will probably continue to be sporadically used as left wing-backs. If Maatsen doesn’t see the pitch much, though – or, indeed, looks out of his depth and plays badly – he would still have a good track record for his time in the EFL and half a season of inaction would not set him back much. 

The ideal situation would be one in which Maatsen begins as firmly the second choice at left wing-back after Alonso and comes on for him towards the ends of games – Tuchel has regularly brought off the Spaniard in place of some of the aforementioned other options around the seventieth minute since the start of Chilwell’s unavailability. Maatsen can then also start games when Alonso needs rotating, which means that there is little scope for him to look massively out of place. If, though, he excels in those opportunities – and there is ample reason to believe he might, given how well he took the step up from Charlton to Coventry, performing better at the higher level – then there is the option of increasing his involvement to regular starter. 

The other main options consist of bringing in a new signing on a permanent basis, which does not seem like a wise idea and is bound to cause problems once Chilwell is eventually back fit. It seems a better plan to bring in someone who is, at least ostensibly, a back-up to Alonso rather than a replacement. 

As for the options on the right, it makes more sense to look within the squad: Azpilicueta has looked increasingly poor with time, but mainly as a centre-back, and it seems ideal for the majority of his minutes going forward to be at wing-back. As well as this, Christian Pulisic has often struggled in the front three; while he has seen many minutes recently, that is largely because of many attackers being unavailable through either COVID-19 or injury. Once they are back – and they nearly all are – he will struggle for opportunities in the front three, and he may end up performing better as a right wing-back anyway. In any case, he offers something different to Reece James, the body position and initial intentions with which he receives the ball potentially being of use to Thomas Tuchel.

It is bound to be a struggle for Chelsea and Tuchel to power through this period as if nothing has happened, but there are options available to them to mitigate the blow. Who knows, some of the choices they take could even prove to be profitable in the long term from both a footballing and financial perspective.

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