Chelsea don’t give out long-term contracts to players over the age of 30. At least that’s what we thought. With Roman Abramovich’s 19-year reign coming to an abrupt halt this summer, it seems that their may be a shift in transfer policy under the stewardship of the Boehly-Clearlake consortium.
The Londoner’s were once famous for a lack of sentimentality. Club legends John Terry and Frank Lampard were left waiting every season to find out whether their stay at Stamford Bridge would be extended by a year. Ashley Cole and David Luiz were disposed of in blunt fashion as their desire for long term deals could not be satisfied by the club. In fact, over the entirety of the Abramovich-era, only one outfielder seemed to break the one-year-contract-to-over-30s rule: Willian. The Brazilian finished the COVID-hit 2019/20 season in fine form, helping drag the Blues to a top-4 berth. His efforts were rewarded by a 2-year contract extension being placed on the table, only for Arsenal to tempt Willian away with the promise of an extra year on top of that…we all know how that turned out.
All of this brings Koulibaly’s rumoured 4-year contract into context. It could be deemed a risky move by new ownership, handing out lucrative deals to players the wrong side of 30 is widely considered dangerous. Years of clocking up 40+ games leads to player’s being more effected by little knocks as well as losing a yard of pace. However, with captain Azpilicueta potentially joining Rudiger and Christensen in the departures lounge at Heathrow this summer, it was important for the new owners to act decisively to shore up a thinning back-line. Many fans would have preferred it if the Senegalese centre back arrived when he was perennially linked with the Blues in the late-2010s (something the man himself commented on when arriving at his new club), however this is a story of better late than never. With a full pre-season ahead to get used to the demands of Tuchel’s new system, the £31 million signing could prove to be astute come the end of the season.
Koulibaly will bring experience, leadership and quality to Chelsea’s backline. The Senegalese defender is not an aggressive defender with insane tackles and interception numbers (averaging a combined 2.5 per 90 minutes of league action since 2020/21) but a high-level reader of the game in the ilk of Virgil Van Dijk (1.4 tackles and interceptions a game last term). The two are both 31 year of age and will both play a huge part in their respective side’s title aspirations next season, so long as they can both stay fit and healthy.
A glance at Koulibaly’s injury record could be a cause of concern for overly cautious Chelsea fans. The centre back missed a combined 19 league games through 6 separate muscles issues over the previous 3 seasons. The worry might be that with age these issue will only get worse, with each knock keeping him on the side-lines for a longer period than before. However, there is a perfect case study to quench any injury fears over Koulibaly in Thiago Silva. The timeless Brazilian himself missed 20 league games through 5 separate ailments between the ages of 28 and 31 (2013-2016). Since arriving at Stamford Bridge, however, the fan favourite has sat out of only 8 league matches (just 1 last season), despite edging closer to 40 years of age. The mixture of careful game management and world-class injury prevention staff have enabled Silva to play on at an incredibly high-level despite being previously labelled an injury-prone player. There is therefore reason for optimism when it comes to Koulibaly and his future at the club.
There are a couple of other factors working in Koulibaly’s favour when it comes to making a seamless transition to life in England. The African Cup of Nations Champion is confident speaking both English and French, which will help him communicate with a backline comprising of speakers of both the former (Chalobah, James, Chilwell) and latter (Mendy, Silva, Azpilicueta). He also has prior experience playing alongside Jorginho at Napoli, where the two were close, a relationship which could be vital when swiftly playing out of the back from centre back to tempo-setting holding midfielder – a vital part of Tuchel’s system.
Finally, this move could be looked back on as an exception not the rule in ten years’ time. Tuchel is under immediate pressure from new owners to demonstrate that he can close the gap on the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool. Chelsea’s demand for centre backs is huge and bringing in a world class defender for only £31 million who also offers the leadership – as captain of his national team – to offset that lost by the potential departure of Azpilicueta is a quick fix to what was becoming a huge issue. Now another one or two centre backs look set to follow Koulibaly through the door at Stamford Bridge, before potentially a new number 9 to replace the outgoing Lukaku. It is one thing purchasing a 31-year-old defender in a back three system which, as proved by Thiago Silva, does not require blistering pace to function. It is a whole other ball game to stock Tuchel’s midfield and attack with ageing talent, such as Ronaldo or Lewandowski, who would struggle to adapt to the aggressive counter-pressing demands of the system, the same issue that Lukaku was unable to solve last season.
Tuchel, who has a large part to play in recruitment until a director of football is found, will feel that the qualities that Koulibaly brings to West London outweigh the negatives of his age and injury record. For the first time in decades, Chelsea are putting their faith fully in a manager, in the style of Liverpool and Manchester City with Klopp and Guardiola respectively, believing this to be their best option at closing the gap on these two elite sides. The German manager has made a gamble in straying from the buying young players with huge sell-on potential model (Havertz, Pulisic, Hazard etc.) of the Abramovich era and now needs the results to justify him doing so. If all goes to plan, maybe seeing veterans of the game pitching up at Stamford Bridge on sizeable contracts may not be so rare in the future. Until then it’s up to Koulibaly to impress and show that age really is just a number.