Dutch Defensive Reinforcement would Demonstrate Chelsea Transfer Dominance: What Matthjis de Ligt Would Bring to Chelsea

A crucial cog in Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2018-19, Matthjis de Ligt announced himself to the football world with his dominant, mature performances in defence, captaining the Dutch side at just 19 years of age. Like many of his Ajax teammates, de Ligt went on to complete an expensive transfer away from Amsterdam, costing Juventus in the region of €75m for his services. Now 22, the centre half is rumoured to be on the move once again, with Thomas Tuchel keen to bring the 2018 Golden Boy winner to Stamford Bridge, as part of Chelsea’s defensive rebuild. Following the outgoings of Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen, this summer promises to be of mass importance for the Blues, but what would de Ligt bring to the squad, should he sign? 

Stylistically, de Ligt has traits that both Rudiger and Christensen demonstrate, making him a perfect replacement in Tuchel’s back three. In the Serie A last season, the Dutchman averaged 2.9 aerial duels won per game, which is over one more per game than Rudiger. As well as this, de Ligt chipped in with three goals from set piece situations, the same number as the Real Madrid-bound defender. Much like Rudiger, de Ligt’s defensive style is very aggressive, as he looks to smother attackers, not allowing them time on the ball. This trait will help Chelsea to replace the edge that Rudiger brought to the team, and that has been present in every successful Chelsea side of the Premier League era.  

Antonio Rudiger leaves big shoes to fill after five years at Stamford Bridge (Pic: Анна Мейер https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Although a frustrating figure among some sections of Chelsea supporters throughout his tenure at Stamford Bridge, Christensen’s contribution to the club cannot be undervalued, playing a pivotal role in winning the Champions League in 2021, including a monstrous performance off the bench against Manchester City in the final. The 26-year-old is another who has departed the Blues this summer, with a move to Barcelona being heavily rumoured. One of the Dane’s greatest strengths was his ability on the ball, displaying a calm eagerness to play out from the back, an aptness which de Ligt will have to replicate if he is brought to West London. The former Ajax man averaged 2.76 progressive ball carries per 90 during the 2021-22 season, as well as 1.58 progressive passes per 90, statistics which Tuchel will look to build on should de Ligt transfer to the club.  

One of the principal qualities that rose de Ligt to stardom is his leadership, which saw him claim the captain’s armband at Ajax aged 19. As Chelsea look to the future, with players such as Mason Mount, Reece James and Kai Havertz emerging as star players, adding a young player with a big personality to the back line is crucial to the spine they need to build. Alongside the vastly experienced Thiago Silva, de Ligt can continue his development both as a defender and mentally, with Silva possessing desirable leadership qualities in his own right.  

Signing one of the most sought-after young defenders of the past decade would not only prove to be a huge statement signing under the new Todd Boehly-led regime, but it would also open up possibilities in terms of team selection for Tuchel. While tending to favour a more defensively compact 3-4-3, fans and pundits alike have pondered over whether the German coach may look to implement a four-at-the-back system more regularly, having experimented with the possibility sporadically last season. However, before making the switch, it is vital that the powers that be at Chelsea Football Club address the midfield, in particular by bringing in a natural defensive midfielder, a position that has been neglected since the sale of Nemanja Matic in 2017.  

Featured image: Anton Zaitsev https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en

Champions of Europe vs National League leaders: Chelsea vs Chesterfield FA Cup Preview

By Luke Feather

Every season, the FA Cup conjures up some of the biggest mismatches possible within the English football pyramid. Last season’s campaign saw Chelsea defeat lower league opposition three times on route to the final, before being stopped by Leicester City in the final. The third round of this season’s competition provides a totally different match up for the champions of Europe, as they host National League leaders Chesterfield at Stamford Bridge.  

Chesterfield primarily operate in different variants of a 3-4-3 formation, with manager James Rowe switching between two number 10’s behind top scorer Kabongo Tshimanga, or just one, with another striker in the side. Tshimanga has lit up the National League this season, scoring 18 goals in 20 league matches this season. The 24-year-old has been the subject of interest for Football League clubs, after joining Chesterfield for a reported record transfer fee in the summer. 

Wing backs Jeff King and Calvin Miller will look to provide attacking threat for the Spireites, with the pair impressing since signing in the summer. With Chelsea stretched in the wide areas due to injuries to Ben Chilwell and Reece James, this may be Chesterfield’s biggest opportunity to cause a major FA Cup shock. Youngsters Xavier Simons and Lewis Hall are in line for a start, so will be given the task of dealing with two of the National League outfit’s biggest weapons. 

After returning to the team against Tottenham on Wednesday, striker Romelu Lukaku may keep his place in the side, with Thomas Tuchel looking to get his £100m man firing again. If so, he will likely be in a direct battle with Gavin Gunning, who captains the side and is a guaranteed starter when fit. Gunning spent a period side-lined due to injury, with Jamie Grimes coming in in his place. A more likely starter for Chelsea would be Jude Soonsup-Bell, who has recently started in attack in the League Cup game against Brentford, with the 17-year-old shining for the Blues’ youth sides.  

I expect Chelsea to start with Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield, with Barkley in particular struggling for game time in bigger fixtures. Loftus-Cheek made a cameo appearance against Tottenham, as he continues to build back up to full fitness, so may be given a start against Chesterfield. The away side have a few options in the centre of the pitch, but veteran Curtis Weston and Manny Oyeleke are probably the most likely to start at the Bridge. Weston remains the youngest player to appear in an FA Cup final, for Millwall in 2004, and Oyeleke is a former Chelsea academy player, being released at 14.  

Image: Sky Sports

As the champions of Europe, currently sitting second in the Premier League, Chelsea will go into this match as massive favourites, but whoever Tuchel picks for in his starting 11 will not have a comfortable game on their hands. Chesterfield will be chomping at the bit from minute one, as for many of the players, this will be the biggest match of their careers. Chelsea will have a technical advantage, as well as superior fitness levels, but the club from Derbyshire will look to frustrate and disrupt the rhythm of Chelsea, with strong challenges and intense pressing. All the signs point towards a home win, but Chesterfield will not lie down for the Champions League winners, making this one of the most intriguing ties of the FA Cup third round.  

Predicted Chelsea line up: 
Marcus Bettinelli; Cesar Azpilicueta, Xavier Mbuyamba, Malang Sarr; Xavier Simons, Ross Barkley, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Hall; Harvey Vale, Jude Soonsup-Bell, Callum Hudson-Odoi (3-4-3) 

Predicted Chesterfield line up: 
Scott Loach; Fraser Kerr, Gavin Gunning, Alex Whittle; Jeff King, Manny Oyeleke, Curtis Weston, Calvin Miller; Saidou Khan, Liam Mandeville; Kabongo Tshimanga (3-4-2-1) 

Featured image: The FA

Tinkering Tuchel: How Chelsea’s Tactics Could Vary In The 2021-22 Season

When appointed Chelsea manager in January, much was made of the tactical versatility of Thomas Tuchel’s previous sides. Whilst in the Paris Saint-Germain hot seat, Tuchel tinkered with more than 10 different systems, ranging from an attacking 4-2-3-1 to a more defensively solid 3-5-2. Already during pre-season we have seen the Blues experiment with several formations, venturing away from the 3-4-3 variants that proved so reliable in the second half of the 2020-21 campaign. With the expected addition of Romelu Lukaku to our already stacked array of attacking assets, questions are being raised as to how the champions of Europe will line up come the start of the season. 

The tried and tested 3-4-3

Having just won the Champions League with this system, there is no immediate desperation to deviate from the 3-4-3. Made popular by Antonio Conte in 2016, Tuchel also saw this shape as his primary tactic, achieving great success with it. The fluidity of the attackers that occupied the front three positions last season allowed for a number of different options within these attacking areas: two strikers and one number 10, two wingers and a striker, or two number 10’s behind a main striker.  

The beauty of this shape is that it offers you the defensive structure necessary while still pressurising the opposition and fielding enough attacking threat to cause problems. With the imminent arrival of Lukaku, we could either opt to partner him with either Timo Werner or Kai Havertz, both of whom offer different strengths, or Tuchel may choose to play two supporting players in behind the Belgian, where the likes of Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech come into the conversation. Alternatively, there is also the option to deploy two more natural wingers, with Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi providing more of a threat in one-on-one situations down the flanks.  

An obvious drawback with this set-up is that the inclusion of an extra centre back takes away the potential for a different attacking option, that may allow for another creative midfielder. Chelsea are yet to score more than two goals in a game under Tuchel and as some of the smaller sides in the division are more likely to try and frustrate us, having five defenders on the pitch at the expense of another creative player made be detrimental.  

The high-press 4-2-2-2 

One of the more uncommon and unorthodox formations that Thomas Tuchel has made use of in the past is the 4-2-2-2. Using Neymar and Angel Di Maria as roaming playmakers at PSG, this tactic focussed on creating chances for the prolific Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani, while the midfield two required tenacity and dynamism, with the likes of Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera in the squad. This system would see the Blues switch to a back four for the first time under Tuchel, thus placing more defensive responsibility upon the clubs’ centre backs.  

If this particular shape is to be implemented at Stamford Bridge this season, then there is perhaps no greater midfield pair than Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante. Our Croatian is arguably one of the best around in terms of ball retention, offering a bridge between defence and attack in the transition. Kante’s role within the team is undisputed, with the Frenchman’s’ dominating performances at the back end of last season receiving shouts for a potential Ballon d’Or win. 

In terms of the two attacking midfielders in this team, in order to most accurately replicate the PSG variant under Tuchel, Mount and Ziyech would probably be the two providing the killer passes for the strikers. One potential downside to this would be the lack of pace and direct running at defenders, with the two more likely to operate as inside forwards. While the full backs, probably Reece James and Ben Chilwell, would go some way to providing width to the attack, there would be added pressure on the pair to have the athleticism to get back quickly if required, due to the removal of a centre back. While this system would introduce more of a creative spark, the balance and width of the side may be unsettled, making it more of a risk than a guaranteed success.  

4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and how they would work in tandem 

Last deployed by Frank Lampard, the 4-3-3 has increased in popularity and success in recent years, with the last two Premier League winning sides favouring the system. While Liverpool’s midfield three consisted of two hard working, box-to-box midfielders in front of the holding Fabinho, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have often lined up with two creative players in front of Fernandinho or Rodri, with former Chelsea player Kevin De Bruyne conducting much of the play. However, the Blues boss Tuchel has shown characteristics of both Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp in the past, insisting on a determined but crisp attacking style, that blends the ‘gegenpress’ with positional play.  

In a Chelsea context, the holding midfielder would likely be Jorginho, who has enjoyed a dramatic upturn in form since the arrival of our German head coach. Fresh off the back of a starring role in Italy’s Euro 2020 win, the 29-year-old will be keen to continue his impressive run by dictating the play at Stamford Bridge once again. It goes without saying that Kante will retain his place in midfield, but where this system differs from those at Anfield and the Etihad Stadium is the third midfielder. After such an impressive season last year, you would have to believe that Mason Mount is a shoo-in to be the third man, blurring the lines between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. We saw Mount perform a similar role in the opening games at the European Championships for England, in that he will drop deep to receive the ball, before driving forward and helping to create chances, or feed the ball out wide. I believe this set-up favours more natural wingers, which would see the likes of Werner and Havertz miss out. 

And that may be the biggest downfall to this system should it be called upon at the Bridge. Despite not hitting the ground running last term, our German duo are two of the most likely sources of goals in the whole squad, both boasting impressive records in the Bundesliga before moving to London. This line up may place too much pressure on Lukaku (should he join) to provide the majority of our goals, with the likes of Pulisic, Mount and Hudson-Odoi not yet showing their prolific goal scoring potential. If this tactic is to thrive, these three would have to increase their goal contributions significantly.  

Written by Luke Feather