From the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London giants Chelsea football club have never been shy to splashing the cash when it comes to their playing squad. Former Irish winger Damien Duff began the financial revolution back in 2003 after signing from Blackburn for a whopping £17 million,(which according to a study done by Paul Tomkins of the Transfer Price Index, would be equivalent to a mind boggling £93m in todays market). Since that time, the blues have broken their own record a modest ten times, spending a reported £555m in doing so.
To sign sought after midfielder Enzo Fernandez, Benfica president Rui Costa gave Chelsea co-owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali a solution, they must pay the release clause in January or the deal would be off. Thing’s seemed to go quiet before Chelsea reportedly spent 12 hours negotiating on deadline day to finally get their hands on the world cup winner, spending £106m and smashing the British transfer record in the process.
Fernandez may have cost a small fortune but his time at Benfica showed exactly what Chelsea have been missing in the middle of the park. In Jorginho the blues had a player with elite passing qualities but was occasionally let down by his speed and strength against aggressive opponents. Compare this to Fernandez’s time at Benfica and Chelsea so far, the London club have quite the upgrade. His exceptional athleticism and passing when deployed in the regista at Benfica (a player who doesn’t have a refined position in possession but offers a passing option across the pitch) or at Chelsea in the lone six, double six or number eight role means that it seems all Fernandez needs is a partner in the middle of the pitch to compliment his play.
As you can see from this demonstration above, Graham Potter likes to set Chelsea up to attack in either a 3-1-3-3 or a 2-3-5. The 2-3-5 is a similar system setup to Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal where either full back can invert into the midfield while the other goes forward to complete a fluid attacking line. Both systems give Fernandez space to roam and find new signings Mykhailo Mudryk, Noni Madueke and Joao Felix.
At 21, Fernandez is a complete ball magnet who in the number eight role can influence the game offering a devastating range of unique passing options to progress the team up the pitch. When in the final third, Fernandez can use his formidable ball striking to pick out those quick passes to the forwards, or delicate crosses into the box and in behind the lines. Join this with his impressive defensive abilities and Chelsea might just have the next elite eight on their books.
But the question is who should partner him? For the purposes of this article we will be excluding Chelsea’s current midfield options and looking for a natural number six to partner the record signing. Ngolo Kante is a player who on paper would compliment Fernandez but given his injury record and age, it seems natural that Chelsea will be looking at replacements in the summer.
To get better knowledge of what Fernandez needs to flourish we must study his partner at Benfica, Portuguese midfielder Florentino. At Benfica, Florentino would sit next to Fernandez in a 4-2-3-1 playing the anchor or number six role.
Roger Schmidt usually deployed Florentino just deeper than Fernandez and with a difference of just 45 minutes between them this season in Liga Nos, the statistics show Florentino had 3.26 tackles to Fernandez’s 2.59 per 90. He also topped the Argentinian in interceptions, clearances and both aerial and ground duels won. Florentino is an adept ball playing midfielder but struggles with progressively carrying the ball, only managing 0.43 carries per 90.
What Chelsea are really looking for is a player who can do this defensive work to a high standard but as the play progresses through the midfield someone who can become the anchor in possession, recycling the ball and slotting in as a progressive ball carrying and passing six in Potter’s favoured 3-1-3-3 or 2-3-5 attacking formation. This gets the best out of Fernandez allowing him to go forward and make third man runs in and around the box while utilising his range of passing.
Florentino likely isn’t an option this summer as signing two midfielders from the same club is rare, but expect him to be on some big clubs radars this summer.
Firstly, Declan Rice.
For West Ham United Rice has excelled in the centre of midfield over a six year period that has seen the hammers reach a European final and achieve an excellent string of top half finishes. He is a leader on and off the pitch and has also played a crucial role in Gareth Southgate’s England setup. Rice has usually lined up alongside Lucas Paqueta this season in a 3-4-3 for West Ham, sitting deep and allowing his Brazilian teammate the freedom to play in a more advanced role just like Fernandez.
Defensive duties aren’t a problem for Rice. The hammers captain has cleared over 440 tackles in his West Ham career so far and this season currently has an admirable 65.4% tackle success rate. In the 2021/22 season, Rice averaged 1.78 interceptions and was only dispossessed 0.57 times per 90 respectively.
It’s clear that the 24-year old England international has the necessary defensive bravado Chelsea need in a number six, but what separates him from the rest?
Rice can offer Chelsea the quick dynamism needed to move the ball up the pitch which reflects in his progressive ball carries per 90. Beginning with 3.0 in his maiden season and gradually increasing these carries each term, Rice finished the most recent 2021-22 campaign with 6.9, ranking him in the 96th percentile and showing a major improvement at still such an early point in his career.
Rice also ranks in the 90th percentile or above for crosses into the penalty area, interceptions and medium and short-range passing accuracy. So far in the 2022/2023 Premier League season, Rice has a pass completion rate of 87.6%, which is rather impressive considering his average of 53.5 per 90. His 164 progressive passes so far this season haven’t gone unnoticed either, indicating his potential to create chances for his teammates and move the ball into the attacking third.
Rice would compliment Fernandez perfectly, allowing Chelsea’s record signing to excel in the number eight role. His defensive qualities and ability to carry the ball up the pitch is just what Chelsea are missing. And with 190 Premier League appearances already under his belt, he won’t need time to adapt.
Secondly, Edson Alvarez.
The Mexican midfielder was almost the subject of a £43 million switch to Chelsea before a deal collapsed at the end of last summer.
Alvarez has shown his talent in a singular six role with Ajax this season, but has also played at left back and centre back this season. Although Chelsea do have a big squad, injuries can hit at any time and such versatility is a quality not all possess.
As it is regularly known that Graham Potter likes to change formations. Alvarez’s aptness to play as a lone six could offer Chelsea something different. With Alvarez at the base of the midfield, manager Potter could potentially experiment with another number eight alongside Fernandez in a midfield three. This could be the system to get the best out of players like Mason Mount, Conor Gallagher and Brazilian wonder-kid Andrey Santos.
Alvarez’s 70% tackle rate and 56.5% successful take on attempts both narrowly beat Rice’s and prove Alvarez isn’t a player to be ignored. With Chelsea managing to agree on a modest fee last year, the midfielder could be purchased for a relatively good price in todays market.
However, players such as Donny Van De Beek, Hakim Ziyech and more recently Antony have shown the transition from the Eredivisie can be difficult.Embed from Getty Images
Thirdly, Kouadio Kone.
Kouadio Kone is considered a promising young talent in football due to his technical prowess, athleticism, and jack of all trades arsenal. Kone is gifted on the ball, comfortable progressing up the pitch and can break defensive lines with his excellent vision.
He began his youth career at the famous Clairefontaine academy and later joined the youth ranks at Toulouse, where he made his professional debut in 2020. He is comfortable in a variety of positions and is known to be multilingual and speak several languages fluently, including French, Spanish, and Portuguese. In an interview with L’Équipe, Kone spoke about his love for languages and how he enjoys learning new ones.
The Frenchman isn’t just all about ability and technique as his stats show he ranks second for tackles in the Bundesliga this season, with a 62.6% success rate.
Club Borussia Mönchengladbach have had an up and down season under former Norwich City manager Daniel Farke so far, sitting eighth in the table.
Despite this, The Foals were 3-2 winners over leaders Bayern Munich last week and Kone had a major impact on proceedings.
When studying the stats above, you can see why Kone would really fit the bill at Chelsea. Still just 21 years of age, he dominated an internationally established midfield three of Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Ryan Gravenberch picking up a 100% successful dribble rate along the way.
Chelsea have been crying out for a player with no fear, someone who is willing to take risks while being able to defend comfortably and Kone might just be the full package. Monchengladbach fans have given him the nickname “Manu Magic” referencing Kone’s capability to make things happen on the pitch and his energetic and lively playing style.Embed from Getty Images
Perhaps an unexpected entrance on this list, Rodri is here depending on Manchester City’s financial fair play findings. Although unlikely, if City were to be found guilty of breaching FFP and removed from the league most players would be available in the summer.
At City, Rodri’s ability to break up opposition attacks, win aerial duels, and distribute the ball with accuracy and composure make him an excellent fit for Chelsea’s project. He is often tasked with controlling the tempo of the game and starting attacks from deep positions, linking up with the forwards and creating chances for his teammates.Embed from Getty Images
Rodri is strong in defensive duels, with a 65.8% success rate. He also won an average of 3.7 aerial duels per game, adding an extra dominant presence from corners, set pieces and in the middle of the park.
Rodri’s passing accuracy in the Premier League for the 2021/22 season was 93.2%, which is higher than the league average of 82.3%. He completed an average of 80.8 passes per game with a success rate of 91.4%. The Spaniard is also adept at playing long balls, completing an average of 5.8 long passes per game.
Rodri would be the perfect anchor, letting Fernandez flourish in a number eight role while the two-time premier league winner secures the midfield. His incredible passing range and accuracy would allow Chelsea to be even more expansive in their play. Sadly, this move is more dream than reality in the current climate.
Lastly, Joao Palhinha.
High flying Fulham currently sit sixth in the Premier league table, one better than their best ever finish back in the 2008/09 season. Owner Tony Khan spent just over £72.9m on the playing squad last summer, and it’s hard to say who hasn’t contributed from the new additions.
The most expensive of all of these was Joao Palhinha, a 27-year-old extremely powerful ball winning midfielder who was acquired from Sporting Lisbon for £17.2m. Palhinha has been at the heart of Fulham’s aggressive midfield this season, shown in his 4.32 tackles per 90.
The Portuguese midfielder has proven how progressive passing and carries aren’t necessary in his no-nonsense defensive partnership with Harrison Reed in Marco Silva’s 4-2-3-1 setup. Palhinha and Reed leave Fulham’s forwards to create the chances, breaking up the play and feeding the attacking line when recovering the ball. Despite this, Palihinha has scored three times this season. The most notable of those coming against Nottingham Forest.Embed from Getty Images
However Palhinha has only averaged 47 touches per game this season, and with his low 80% pass completion may struggle in a possession dominating side like Chelsea. Being 27, he may also be slightly older than the profile Chelsea seek.
Over to you, Todd Boehly.
(Sources for stats: FBref, OPTA.)