Where Chelsea stand : Centre Backs (Part 2)
In the first part of this series, I profiled all of Chelsea’s goalkeepers, and concluded that we need one more goalkeeper this summer as a backup to Petr Cech, and Alphonse Aréola is my preference. Today, I’m looking at the centre of defence.
Centre backs* currently on Chelsea’s books: John Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz, Nathaniel Chalobah, Jeffrey Bruma, Kenneth Omeruo, Tomas Kalas, Nathan Ake, Andreas Christensen, Alex Davey, Daniel Pappoe, Archange Nkumu, Jordan Houghton, Dion Conroy, Jonathan Muleba, Ali Suljic, Fankaty Dabo
*Luiz, Chalobah, Bruma and Ake can play holding midfield; Ivanovic, Kalas and Omeruo can play right back.
Okay, so that’s 20 centre backs, which is a stupid amount. So let’s assess who actually has a realistic chance of making an impression on the Chelsea first team.
Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic and Luiz have been Chelsea’s four staple centre backs, and they’ve done reasonably well. Luiz and Ivanovic have had their brain-farts, Terry lacks pace and Cahill’s positioning has been suspect, but by and large we can be quite happy. They’ll all be here next season, and I’d imagine that Luiz-Cahill would be our first choice partnership, if we don’t buy anyone. JT’s lack of pace is becoming more and more evident, and Brana is probably a better right-back. Luiz is also not a natural centre-back for me; I think he’s more comfortable in central midfield. Cahill is probably the only nailed-on first choice, but all four will get a good amount of game-time next season. Luiz and Cahill are both under contract until 2017, Ivanovic to 2016 and Terry to 2014, when they will be 30, 31, 32 and 33 respectively.
My guess is that Terry will be given the Ashley Cole treatment; we’ll hear speculation about his future for the early part of next season, but he will eventually be given an extension to his contract. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that contract is one of player-coach. He’s said that he wants to take up a coaching role at Chelsea in the future, and eventually that of manager. Assistant manager could be a logical step; the perfect scenario for me is Jose Mourinho as manager next season, appoints his assistant manager for next season (personally I’d like Ray Wilkins back) and JT takes over from Wilkins at the start of 2014-15. When Jose calls it a day, JT will take over (this is an ideal world).
Ivanovic, Luiz and Cahill are all in a similar boat; they’ve all got good-length contracts at present that will take them into their early 30s. I imagine that they’ll all slowly run their contracts down, and then get given an extra year’s extension in the final year. For now, nothing to worry about.
Nat Chalobah, Nathan Ake and Jeffrey Bruma are in the David Luiz boat of versatile centre-backs/central midfielders. Chalobah has seemingly found his natural habitat in the centre of Watford’s midfield, where he’s had an outstanding season, and has been influential in Watford’s rise to a current automatic promotion place. He’s been so good in midfield that many people are talking about him as a Chelsea starter in the near future, and even the long-term replacement for Frank Lampard. But let’s not forget that centre-back is where he started, and where he may well find himself in the future. If we get Champions League qualification (likely) and Watford get promoted to the Premier League (likely) I’d want him to stay at Watford next season, and buy an elite central midfielder to walk straight into the first team, and a centre-back to cover for our best four.
Jeffrey Bruma has had a stop-start season at Hamburg, making a disappointing 7 starts and 7 substitute appearances in the Bundesliga this year. He’s found himself played at centre-back, both full-backs and defensive midfield due to Michael Mancienne (remember him?) and Heiko Westermann, and sometimes Slobodan Rajkovic (remember him?) being ahead of him in the HSV pecking order. Sending Bruma to Hamburg this season was probably a bad choice; Vitesse might have been a better option. Nevertheless, he’s got 4 caps for the Dutch national team aged 21, which shouldn’t be overlooked. I wouldn’t loan him out again next season, he’s got enough experience to fight for his place, and his versatility should work in his favour.
Nathan Ake is another one who has switched from centre-back to the pivot this season quite successfully. He progressed well in his first year at Chelsea, starting predominantly on the left after joining Chelsea from Feyenoord in 2011. He switched to centre-half last season, where his ability on the ball made him stand out as an exciting prospect, although his lack of height (5ft 11) led to concerns that he might not be big enough to ever be a Premier League centre-back. Those fears now seem non-existent, as he made the transition into the pivot midway through this season in the U21s, made his debut as a late substitute for Juan Mata on Boxing Day against Norwich, and his first start in the FA Cup against Middlesbrough last week. It’s hard to learn much about a player in youth games, as the quality just isn’t there, but he was brilliant against Middlesbrough. Partnered with Ramires in the pivot, his sensible, disciplined passing coupled with the energy of Ramires led to a very well-balanced midfield that controlled the game very efficiently. At the moment, I’d consider him primarily a holding midfielder, but his ability to play in the centre and on the left of defence will certainly help him get more minutes on the pitch, either at Chelsea or on loan. At the moment, Ake can compete for some first-team minutes against lower-end Premier League teams and easy cup ties e.g. Steaua Bucharest. But given that we will probably be buying a new top-class central midfielder, I’d be happier loaning him out again. A top-end Championship club or Vitesse Arnhem would be most likely.
The slightly concerning thing about our three young centre-backs/holding midfielders is that they are all out of contract next season. We really don’t want to lose Chalobah or Ake, and while losing Bruma wouldn’t be the end of the world, he’s a talented young player who is worth keeping. But I am quite confident that they will all agree extensions in the next year.
We’ve also got a nice pair of young centre/right-backs, Tomas Kalas and Kenneth Omeruo, who have had very successful seasons on loan in Holland, Kalas at Vitesse and Omeruo at ADO Den Haag. Before this season, both players were solid, talented young centre-backs, good prospects but with seemingly little chance of ever making Chelsea’s first-team. That has changed for both with the switch to right-back. Kalas, teaming up with fellow Chelsea loanees Patrick van Aanholt and Gael Kakuta, has been ever-present for Vitesse as they currently hold third place, just 3 points off a Champions League place. Right-back has brought out the best of Kalas’s physical attributes, and his previously unseen crossing ability has also proven to be excellent. But this is this first season that Kalas has ever played on the right, so there’s a good chance that he’ll rediscover himself as a centre-back in the future.
Omeruo has mainly played right-back for his club this season, where he has been a regular, helping ADO to a Europa League qualification spot with his superb athleticism and stamina. But it was at the recent Africa Cup of Nations where he truly excelled. When injuries gave young Kenneth his chance to shine in the first game he took it with both hands, playing tremendously at centre-back all throughout the tournament. His most impressive game was probably the quarter-final against the all-star Ivory Coast, when he kept Didier Drogba in his back pocket with apparent ease. While right-back has been his regular position this season, I think centre-back is where he’ll end up. He was so good at centre-back in South Africa that there’s been talk of Chelsea bringing him straight into the first-team setup next season. He’s under contract until 2017, so we have a seriously talented player on our books, long-term.
Our current U21 centre-back pairing is Andreas Christensen and Alex Davey, and both have had good seasons, Christensen especially. Aged only 16, Christensen has been a regular fixture in the starting 11, and the cultured Dane has showed all the makings of a young John Terry with his strength, bravery and accurate passing. 18-year-old Davey has also played well for Chelsea and Scotland U21s, proving himself to be an excellent tackler and very comfortable on the ball. Both clearly have the potential to make Chelsea’s first team, but they’ll new a couple of loans first.
From our other young centre-backs, Ali Suljic looks like the best prospect, and we clearly desperate to sign him, if his club is to be believed. I can see a very bright future for him at the club. Jordan Houghton also shows plenty of promise, and plenty of passion. He is a natural leader, and doing a very good job as captain of the U18s. I see fewer opportunities for Conroy, Pappoe, Muleba, Nkumu and Dabo, but all of them have time very much on their side. It wouldn’t shock me to see Conroy or Muleba in the first team squad in a few years’ time.
So for next year, it looks like Terry, Cahill, Luiz and Ivanovic will continue to be our main centre-backs, provided we don’t buy anyone. I’d also guess that one of Chalobah, Bruma and Ake will be in the squad, plus either Omeruo or Kalas. My guess is that it will be Bruma and Omeruo, again presuming that we won’t make any signings.
Even if we do choose to keep six centre-backs at Stamford Bridge next season, only two of those (Terry and Cahill) are out-and-out central defenders. Which makes me think that one extra centre-back next season would be no bad thing. The ideal pairing is always a combination of one ball-playing centre-half and one absolute rock; Carvalho-Terry and Ferdinand-Vidic are good examples. So let’s look at what we’ve got. Terry and Cahill would fall into the “rock” category; David Luiz is a ball-player. Ivanovic is also a rock, though he does bring the ball out of defence very well. Omeruo is definitely a rock; Bruma is a ball-player. So if we want a centre-back, we should be looking for someone who brings the ball out of defence, delivers accurate long passes, reads the game well and has good pace.
The stand-out candidate is Mats Hummels. The 24-year-old German has been simply exceptional for several seasons now, establishing himself as one of the best defenders in Europe and in world football. Tackles, interceptions, positioning, long passes, pace, strength, composure, Hummels has everything. A Hummels-Terry partnership would be heavenly and would probably solve any defensive problem that we have. The difficulty would be luring him. Dortmund have no reason to sell, and as Hummels is one of the world’s best, they’ll demand top dollar for his services. Hummels is nicely settled at one of Europe’s top clubs, and is one half of possibly the best central defence in the world. But Dortmund can’t win the league, are out of the German Cup, and only have the Champions League left to play for. You could argue that Chelsea are in a worse predicament than Borussia Dortmund, and you would be right. But we can put together a financial package that Dortmund cannot match, and if we are in the Champions League next season I think Hummels would be open to the prospect of a move to Chelsea. If £12m was enough for United to get Kagawa, a bid of £25m should tempt Dortmund to sell. And that would be money very well spent.
If Dortmund refuse to do business, which is very possible, there is certainly a wide range of alternatives on the market. Continuing with Chelsea’s recent policy of buying up-and-coming youngsters, I’d be looking at Raphael Varane, Marquinhos, Kurt Zouma, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Jores Okore.
OK, it’s hard to call Varane and Papadopoulos “up-and-coming” because they are very much established as outstanding defenders. And either of them would be a fantastic signing for any club, anywhere. Varane in particular has caught my eye this season; he’s probably been Real Madrid’s best defender this season, aged 19. He has great pace and tackling ability, and wins every ball in the air. He is more “rock” than ball-player, but he can certainly pass the ball. Sadly though, Madrid have no good reason to sell. But if Mourinho arrives at the Bridge, which looks very much on the cards, Varane might be very tempted by an offer. It’s Jose that has kick-started Varane’s career, and I’m sure that the two have a very good relationship. This season, Jose has trusted Varane to the extent that the French teenager has become one of the first names on Madrid’s team sheet. If Mourinho arrives at SW6 in the summer, don’t be surprised to see him try to get Raphael Varane. And if he does, Varane could well be a Chelsea player in around five months’ time.
Kyriakos Papadopoulos is a similarly terrific prospect, and has been linked with most of Europe’s top clubs in the last few years on a fairly consistent basis; Man United, Barcelona and Chelsea have all reportedly tried and failed to add the 21-year-old Greek. At 6ft tall, Papadopoulos isn’t a giant, but he never loses a header and is one of the strongest players in Europe. He also isn’t the quickest defender, but he very disciplined and composed. With his brilliant tackling, he has all the makings of a young JT A £16m bid should be enough, on the basis that Zenit had that bid accepted last summer, but Papadopoulos chose to stay in Germany.
As with Varane, AS Roma’s Marquinhos an already an elite talent that is starting every game despite not being out of his teenage years. Aged just 18, Marquinhos has probably been the best defender in Serie A this season. Marquinhos is another one who isn’t huge, also 6ft, but has excellent pace, and much like Papadopoulos he is an outstanding tackler. To the extent that he has a 92% tackle success rate this season. At any level of football that is a fantastic statistic, but to do it in your first season of top-level football at 18 is staggering. Chelsea were linked with a £25m move for Marquinhos in January, which is certainly no rip-off. I’d be delighted to see Marquinhos in blue next season, and I think the player himself would be more than willing to come to Chelsea, with our ever-growing raft of Brazilians, the London location and guarantee of success. The only problem is that every other big club in Europe will be trying to sign Marquinhos, and no wonder. It looks quite likely that Marquinhos will be on his way out of Roma this summer, because they are looking very unlikely to be playing European football of any description, and there’ll be no shortage of takers.
Kurt Zouma is another 18-year old who has established himself as first choice centre-back at his club. During the summer, the Saint-Etienne youngster was linked with moves to Arsenal, Chelsea, QPR and Man United, but nothing came of the speculation. Zouma is a big, strong young man, never out-muscled and rarely outrun; he is solidity itself. Although Zouma recently signed a contract extension to 2017, Chelsea is a huge step up from Saint-Etienne, and I’m sure he could be lured. He’d probably cost around £8-10m, which would be an excellent deal.
I’m sure that none of us had heard of Jores Okore before our Champions League group stage game against Nordsjaelland, and that’s fair enough. But anyone who saw that game won’t be forgetting Jores Okore’s name in a hurry. I previously didn’t think it was possible for a centre-back to be the best player on the pitch by a long, long way and still lose 4-0. Just a couple of minutes into the match, Okore clashed heads with Victor Moses and crashed into the post headfirst. With blood streaming down his face, Okore left the field to get his head bandaged, and promptly played an absolute blinder.
Some moments that stand out in the memory are two goal-line clearances in twenty seconds, a perfectly weighted 60-yard lobbed through ball, and out-sprinting Moses from 10 yards behind. I confess that I haven’t been able to watch many Nordsjaelland games, but I saw a lot of them in the Champions League, and Okore’s extraordinary performance against Chelsea was no fluke. He was almost as good at the Bridge and probably even better at home to Juventus. The best thing about him? He’s a self-proclaimed Chelsea fan!
Any of these centre-backs would be terrific signings, and I’d welcome any of them to Stamford Bridge with open arms. But obviously, there is a crucial determinant in our ability to attract the star names: the Champions League. If Chelsea aren’t in the Champions League next season, there is next to no chance of attracting the likes of Hummels, Varane and Papadopoulos to SW6. But I think Marquinhos, Okore or Zouma could be lured. So I’ll have a look at the ideal Europa-scenario.
Keep: Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, Luiz, Omeruo and Chalobah
Buy: Marquinhos and Zouma/Okore
Loan: Kalas, Bruma, Ake and Zouma/Okore
That would be proper depth. Three specialist centre-backs in Terry, Cahill and Marquinhos and two versatile centre/right backs, Ivanovic and Omeruo as our main central defenders. Luiz and Chalobah can both fill in when needed, although I see them more as midfielders than defenders. Depth is crucial in the Europa League; even more so than in the Champions League because it’s a Thursday/Sunday schedule and the trips are normally longer ones.
Let’s now look at a decidedly happier place, that of the Champions League and no corpulent Spaniards. A world in which Chelsea can attract the biggest names in world football.
Keep: Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, Luiz and Omeruo
Buy: Hummels/Varane and Marquinhos
Loan: Kalas, Bruma, Ake, Chalobah, Marquinhos
A fairly similar picture on the whole, with three natural centre-backs that will share the majority of the minutes in central defence. Terry-Hummels or Cahill-Varane would be my preferred partnership, while Ivanovic and Omeruo will get some minutes in the cups and at right-back. Luiz can also fill in when needed, but again he’s more a midfielder than a defender. In both scenarios, the new signing that is loaned (Marquinhos/Zouma/Okore) replaces John Terry at the end of the 2013-14 season.
Do you think Chelsea needs reinforcements at centre-back, and if so, who should it be? Would you go out and buy a world-class central defender, or would you have faith in our youth and loanees?