Football Features

How Chelsea could rebuild their Champions League-winning defence and replace Antonio Rudiger

By Harry Edwards

Published: 12:20, 25 July 2022

Chelsea have suffered a huge blow this summer with Antonio Rüdiger swapping the Blues for Los Blancos, and he wasn’t the only centre-back out the door.

Andreas Christensen also left on a free transfer for Barcelona, while club legend Cesar Azpilicueta may be allowed to call time on his Chelsea career, also being tipped to join the Blaugrana. Chelsea have made one major signing in defence this summer, bringing in Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli for a fee of £34m, but there is more work to be done – the Blues are looking for at least one more defender before the window closes in September.

These needs were highlighted by Chelsea’s 4-0 defeat to Arsenal in their pre-season friendly, which Tuchel admitted proved a point.

He said: “My analysing of the season does not change because of this game. Unfortunately, it proved my point. The last week proves my point. I would absolutely prefer not to be right. I did everything to prove myself wrong but at the moment I feel that I was right.

“I look at the last season and parts of the game where we struggled, parts of the season where we struggled, and then we got sanctioned and players left us and some players are trying to leave us, and this is where it is.

“So we had an urgent appeal for quality players, a huge amount of quality players. We got two quality players but we are not competitive like this. Unfortunately you could see it today.”

One player who appeared to be on his way to Chelsea is Jules Kounde, but the club appear to have lost that battle at the last, with the Frenchman now expected to join Barcelona from Sevilla. So that leaves Thiago Silva, Trevoh Chalobah, Malang Sarr and Koulibaly as the first-team centre-backs going into the 2022/23 campaign at the time of writing. That doesn’t make for good reading.

Let’s not forget their lack of depth at wing-back this season and how Chelsea struggled when Reece James and Ben Chilwell were out injured. Thomas Tuchel built his system around his wing-backs and it just doesn’t work without them.

But just how can Tuchel rebuild a Chelsea defence that not too long ago conceded just one goal in the knockout stage en route to winning the 2020/21 Champions League?

Chelsea summer transfer odds 22/23: To sign for before 3rd September Sky Bet
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 1/2
Wilfried Zaha 11/2
Cristiano Ronaldo 6/1
Anthony Gordon 7/1
Neymar 8/1
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Antonio Rudiger

The star of Chelsea’s back line under Tuchel has been Antonio Rudiger. The German was a general on the left of Chelsea’s back three and often the man given the freedom to join the attack with the ball at his feet.

It was his blistering and sometimes comical runs that endeared Rudiger to the Chelsea fans after a tough patch, driving his team up the pitch and out of trouble at times. When Chelsea were chasing a game, Rudiger was often the man to lift the spirits and look to change the game.

Last season in the Premier League, Rudiger attempted 477 final third passes, more than any other centre-back in the division and Chelsea will miss that. And it’s in this position that Tuchel needs to strengthen most, with the German saying: “We are looking for guys who can play on the left side. Toni played on the left side and was not a left-footed guy, so maybe Kalidou can play there because he plays in a back-four on the left side, but let’s see what is possible.

“It is not only about bringing players in for numbers; we need numbers, we also been quality so we will make some decisions late, not only about players but also about systems. Ideally we would have a left-footer.”

So, let’s have a look at some left-footers.

Josko Gvardiol

Assuming Kounde is out of the equation, another name linked with Chelsea this summer, and a left-footer, is Josko Gvardiol. The Croatian joined RB Leipzig last summer as a left-back but was converted to a centre-back by Jesse Marsch and continued there under Domenico Tedesco.

Owing to his past as a left-back, Gvardiol is excellent on the ball and his 37 completed take-ons in the Bundesliga this season ranks higher than any other centre-back. He also recorded two assists and attempted 10 through balls, which is what Chelsea need from their left-sided centre-back.

Pau Torres

Another ball-playing centre-back who could be more of a like-for-like replacement for Rudiger is Pau Torres. Although he had fewer touches per 90 minutes in the league last season than Rudiger, being slightly less important to Villarreal’s build up due to system differences, Torres was still able to make his mark on Unai Emery’s side. The Spaniard attempted 10.37 passes into the opposition half per 90 last season (more than Rudiger) and also 10.81 final third passes attempted (less than Rudiger), as well as 0.88 take-ons attempted. Defensively, he was also more successful than Rudiger in duels won (4.13 per 90 to 3.62) and aerial duels won (1.82 to 1.66). Linked heavily with a move away from Villarreal this summer, Torres is 20/1 with Sky Bet to join Chelsea before the transfer window closes.

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Levi Colwill

But what if Chelsea didn’t have to look to the transfer market? What if they had a returning centre-back fit to take over from Rudiger?

Levi Colwill will unfortunately remember the 2021/22 for his own goal in the Championship play-off final but that shouldn’t take away from his excellent campaign at Huddersfield. The teenager was a rock at the back and Huddersfield kept clean sheets in 16 of Colwill’s 31 league appearances last season. Earlier in the summer there were some doubts surrounding his future but they appear to have calmed down slightly. What happens with Colwill, no one is 100% sure right now, but Mason Mount recently spoke of the centre-backs improvements: “You can see with Levi the valuable experience he has gained going on loan.

“Thats something that I experienced and for me, watching him when he trained with us before he went out, I could obviously tell he was a very good player but he needed that experience.

“To go and play in the Championship and to get into a play-off final like I did, it’s a valuable experience that helps you so, so much. I think he has learned so much from that.

“He has grown as a player, grown as a person and now I definitely think he feels that he can improve us and improve our team. He is going to get an opportunity to really step up and he needs to keep working hard and keep working hard in training.”

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Thiago Silva

Moving on, Thiago Silva may have signed a one-year extension but the Brazilian turns 38 soon and won’t be available to play 38 league games a season.

What makes Silva still so good at his age is his reading of the game, judging when to engage against an attacker and when to leave him to his teammates. Silva is also key to the build up of Chelsea’s attack, a composed passer who completed 2,432 passes in the Premier League last season — the second most among centre-backs.

Manuel Akanji

Bremer was a good option for Chelsea but the Brazilian has signed for Juventus, so the Blues would have to look elsewhere. That could be accomplished passing centre-back Manuel Akanji, who could be available at a cheaper price with just one year left on his contract at Borussia Dortmund.

In the Bundesliga last season Akanji completed 90.6% of his 2,000 attempted passes and also completed 147 long passes, just 24 fewer than Silva having played six less games. Despite being taller than Silva, Akanji wasn’t known for his aerial prowess last season and would be a more like-for-like replacement for Silva.

Jean-Clair Todibo

If Chelsea want a master of the defensive arts, Bremer might be worth the risk. If not, Jean-Clair Todibo would make an intriguing apprentice. The 22-year-old was a rock at the back for Nice in Ligue 1 last season, missing just two matches. Although used on the right of a centre-back partnership, his skill set would transfer well to a central role.

Standing at 6 foot 3 with an aerial duel success rate of 60.9% – Todibo provides the aerial presence that Bremer does not.

The Frenchman is also comfortable and composed on the ball – another string of Thiago Silva’s bow that must be considered – and played more passes into the final third than any other centre-back in the French top-flight last season.

Dayot Upamecano

These are all very well-known names but it’ll be so hard for Chelsea to replace Silva, so they’ll need someone ready made – and Dayot Upamecano could be that. The Frenchman is reportedly available this summer, especially with Bayern Munich having signed Matthijs de Ligt (beating Chelsea to his signature) and while he will no doubt come with a hefty asking price, it could be worth it long-term.

Still only 23, Upamecano matches Silva in defensive and build up stats, and is at a similar height, just 3cm taller. In the Bundesliga last season, Upamecano attempted 92.12 passes per 90 minutes compared to Silva’s 89.02, and had 14.18 final third passes attempted to Silva’s 10.76. While it must be stated that Silva’s numbers will have been slightly lower as Rudiger was the attacking outlet for Chelsea, it’s still promising to see that Upamecano has that capability. Upamecano also won more duels (6.11) more aerial duels (2.53) and made more tackles (2.69) than Silva per 90 in the league last season – again impressive numbers on their own without comparisons.

Cesar Azpilicueta

Cesar Azpilicueta is a Chelsea legend and the Blues will miss him both on and off the pitch. The man Jose Mourinho wanted to clone 10 times, Azpilicueta has played everywhere across the back line for Chelsea and Tuchel has utilised the Spaniard at both right-wing back and right centre-back without losing too much quality.

Focussing on the right centre-back Azpilicueta, Chelsea do have Trevoh Chalobah already at the club who could be a natural replacement. The Englishman showed signs of quality last season and fans felt he was being unfairly left out towards the end of the campaign – he’ll definitely play a bigger role in 2022/23, though could also be moved to midfield if required.

Koulibaly will also likely play at right centre-back if Chelsea manager to sign a left-footer, but if the Senegalese international is on the left, here are some other options.

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Jurrien Timber

There’s something about Ajax and centre-backs. Jurrien Timber is another Ajax centre-back Chelsea could look to, this time for the right side of their defence, with a good mix of defensive and attacking qualities.

Timber, just 20, completed 28 of his 39 attempted take-ons in the Eredivisie last season and created 16 chances with two assists. He also made 73 tackles, won possession in the middle third 111 times and completed 91.49% of his attempted passes – with 424 final third passes completed. He can definitely link up with Reece James at wing-back.

Giorgio Altare

There will be more dream options on fans’ minds, such as Milan Skriniar, but there’s an under-the-radar alternative should Inter’s asking price prove too steep.

Although Cagliari were relegated, Giorgio Altare stood out as a class above his teammates and is clearly too good for Serie B.

Because of that, the all-action Italian centre-back would be available much cheaper than any of the aforementioned options and is at home on the right side of a back three.

Left wing-back

Moving onto the wing-backs, Chelsea don’t need replacements but they do need depth. When Ben Chilwell and Reece James were injured, Chelsea truly suffered on the pitch and had they stayed fit things could have been so much different.

Chilwell was a big miss in particular, often the wing-back getting himself close to the area to cause problems and while Marcos Alonso could replicate that the Spaniard looks to be on his way out – and he’s a defensive liability.

Borna Sosa

Borna Sosa appears to be the favourite to join Chelsea this summer among the left-backs and he’s a serious attacking threat, providing 8 assists in the Bundesliga for FC Köln from 61 chances created. The 24-year-old also completed 314 final third passes all while playing at left-back, in a slightly more restricted role.

David Raum

Chelsea could also bring in serious competition for Chilwell in David Raum. The 24-year-old was Hoffenheim’s marauding left wing-back in the Bundesliga last season and recorded a seriously impressive 11 assists from 83 chances created – only Thomas Muller and Filip Kostic created more. But that didn’t hamper his defensive output with 52 tackles, 27 interceptions and 109 possessions won in the defensive third.

Summer transfer odds 22/23: To sign for before 3rd September Sky Bet
Cristiano Ronaldo to Sporting CP 5/1
Antony to Man Utd 8/13
Christian Pulisic to Newcastle 6/1
Frenkie de Jong to Man Utd 5/2
Youri Tielemans to Arsenal 10/11
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Chelsea 2/7
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Right wing-back

Reece James is clearly the elite right wing-back option for Chelsea, with the most goal involvements in the Premier League last season by a defender. But he’s not invincible, as injuries showed, and could also end up playing in midfield or as the right centre-back. So Chelsea need options.

Denzel Dumfries

If Tuchel wants a player to match James’ attacking threat, look no further than Denzel Dumfries (the Blues are 12/1 to sign Dumfries this summer with Sky Bet). The Dutchman’s relentless raids forward saw him average six touches inside the opposition box per 90 minutes in 2021/22, more than any other full-back in Europe’s top five divisions.

There is a lot of work to be done for Chelsea to build a solid defence and money needs to be spent. If only they had a few more English centre-backs on their cards with the quality of Marc Guéhi and Fikayo Tomori.