Football Features

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

By Harry Edwards

Published: 14:00, 17 June 2022

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

Andreas Christensen will also leave on a free transfer while club legend Cesar Azpilicueta may be allowed to call time on his Chelsea career, with both tipped to join Rudiger in La Liga.

So that leaves Thiago Silva, Trevoh Chalobah and Malang Sarr as the two remaining first-team centre-backs at Chelsea from the 2021/22 campaign. 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 replace Rudiger and 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
Raheem Sterling 1/7
Ousmane Dembele 1/3
Nathan Ake 4/7
Matthijs de Ligt 8/11
Raphinha 13/8
Declan Rice 5/2
Eden Hazard 5/1
Neymar 4/1
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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.

Jules Kounde

But in Chelsea’s main centre-back target – Jules Kounde – they could have a good replacement. Although Kounde is right-footed and can also play on the right of a back three, the Frenchman is being tipped as Rudiger’s replacement as the attack-minded centre-back.

In La Liga last season Kounde attempted 317 final third passes and had a pass accuracy of 88.85%, higher than Rudiger. He also attempted 39 take-ons, putting Rudiger’s 12 to shame.

Josko Gvardiol

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.

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.


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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.

Bremer

One man Chelsea could look at to replace Silva is his compatriot Bremer. The Brazilian, who also plays in the middle of a back three, enters the summer off the back of an excellent personal season in Serie A with Torino, putting Europe on alert.

The 25-year-old had the most interceptions in Europe’s top five leagues in 2021/22 with 105 and can engage more defensively than Silva when required. Bremer also has a height advantage over Silva and can contest in the air to make up for some aerial threat lost in Rudiger’s departure.

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.

Lisandro Martinez

If Chelsea do go for a slightly less attacking left centre-back, Lisandro Martinez would be a good option to have in the middle of their back three. The Argentine completed 88.95% of his attempted passes in the Eredivisie last season as Ajax won the title and showed his attacking capabilities, with 39 shots, 17 chances created and 295 final third passes completed.

Martinez also mirrors Silva’s contribution for interceptions, though he does have less success in the air at just under 5 foot 9 – so Chelsea would need a taller partner to deal with the aerial threat, as they did with Silva.

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.

Jules Kounde could also come in to play at right centre-back if Chelsea sign more than one central defender, showing the attacking capabilities that are key to underlap and overlap the right wing-back.


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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
Antony to Man Utd 1/4
Matthijs de Ligt to Chelsea 8/11
Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona 1/5
Frenkie de Jong to Man Utd 1/8
James Ward-Prowse to West Ham 1/1
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to Leicester City 2/1
Lucas Paqueta to Newcastle 4/7
Jesse Lingard to West Ham 11/8
Raphinha to Barcelona 1/2
Ousmane Dembele to PSG 4/1
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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.

Anthony Caci

As an understudy, Chelsea won’t need to go for a big name and Anthony Caci is one that could still provide good cover for James. As part of Strasbourg’s side in Ligue 1 last season, Caci attempted 97 crosses and 182 long passes, constantly trying to get the ball into the box. He also made 65 tackles, 33 interceptions and 47 clearances so can double back on defence.

Denzel Dumfries

But if Tuchel does want a player to match James’ attacking threat, look no further than Denzel Dumfries.

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.

And with Romelu Lukaku reported to be pining for a return to Italy, Chelsea could do much worse than request the inclusion of the Dutch wing-back in any potential offer from Inter.

Dujon Sterling

Or Chelsea could look in house again. Dujon Sterling was part of Tuchel’s plans in pre-season last year and is tipped to be given another look this summer, perhaps with a view to make him part of the first team this season. Like James, Sterling can play at wing-back and centre-back, so has the versatility Tuchel will treasure and is completely free.

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.

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