Three things we learned from Enzo Fernandez’s Chelsea debut
A few days removed from shattering the British transfer record Enzo Fernandez made his Chelsea debut against West London rivals Fulham at Stamford Bridge this evening.
Pressure to perform was understandably on his shoulders but the Argentine, who joined from Benfica for a reported £106.8m, has already shone on the biggest stage. He played a pivotal role in La Albiceleste winning its third World Cup last December though in such new surroundings, where acclimatising takes a while, Fernandez knew first impressions last — though it’s way too early to make any sound conclusions — and on tonight’s evidence he showed that he is more than capable of becoming a lynchpin.
Here are three things we learned from his Blues introduction.
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1. Jorginho’s successor
Fernandez’s arrival came mere hours after Chelsea and Jorginho parted ways. The much-maligned Italian midfielder, who made over 200 appearances under four different permanent managers, now calls Premier League leaders Arsenal his new home. Fernandez also inherited Jorginho’s old ‘number five’ jersey. For those growing up in Argentine football culture, it’s a significant number as it designates the central defensive midfielder tasked with retaining and recycling possession, and Fernandez wasted no time showcasing this attribute. He made more tackles (3) and won more duels (4) in the opening 15 minutes than any other player on the pitch. Lionel Scaloni’s decision to play Fernandez as a deep-lying playmaker changed Argentina’s fortunes in Qatar and this happened to be where Graham Potter somewhat fielded the former River Plate academy graduate.
Double it and give it to the next person. 😉#CheFul pic.twitter.com/xkc9qbPHdT
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) February 3, 2023
In a now usual 4-2-3-1 formation, a far cry from the 4-3-3 he was accustomed to at the World Cup (sitting as the single pivot in front of Argentina’s back-four), Fernandez started alongside Conor Gallagher who had the license to push up and support Mason Mount with the England international sitting in the hole behind Kai Havertz while Hakim Ziyech — retaining his spot in the team despite missing out on a deadline day move to Paris Saint-Germain — and Mykhailo Mudryk, starting for the first time following his impressive cameo at Anfield, supporting from the flanks. Mudryk though couldn’t replicate that showing and was taken off after 45 minutes following a disappointing half in which he didn’t produce a single attempt on goal or created an opportunity for a teammate. Fernandez on the other hand was impressive.
2. Enzo’s game by numbers
“I think he’s done well for himself, he looks a good player. But the way Chelsea has set up with him on his own with Gallagher and Mount really high has left him exposed,” Sky Sports analyst Jamie Carragher said during the break. The former Liverpool defender was not kidding as Fernandez, despite only having minimal training ahead of tonight’s game, was undoubtedly the best player on the pitch going into half-time. He possessed the joint-most touches (59) and ranked top for tackles (five) though it was his distribution which really impressed. His total of 45 passes — including four long passes – all found a team-mate.
Enzo Fernández's Premier League debut by numbers:
100% aerial duels won
10 x possession won
9 duels won
8 passes into final ⅓
6 tackles made
2 fouls won
1 chance created
He made more tackles than any other player on the pitch. 👏 pic.twitter.com/HV8XOkT9fb
— Squawka (@Squawka) February 3, 2023
Now could he finish strong? Not exactly renowned for his goalscoring, managing just 17 strikes across 114 club games before today, Fernandez came the closest to breaking the deadlock when his 72nd-minute effort from 25 yards whistled past Bernd Leno’s right-hand post. But the Argentine’s primary role is winning the ball and subsequently distributing it. The numbers were not only strong but promising: only Benoît Badiashile (109) and Thiago Silva (107) attempted more passes than him (74), completing 85% of those (63/74), while no one won more tackles (6). Fernandez also completed three clearances and won two fouls – the former ranked joint-second and the latter proving to be joint-first by any Chelsea player.
3. Going forward
Fernandez made the cut and will be part of Chelsea’s squad once European football resumes. As touched upon, Potter has been fixated on deploying a 4-2-3-1 shape in recent games, but that’s not to say he isn’t tactically flexible. Since being appointed in September 2022 he’s used no fewer than nine systems (4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, 3-4-2-1, 3-5-2, 3-4-1-2, 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1 and 3-5-2). If the missing link is to be Fernandez perhaps reverting to a 4-3-3, which he used in back-to-back meetings against Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest during the Christmas-New Year stretch, could be the answer. Fernandez will then be utilised in the same exact role he shone for his national team.
If he was brilliant then Chelsea were disappointing. Potter’s side looked tentative with Fulham putting in a credible shift to ultimately share the spoils following this goalless stalemate. “Chelsea and Graham Potter have got a lot of work to do. Fulham were outstanding but Chelsea were toothless in attack,” Gary Neville commented on Sky Sports commentary. Kenny Tete and Joao Palhinha in particular were the standouts for Marco Silva’s side. Tete was named man-of-the-match by Neville while Palhinha stole Fernandez’s thunder.
João Palhinha's game by numbers vs. Chelsea:
11 x possession won
7 duels won
4 tackles made
3 passes into final ⅓
2 aerial duels won
2 chances created
2 x possession won in final ⅓
0 x dribbled past
And that outrageous pass. 🤤 pic.twitter.com/lpZR6a9Q8B
— Squawka (@Squawka) February 3, 2023
The result also further dents Chelsea’s top-four hopes and next up are the following matches: West Ham (away), Southampton (home), Tottenham (away), Leeds (home) and Leicester City (away). Sandwiched in between the duels with West Ham and Saints plus Leeds and Leicester is a Champions League round of 16 first and second-leg showdowns with Borussia Dortmund.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. “Everything was really basic from Chelsea. I think it’s because Graham Potter hasn’t had time to work with them, he hasn’t had time to develop them,” Neville added. “He’s going to need some time here. The front line needs to improve, the midfield needs to improve, so even though they’ve spent £600m I looked at every department I thought they need to get a lot better. Whether that is worry or in time it will come. I wasn’t that impressed. It’s going to take a lot of time for players to settle in.”