With deals for Eden Hazard & Marko Marin all but sealed, it is we who made the first period-defining moves of the 2012-13 transfer window. Even as other clubs are only beginning to settle into sign 'em up mode & wrap their heads around their own squad deficiencies, putting together target lists, Chelsea have already moved swiftly onto whoever stood next on their list, with talks for The Hulk headed in a seemingly meaningful direction. Our transfer activity for the season is by no means done, as there are critical positions to be covered we were asked some unsightly questions of in last season, notably central midfield and right back, which when eventually addressed, should finally give us enough firepower and sturdiness to rain hellfire and brimstone on mid and lower table teams, while also ensuring we give every direct title rival a very, very stiff challenge in head-to-head meetings, besides of course managing respectable runs in domestic knockouts, and most importantly, remain the team to beat in the Champions League. Additionally, it'd also do us a world of good to pick up some more quality versatility, something that frequently gave City an advantage across last season, and will always be a factor for the new Chelsea, because with the kind of team we're gonna be left staring at when the overhaul finally concludes, anything less than a realistic challenge, and electrifying final/semifinal runs in all competitions would seem just.. inadequate. Let's take a look at valuable options at right back who presently find themselves on the club's radar.
What We Ought To Look For: Ever since Ancelotti slotted Bane into the XI as a long term starting right back solution, the big bear with the big game brought orthodox old-school english game defending back into business. Good goalside positioning, showing players down the flank before barging them off the ball, taking no prisoners in aerial challenges, holding off physically modest attackers as he shepherded the ball to a teammate or out for touch, tackling hard whenever he did, and always making his physique a factor in every one v one. Of course as we saw more prominently last season, his ability was not without deficiencies - Ivanovic was never one blessed with notable pace, and the pasting Bane received at the hands of Ezequiel Lavezzi was like experiencing the most bitter tasting humble pie. Nor had he ever played the precise role a club prone to using RBs as an attacking outlet demands. While he did alright at making himself available in the opposition half of the pitch to support build-up, and was generally not a wasteful crosser, these were where his shortcomings became evident, which are exactly what the club must evaluate among potential targets before zeroing in. While Bane was and is, in essence, the ideal fullback, he is still nowhere near the evolved modern positional counterpart, the wingback.
But why is it so important for a club like Chelsea to show exceptional selectivity for a wingback over a fullback, or so when we already have a quality fullback in the side? Firstly, the most notable advantage/contribution a wing-back represents is the presence of an additional attacking outlet up the flank. This acquires even greater significance than usual for us, because assuming the Hulk deal does go through sooner rather than later, and we utilize a system that uses both Hazard and Hulk in an attacking arrangement that sees them occupy their preferred areas of the pitch, we effectively become the strongest team after Bayern to employ an inverted wide attacker system, a prospect which should have us all puking rainbows, because I don't think it's something we seriously considered when the club was in the process of signing one and pursuing the other - I know I didn't. In such a case, the Left & Right backs will be the ones charged with providing the width in attack, (the alternative would be to use a periodic side-switching tactic with Hulk/Hazard). Secondly, with the top teams in the league as well as the rest of Europe, when coming up against teams lower down the table, it's quite usual to see their most dangerous frontliners double-teamed and isolated as frequently as possible. It is in cases like these that a pacy extra 'winger' rushing down the flank can help open the game up by drawing defender attention, delocalizing focus on the tighter marked players in central areas by causing markers to peel off in pursuit, either as a deputizing winger with a crossing ability when dribbling, or as a quick combination passing option like a one-two/give-&-go to expose the channel behind defenders. For me, this in fact is the most compelling argument of all. Top teams like Chelsea have sufficient quality in defence and tactical organization to have the liberty of using even the RB & LB as dedicated attacking threats, be it to circumvent a creativity issue in wider areas, or to simply support complicated build-up phase play passages, and so we ought to. So in summation, what a team like ours needs, is a prototype-accurate wingback, a tireless runner who brings a game centered around pace, crossing, sharp tackling & good defensive positioning and anticipation.
Prominent targets we've been linked to since January include Cesar Azpilicueta [Spain], Mauricio Isla [Chile] & Gregory van der Wiel [Netherlands]. More on them after the jump.
Cesar Azpilicueta, Marseille: Azpilicueta is a player who I find particularly captivating as an individual. He'll be 23 in a couple of months, and for his age, I'd say his defensive development has definitely always been one full step ahead of others on the learning curve at any point of his Ligue 1 career. By built, all the candidates I'm considering are nowhere close to Bane's imposition, but Azpilicueta's probably the slightest and also the shortest of the 3. As is usually the case, the slight built one is also fairly quick, but at the same time, Azpilicueta possesses sufficient strength to be able to obstruct approaching attackers, as well as push them further toward the touchline when needed. Azpilicueta is also noted for being an exceptionally clean tackler of the ball, averaging only 1.2 fouls per game in his 45 appearances for Marseille so far. He's not the most frequent crosser of the 3, but is extremely accurate with his delivery, and generally likes to mix it up well, lifting, whipping & laying the ball into the box with equal ease, which suggests he has the technical goods to succeed in a demanding environment, or against teams where crossing opportunities may be relatively hard to come by. Another sphere where his technical skills shine is his passing, since he's not only a tidy passer of the ball, but he releases the ball quickly, accurately, and on occasion even manages to pull off the rare ambitious pass he attempts. His anticipation skills are top notch, because he makes a rather lot of interceptions and shot/cross blocks around & at the edge of his area, as well as whenever inside it, averaging 3.3 interceptions per game. Of all 3, he's the one closest to Cole in this regard. A reported bid in the region of £12-13M was supposedly lodged by us this past winter, and I reckon something in the region of £15M plus minor bonuses might be enough to seal his signature.
Mauricio Isla, Udinese: Isla will be 24 very soon, and he's a player I wouldn't have had a particular affinity for, except that his positional versatility is phenomenal. Very rarely have I known of a player capable of playing every right sided position on the pitch yet flexible enough to slot seamlessly into central midfield. It's a pity his last season was blighted by an anterior cruciate ligament injury, which was especially disappointing since he was coming off what had been his most successful and consistent stint in the Udinese XI the previous year, and had been widely expected to establish himself as a Serie A defensive elite. In a defensive capacity, Isla too is noted for being a tidy tackler, averaging an impressive 0.7 fouls per game over 55 appearances, although it's unclear how absolute an indication that should be seen of his tackling ability, since with the range of positions he's played for them over the last two seasons, he wasn't always involved in roles where getting drawn into challenges was mandatory compulsion. As a passer, Isla too is a very useful option in the opponent's half, he's a more frequent passer, and makes him available for build up play more often than the other 2, but somewhat is marginally behind Azpilicueta in how quickly he reads the tighter passing situations, often preferring to make a simpler pass before moving into a further advanced position and making himself available again. On the odd occasion he does attempt an extravagant pass, he doesn't usually succeed, but coming into a team brimming with creative talent in central positions, his safer approach will be very well appreciated. As a crosser, what impresses me most about him is his ability to consistently deliver excellent looping volley-crosses, as well as a cleverly disguised lay-off cross which helps create some very good shooting opportunities for onrushing teammates. For a counterattacking system, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better wingback.
Gregory van der Wiel, Ajax: van der Wiel, like Isla is 24. On emergence, he was probably the most promising prospect in Europe the year he graduated from the academy at Ajax, eventually collecting the Talent of the Year award in 2009. It was only later in the World Cup however, that his displays brought him onto the radar of Europe's elite. In terms of ability, van der Wiel is unarguably by far the quickest and the most hard-working of the 3. A constant feature of his game has been his tireless, purposeful running, and on an average he spends more time in the opposition half than either Azpi or Isla, which is to say, he easily trumps both in stamina and offensive endeavor. As a crosser, he's decent, but somewhat one-dimensional, something he makes up for with a powerful shot of his own whenever he's allowed time and space on the ball & the freedom to approach the right edge of the area. Consequently, his finishing is better than the expected average from defenders. Defensively speaking, Gregory-boy is a bit of a stuck-up record. His tackling, while not technically errant, is actually pretty wayward, even giving away crucial penalties on occasion, and the less written about his positional awareness, the better. I uncomfortably note van der Wiel's idea of positional recovery consists of being caught out of position as a result of lingering too long after delivering a cross or misplacing one, and then sprinting back to catch up with his dribbling opponent, finally getting into a decent enough position to launch a flailing tackle/block and just barely avert the danger. In short, he's pretty bashful at recovering from compromising positions, something that needs to be a staple feature in a proficient & aware wingback's game. Even in a good goalside position, he has shown the tendency to lose his man, or allow them to cross/pass, making at best only feeble attempts to limit their threat. Further, he comes across as somewhat substandard in his decision making skills, as he has a tendency to be frequently exposed when opponents attempt a side overload tactic on his flank. van der Wiel has averaged 0.2 successful tackles in his last two seasons at Ajax, which means he's either the world's best tackler, or the tardiest, your pick. So what makes him worth considering and including on our list? For starters, van der Wiel would be significantly cheaper than any other semi-established alternative, seeing as he has little of his contract left to run, that and the timely emergence of Ricardo van Rhijn. At the same time, pace and stamina aren't attributes that can magically be spurted up after a certain age, whereas defensive frailties and technical flaws can be fixed to an extent through exposure to quality high level coaching. Even though buying players shouldn't be reliant on promises/expectations of improvement, he can present a decent option in case the club ends up finding neither Isla nor Cesar to their liking.
Final Verdict: The most important thing for the club to bear in mind moving ahead with transfer targets, as well as for us, is that we only get one shot at this overhaul. There can be neither incentive nor scope to settle for a second-choice signing in any department. That said, for me, the choice between Cesar Azpilicueta & Mauricio Isla is a tantalizing one. In terms of variety and overall utility, there was always going to be only one clear winner. In attacking threat, the choice is a difficult one to make, with Isla returning better passing accuracy and per game attempt average, but Azpilicueta showing the better key passes average. In crossing, Cesar has the technique to provide a multi-dimensional threat, no doubt aided by the training from his earlier days as an advanced attacker, while Isla brings relentless sharpness in the final third. When it comes to considering development ceilings, I'm tempted to stick with Azpilicueta here, since he's a bit younger, and will therefore have more time to develop. At the same time, quality in versatility could make a key difference during title run-ins, and the presence of a player like Isla will provide us with unparalleled tactical flexibility both in case of fatigue dictated adjustments, as well as in the event of an untimely injuries. A further angle that lends weight to Azpi being our pick is the appraising eye Juventus have been casting on Isla, and while I have no qualms about us being able to outmuscle Juve in a bidding war, [Piazon is here courtesy a similar story], but in case the club plans to spend big on a marquee central midfielder, a smart RB purchase could save us a few useful millions usable as bonus payment bargaining chips for later. It is also entirely possible that Gregory van der Wiel surprises us with some serious improvements to his defending in the Euro, so yes, let's not rule him out of consideration just yet. I suppose it'd be best we wait till the Euros conclude before making our move. At the end of the day, let's have faith in the club's scouting network, ability to project potentials & ability to outlast opposing suitors in the case of a bidding war. We've got one big shot, and there's every reason to believe the club won't swoop unless they identify the best possible target to become a model of consistency and strength in our backline for the future.
Part III will be up soon, featuring preferences for the central passer/deep lying playmaker department. Who else do you think will be a smart fit for our right wing-back spot?