Forget Sule: Which centre-back should Tuchel bring to Chelsea next season?
It has been a tremendous start to the Thomas Tuchel era at Chelsea. The German has returned 21 points from a possible 27 in the Premier League so far, conceding only twice in that time. Tuchel has moved the team from a loosely-followed 4-3-3, into a far more rigid, and instructions-based back three system – whether that be a 3-4-2-1 or a 3-4-1-2. What is unknown is that if this is a short-term fix or a long-term solution.
Given his formations in the past at previous clubs such as Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain, it is likely the former, opting to steady the ship and garner a feeling for who likes as a player, and who he does not, hence the heavy rotation. Niklas Süle, currently at Bayern Munich, has been lauded as a key centre-back target for Tuchel, but in this analysis, we will be using data insights to see if he is the best option for the Blues.
This data analysis will use statistics to find a ready-made centre-back for Tuchel’s Chelsea, from across Europe’s top five leagues. Our dataset consists of players who have played primarily as a centre-back, are aged between 18-26 years old (for long-term benefits and to create a manageable dataset…), with at least 1000 minutes played in the league.
At the end of our analysis, we will highlight three options, one ‘ideal’ option, one ‘bargain’ choice, and finally ‘one for the future’. All data used in this piece is correct as of 09/03/21.
Comfortability on the ball
Firstly, we will look at our dataset’s comfortability in possession. Antonio Rüdiger has been the fulcrum for possession under Tuchel so far, operating in that left centre-back slot, so it might be nice to find a left-footer here. At most elite clubs in recent times, this is the first requirement for their centre-backs options.
Leading the way for progressive passes per 90 is Omar Alderete with 13.87. At Hertha Berlin, the 24-year-old is not a regular starter, only just breaching the 1000 minutes threshold for our dataset, but he has impressed with his passing in those minutes, completing those progressive attempts at a 71.26% success rate.
Nayef Aguerd at Rennes has really impressed in his debut season in Ligue 1, producing 12.18 progressive passes per 90 at an impressive 83.95% success rate. The 24-year-old’s performances have remained consistent all season, despite a mid-season dip in form for the team, resulting in the manager’s release.
Niklas Süle, Tuchel’s key target as we mentioned earlier particularly excels in this portion of the data analysis. The 25-year-old German has made 11.48 progressive passes per 90 at a massive 89.47% success rate, which is remarkable even if he is playing for the leading side in Germany.
Ground duel solidity
So far under Tuchel’s tenure, the backline at Chelsea has consisted of an organised defensive structure protected by two defensively-able midfielders who try to protect the Blues in transition. However, when the midfield is bypassed, for which it is often, the centre-backs need to be solid in 1v1 duels.
Christian Romero, far and away, contests for the most defensive duels in our dataset, with 12.76 per 90. On loan from Juventus at Atalanta, the 22-year-old occupies the central centre-back role in their back three, where is the most proactive defender of the three, whilst retaining a mightily solid 71.06% defensive duels won %.
Rodrigo Becão of Udinese ranks fairly highly in both regards and is the most well-rounded in this category. He meshes a high 8.83 defensive duels per 90 with a solid 73.87% success rate and has been a shining light in an ultimately average Udinese defence. The 25-year-old is in his second season with the Pozzo-owned club.
Ronald Araújo at Barcelona has been one of the surprise breakouts of the season so far over in Spain. The 22-year-old, playing for a possession heavy side, only attempts 5.61 defensive duels per 90, but he wins a colossal 79.37% of them, which is seriously impressive for a player just now acclimatising to La Liga football.
Aerial duel dominance
Last but not least, let us take a look at which defenders dominate the air. Thiago Silva, at 36 years old, has proven again this season that height =/= aerial dominance (but it can help). In a league full of physical battles such as the Premier League, let us see who would be up for the challenge.
Boubakar Kouyaté often referred to as ‘Kiki’ has racked up some impressive aerial figures while playing for Metz out in Ligue 1. The 23-year-old’s 7.48 aerial duels per 90 and 68.29% success rate rank highly, but since he has ranked rather low until now, he seems to be more of a no-nonsense centre-back type.
Another Ligue 1 defender ranks highly here, but one who has gained many more plaudits for his impressive debut campaign at Lille. Sven Botman, 21 years old, has stunned the masses with his 5.63 aerials duels per 90 won at a 69.57% success rate, which was higher at an earlier stage in the season too.
Stanley Nsoki at OGC Nice has slowly been evolving into the type of player many top European teams should look at. Experience within a back three and back four, full-back or centre-back, he is still solid aerially in the centre, winning a titanic 80.49% of his 2.93 aerial duels per 90.
Largely, at Chelsea – if last summer’s spending is anything to go by – there are seemingly no budgetary restraints in comparison to the rest of the league, especially in this pandemic-ridden era. It seems that Chelsea will achieve Champions League football this season too, and I hear living it up lavish in West London is not all bad either, so that should not be an issue in recruitment either.
Since we do not know entirely whether Tuchel will use a back three or back four in the long-term, comfortability in both will be of use here, so will being left-footed, as that is something that Chelsea lack in their current options. As such, here are the choices:
The Ideal Target
Edmond Tapsoba’s rise to the upper echelon of Bundesliga defenders has been nothing less than awe-inspiring. He joined Bayer Leverkusen in the 2020 January transfer window and immediately made a huge impression. He has made this impression through his composed defending, excellence on the ball, and his massive impact on Leverkusen’s tactical approach. He stands as the nucleus of Leverkusen’s ball progression, completing 575 yards worth of progressive distance per 90 minutes, second in the squad only behind goalie Lukáš Hrádecký.
He is a right-footed centre-back who is currently utilised as the left-sided central defender. Tapsoba covers lateral spaces well, he is a mobile defender who can shuttle across and block off attackers sooner than they might expect. Tapsoba’s ease in possession, ability to find teammates up the channel, or to receive the ball under pressure and keep it circulating, is paramount to Leverkusen’s approach. He completes 9.07 passes under pressure, a remarkable figure which goes some way to demonstrate his composure on the ball.
The Bargain Option
Nayef Aguerd joined Stade Rennais last year and has impressed right away. Given his performances this term, he was close to being the ‘ideal target’, especially considering his aerial dominance over Tapsoba. Being left-footed is a benefit of Aguerd since he can open up his body and distribute swifter than a right-footed defender. He is comfortable receiving under pressure and has the vision plus passing range to allow him to access all areas of the pitch. He is just as accomplished playing vertical passes as he is carrying the ball forward as well.
Notwithstanding this, Aguerd is a gifted defender in his own right. He can hold the line with superb precision and defend his penalty area, and he is just as secure when pulled out into wide spaces, defending against quick attacking players. His 50% tackle success rate vs dribblers compares favourably to the other players in our shortlist. He displays a strength that is hard to quantify, but he manipulates his body well to shadow over tricky wingers and forces them into a footballing cul-de-sac.
One for the future
After a breakthrough season in 2018/19, Benoît Badiashile is now a firm part of the first-team setup at Monaco at just 19 years old. Another left-footer here, this will keep him in very good stead when looking to break into the extraordinarily strong France national squad (for centre-backs). Physically, he is everything you could want from a central defender, standing at 6’4” with a strong build, to match his dominant aerial presence, as well as possessing a speedy turn of pace. A 72.3% aerial duel success rate is pretty remarkable for someone so young.
Badiashile possesses not only one, but a plethora of exclusive attributes for a player of his age. He has displayed unprecedented levels of composure for a centre-back who is still a teenager, which aids his competency in possession. His vision and passing ability to step out of defence and either carry the ball into midfield or play a vertical pass into someone in the forward line. On occasion, he has almost acted like a deep-lying midfielder, in the way he can switch the play, or dictated the tempo effortlessly.
Honourable mentions: Adam Webster, Duje Ćaleta-Car, Brendan Chardonnet, Clément Lenglet, Facundo Medina, Jules Koundé, Jonathan Tah, Manuel Akanji, Marvin Friedrich, Marc-Oliver Kempf, Sven Botman.
There we are, three options of varying price, age, and skillset. Ultimately the title itself is a bit of hyperbole, as Niklas Süle would be an entirely competent signing. There are better signings to made, for a better value, but Chelsea have made far worse recruitments at centre-back in the past. If Tuchel trusts him, then perhaps that will be all that the recruitment team needs to know, but with data-tinted glasses, here are some other options.