The all-action midfielder would suit their new manager's style and bring some much-needed balance, says Blair Newman...
Antonio Conte’s appointment as Chelsea manager was announced on Monday, 4 April after a long period of speculation. The incumbent Italy national team coach will take over the reins at Stamford Bridge upon the conclusion of this summer’s European Championships, and his arrival is expected to precipitate a squad overhaul.
Chelsea’s severe underperformance this season, which currently leaves them sitting just inside the Premier League’s top half, means that a number of players could find their place under threat once the new manager settles in. Conte, a fierce competitor, will want to implement his own style of play and new signings will undoubtedly be made to help enable this.
Conte, a fierce competitor, will want to implement his own style of play and new signings will undoubtedly be made to help enable this
Since the Italian’s imminent arrival on English shores was confirmed, many players have been linked to the London club, including Juventus centre-back Leonardo Bonucci and Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain. They would both would make excellent additions, though Chelsea’s primary target should be Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan.
The 27-year-old Belgium international made his name in Italian football with Piacenza and Cagliari before moving to the Giallorossi in early 2014 on an initial loan deal. That was quickly made permanent as the player established himself as a key team member, firstly under the auspices of Rudi Garcia, then Luciano Spalletti.
Chelsea’s midfield issues over the last year have been well documented. Nemanja Matic has been off-form to the point that stand-in manager Guus Hiddink has favoured John Obi Mikel over him, while Cesc Fabregas’s defensive limitations have been exposed. Meanwhile Ruben Loftus-Cheek shows signs of promise, but remains too inexperienced to carry the team's engine room on his own.
The Blues have lacked balance, with their central midfield options being too static and defensive or too attack-minded
Essentially, the Blues have lacked balance, with their central midfield options being too static and defensive or too attack-minded. They simply do not possess one single individual capable of performing both defensive and attacking duties in equal measure. Nainggolan has the universal qualities needed to solve this problem.
One of his most noticeable attributes is his proclivity for robust challenges. He is a strong physical force with an appetite for battle, is not afraid to put his foot in and thus unsurprisingly he can perform effectively as a defensive shield. However, while this is what Nainggolan is most associated with, he is comprised of much more.
He also has sound technique, a good passing range and a willingness to drive forward, traits which have seen him transformed into a more advanced midfielder playing behind the attack in Spalletti’s new-look Roma this year. There were more holistic tactical reasons for this change in role, but Nainggolan’s attacking attributes certainly played a part in precipitating his move forward.
Conte made great use of a 3-5-2 shape during his exceptional tenure at Juventus, though the notion that he sticks rigidly by this formation is fallacious
Much has been made of how Chelsea will line up as of next season. Conte made great use of a 3-5-2 shape during his exceptional tenure at Juventus, though the notion that he sticks rigidly by this formation is fallacious.
During his time at Bari and Siena he deployed an unusual 4-2-4 system, while since taking charge of Italy he has experimented with a 4-3-3 and, more recently, a 3-4-2-1. In short, Conte is flexible over team shape, and it is unclear whether he will opt for a midfield duo or trio with Chelsea.
But while he is adaptable in this sense, he is less open when it comes to a specific set of stylistic tenets. In whatever formation he chooses, there are certain tactical principles that he is likely to want to bring in.
As is the case with many of football’s great managers, the tactics tend to mirror the man. Just as Jurgen Klopp’s energy matches his hellacious counter-pressing vision, and Pep Guardiola’s brooding persona ties in neatly to the complex passing patterns of his great Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides, Conte’s intensity and aggression are evidenced in his preferred playing style.
Without the ball he places great emphasis on quick transitions to defence and an aggressive pressing scheme; offensively he prefers speed to elaboration in the build-up, and greater directness in his teams’ passing.
One of the certainties when watching Roma play is that Nainggolan's shirt will, come the final whistle, be covered in sweat
It’s far from long-ball football, but it is high-tempo, and it requires individual players capable of mixing sound technique with high levels of endurance and an unquestioning desire to work.
In all of these respects, Nainggolan fits the bill. One of the certainties when watching Roma play is that his shirt will, come the final whistle, be drenched in sweat, the results of a game spent harrying the opposition and driving forward assertively with the ball at feet.
In this vein he is extremely similar to Arturo Vidal, something that makes his link to Chelsea all the more plausible: Vidal was integral to Conte’s Juventus.
Like the Chilean, Nainggolan likes to close down high up the pitch, plays with a passion that at times borders on a frenzy, and never stops running. A dynamic midfielder oppressor, he's comfortable defending in advanced areas for a defensively active team, as opposed to sitting deep and congesting space between the lines in an attempt to shut up shop.
This restlessness has allowed him to smoothly transition into his new role within Spalletti’s Roma, something the player himself has commented on. “I like this new position because it gives me more freedom and I can get forward in attack,” he told Roma’s official website. “Also I have to press the ball very quickly. I think I can perform better there.”
The perfect Premier League player
Just as it does in his new Roma role, Nainggolan’s style could suit that of Conte’s Chelsea. When attacks break down he would be the man to instigate the application of quick pressure on the opposition ball-player and, when trying to open up defences, he’d be the man to make forward runs into space.
Additionally, with his combative spirit, relentless energy and physical approach, he would be perfectly tailored to fit in amid the Premier League’s strength-sapping hustle and bustle.
Roma are reportedly holding out on a £40m bid for the player. It’s a hefty investment, but it’s one worth making: Nainggolan’s signing would be the ideal way to begin Conte’s rejuvenation of Chelsea.