The best defence of 2021 could be disbanded in 2022. It feels a strange sequel to an extraordinary year of solidity.
Chelsea won the Champions League by only conceding two goals in seven knockout games. They kept 32 clean sheets in their 57 games under Thomas Tuchel. And in six months’ time, they could head their separate ways. As it stands, the four centre-backs who figured in the final could all be off.
Until a recent run of conceding, Chelsea had the most stable of platforms on the pitch. Yet with each passing week, things feel increasingly unstable. Come New Year’s Day, four players can discuss a summer move abroad. Chelsea could face a radical makeover in defence in 2022, and out of necessity more than choice.
Thiago Silva, Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen are all out of contract. If Chelsea face a financial hit as well as the task of remodelling their rearguard, it is because the younger pair seem the least likely to re-sign. Silva seems the most probable to stay but a long-term rebuilding job will beckon, even if the Brazilian signs a deal to take him past his 38th birthday.
Tuchel has pronounced himself unworried about Azpilicueta’s situation; perhaps it is a clue that the long-serving captain will commit his future, though a spell on the bench in October and November may have given him reasons to eye the exit.
Dropping Christensen was a hardball tactic that did not spur him to put pen to paper and agree to spend the peak years of his career at Stamford Bridge. Given his age (25), the Dane’s deal might seem the most important. Given his extraordinary 2021, however, Rudiger has become the emblem of an odd state of affairs. Linked with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, he looks the best centre-back potentially available without a fee in world football next summer.
And yet Chelsea feel punished for two very different situations. Rewind a few years and, without assuming a similar position in the global game, Rudiger seemed the finest defender at Stamford Bridge. Under Frank Lampard, however, there were times when he seemed the last-choice centre-back: he started one league game before Christmas last season, one before 14 December the previous campaign. It was understandable, then, that he was reluctant to agree a deal under the old regime. An impasse had begun before Rudiger became brilliant.
Under Tuchel, he has played better than ever before. He has been the talisman, the cornerstone, the warrior. His surging runs and ferocious long-range shots have made him a cult hero. His influence has stretched from defiant defending to the earth-shattering collision that put Kevin de Bruyne out of the Champions League final.
Go on the previous 18 months and Chelsea may have imagined the sort of contract that would seem generous to the player fourth or fifth in line to play at the heart of a not particularly frugal defence should do the trick. Go on the last 11 months and Rudiger’s representatives might think of the sort of sums Virgil van Dijk, Ruben Dias, Raphael Varane and Marquinhos could command and then add a premium because any potential suitor would not have to pay a transfer fee.
Throw in a wider climate where, especially outside England, there is a crunch on appealing and the potential availability of elite players without denting transfer budgets makes them still more tempting and it creates a perfect storm for Chelsea; they could lose their most valuable centre-back because of first their failures and then their successes.
In Chelsea’s defence, it is hard to know where the middle ground should lie, of what Rudiger’s next deal should be worth in the current environment. They can consider what Real or PSG might be willing to pay, the cost of replacing Rudiger and the wider climate of uncertainty about who populates their defence next season. Because if Tuchel built one great defence, he may soon to have construct another.
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