Chelsea have impressed and dismayed in equally large portions this season, with the majority of fans discontent being levelled at a defence lacking both experience and organisation. Antonio Rudiger has only played 45 minutes of football this season, but even in his limited minutes, the German’s influence on the game was infectious as the Blues exerted their dominance over a Wolves side who have taken points off all of last season’s top six. His subsequent injury at the Molineux has seen Chelsea continue to suffer defensively – conceding on average 1.75 goals per game. But with his return only a matter of weeks away what will he actually offer the team?
In Rudiger’s absence Fikayo Tomori, Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma have, to mixed success, taken over the mantle of ensuring a watertight defence. Tomori has been a much-publicised success story this season, with his composure and recovery runs earning him a maiden call up to the England squad, but it is with Chelsea’s two former defensive prodigies, Christensen and Zouma, where the problems seem to lie. Christensen and Zouma have both looked uncomfortable in possession, and are both privies to playing short balls, the stats are damning in this regard. in comparison to Tomori, who averages 3.2 long balls per game, Christensen averages just 0.8 long balls. And whilst Zouma averages an impressive 4.1, almost on a par with Rudiger’s 4.5 which he averaged over the course of 33 games last season, it is with Zouma’s 84% completion rate that the Frenchman suffers.
Comparatively, Tomori combines both Zouma’s expansive ball progression with Christensen’s accuracy to display stats worthy of rivalling Rudiger. The 21-year-old posts a pass accuracy of just 87%, less than Christensen and Rudiger, but the key difference is the number of passes he averages per game (75.6) which is nearly as many as 30 passes more than his Danish counterpart. This obviously will bring his success rate down and also displays a willingness on Tomori’s part to get on the ball and contribute to deep ball progression, an approach that paid dividends to great effect when he played a superb rangy pass into the feet of Tammy Abraham for Chelsea’s opening goal against Lille. The lengthy discussion into Tomori’s improvement this season could be reserved for an article in itself, but what does this show us about what Rudiger brings to the side?
Well simply put Rudiger managed to better all three of his teammates in each department last season, and over a far longer stretch of games, he is the epitome of consistency and his deep ball progression having played under revered former player David Luiz is second to none and alongside Tomori it is almost certain that Chelsea will retain possession at a higher rate than their already impressive 53%, whilst his ability to distribute at range means this possession will be converted into higher quality chances for Chelsea’s forward players.
Of course, possession and passing is only a small part of a defender’s game and of more importance, certainly to purists of the game is a defender’s ability to hold a strong defensive line and turn over possession quickly and calmly. For this Rudiger is once again the model example of a defender who embodies the Maldini philosophy in which ‘if you have to make a tackle you’ve already made a mistake’. Rudiger doesn’t post the unnervingly high defensive numbers of Aaron Wan Bissaka, whose tackle numbers suggest a bigger problem regarding the protection he is afforded by his midfielders, the 26-year-old has instead mastered the disciplines of defensive positioning and awareness. His organisation, also pivotal to defending from set-pieces – a key issue within Chelsea’s backline, helps his side keep a high and well-disciplined defensive line, catching opposition players offside at a rate of 0.6 times per game. Should players beat Chelsea’s offside trap then Rudiger, like Tomori has effectively demonstrated in his absence, is able to use his turn of pace to make last-ditch recovery runs without lunging in to make a tackle and endanger giving away a penalty, instead he sweeps in behind with composure and excellent technique – as such he averages less than a foul per 90.
His physical build also makes Rudiger an imperious presence in the air, winning an average of 2.5 aerial duels per game. This allows Tomori to drop back and cover in behind whilst Rudiger attacks the ball directly. Chelsea have lacked those sort of well-defined roles all season, as shown by the direct route in which a missed header allowed Grimsby to score against the Blues in this season’s Carabao Cup victory. Rudiger has previously struggled to judge the flight of long balls, but his positioning has continued to improve whilst at Chelsea and this has subsequently decreased the likelihood of Rudiger losing out in these aerial battles.
With Tomori the only player to have convinced in Rudiger’s absence, it can be said with some certainty that the German’s return will coincide with a drastic improvement in Chelsea’s defensive numbers, as well as the leadership and on-field organisation his presence will provide. The main issue remains over Chelsea’s feebleness from set-pieces. Only relegated Cardiff conceded more goals from set-pieces last season, and this problem has persisted under Lampard, but Rudiger’s experience should at least provide some level of order in these situations. This issue is pressing, however, and hence the adulation I have bestowed upon Ruidger must be tempered with the realisation that Chelsea’s issues from set-pieces may well persist and the abandonment of zonal marking should still be considered beyond his return to the side. Sadly the German doesn’t provide the solution all fans have been crying out for, but his ability in and out of possession will provide a marked improvement upon the efforts of Christensen and Zouma.
How much of an impact will Rudiger’s return actually have? Is his influence overstated or is he yet another beacon of hope for Chelsea’s exciting young side? Let us know what you think.