The left-back position at Chelsea Football Club had been taken care of for a good eight years by a certain Ashley Cole, who is arguably the best in his position in Premier League history. However, following his departure in 2014, Chelsea have been unable to replace him. While it is common knowledge that players of his calibre are hard to find in abundance, we haven’t been able to scout a player who remotely resembles his qualities. Cole was the epitome of a modern fullback – before such a position was even invented.
“He is a defender who simply loves to attack. Defends, because he has to defend and because it is a part of his job. Everybody loves to play with [him] because as soon as you won the ball back, he was up there to attack.”– Arsene Wenger
His partnership with Ivanovic was one of the best fullback duos in PL history, with both possessing excellent attacking capabilities to complement their grit and determination while tracking back. And this duo saw Chelsea win a remarkable number of trophies- including the coveted Champions League in 2012. This has proved that having two fantastic fullbacks is an essential aspect of modern football, as they play a crucial role in outnumbering the opposition in attack and whipping crosses in. It is seconded by the domination of Liverpool this season, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson playing an important role as they sit 25 points clear at the summit of the English top-flight.
However, following the release of Ashley Cole in 2014 and the unfortunate but steep decline of Ivanovic in 2015, Chelsea have not replaced either position. Azpilicueta is the only name which pops up when we talk about someone who has consistently featured since, but he has been playing as right-back, left-back and even right centre back in Antonio Conte’s system. Several names such as Bertrand and van Aanholt have been promoted from the academy, along with players such as Baba Rahman and Filipe Luis being signed to slot in at the left-back position, but neither have succeeded. More recently, we have also acquired Marcos Alonso and Emerson from the Seria A. However, Alonso is poor in a back four while Emerson is injury prone and quite inconsistent. Where did it all go wrong in the recruitment aspect? Is that the root cause for our incompetence among the European elites? Here we find out ‘what could have been’…
Bertrand was interestingly signed by Chelsea before Ashley Cole, albeit at the tender age of 16, in 2005. He formed part of the youth academy for just one year, and was deemed too good for his age group. Hence, he was sent on loan to League One side AFC Bournemouth in the 2006/07 season. Following his return, he joined another League One side Oldham Athletic on a short term loan. In January 2008 he joined Championship side Norwich City and made 20 appearances in the latter part of the season, and put him to some good performances and became a popular figure at Carrow Road. He returned there for the next season as well, and made an impressive 40 appearances. Following further loans to Reading and Nottingham Forest, where he made 51 and 19 appearances respectively (he was at Nottingham Forest only for 6 months), he was finally deemed fit to feature for Chelsea by Carlo Ancelotti.
He remained as back-up to Ashley Cole, and signed a new contract in 2011 signifying his intent to remain at Chelsea and fight for his place. His first Premier League start against Wigan in the 2011-12 campaign saw him win the Man of The Match award. Just a month after that, he was thrown into the starting XI in the Champions League final in Munich owing to suspensions to several key players, where he put in an impressive performance, but had to be subbed off after 70 minutes. He made 38 appearances for Chelsea in the following season, and it looked like the beginning of a promising career. However, his rise was brought to a halt with the impressive form of Cesar Azpilicueta. He was soon sent on loan to Aston Villa and then Southampton, where he joined the side on a permanent basis in 2015. He played a crucial role in Southampton’s impressive 7th place finish under Ronald Koeman, and featured in the PFA Team of the Season. In the side which saw the sale of players like Lambert, Lallana, Alderweireld and Mane to bigger clubs, Bertrand remained at the club despite the constant links to Manchester City as well as a return to Chelsea. For me, he would have become a top class left-back had he stayed at Chelsea, especially after being an understudy to Cole. He had all the attributes to make it at the top, but unfortunately it just wasn’t meant to be.
Patrick van Aanholt
The Dutch left-back joined Chelsea’s youth sides in 2007, and was an impressive figure in the side, which earned him a loan to Coventry City in 2009. His loan was cut short in December, as he made his debut for Chelsea in March 2010. Following loans to Newcastle and Wigan, he joined Vitesse on for the 2012/13 season, on loan again. Impressive performances along with more potential for growth saw him remain there for the 2013/14 season as well. However, instead of returning to Chelsea after the expiration of the loan, he was sold to Sunderland on a permanent deal. After two and a half years in Tyneside, he moved to London to join Crystal Palace in January 2017. He’s remained the first choice left-back since, despite changes at the helm. He is another potential candidate who could have made it at Chelsea.
Abdul Baba Rahman is one of those players who we often forget is still on Chelsea’s books. Since signing from Augsburg as a part of our infamous 2015 window, the Ghanaian international has found game time hard to come by. He made 15 appearances for Chelsea throughout the season, and returned back to Germany in the following season, this time joining Schalke on loan. However, a cruciate ligament rupture saw him return to Chelsea for rehabilitation, but his injury has been recurring ever since. He then joined Spanish side Mallorca on loan, but another long term injury this season has restricted him to just three appearances. He was a promising talent in the Bundesliga with several top clubs chasing him, but his choice to join Chelsea did not proceed as planned. Antonio Conte reportedly told Rahman that he was “too attacking” for his liking, which is ironic considering he chose to sign Marcos Alonso. However, he did not cement his place in the previous season either, hence he has only himself to blame for the unfulfilled potential. However, his pace and attacking abilities could have been put to better use. Still only 25, there is still hope for him to salvage his career, but his injury problems just make the climb even steeper.
A name which irks Chelsea fans even to this day in the “what could have been” sense is Filipe Luis. Signed by Jose Mourinho in his title winning campaign in 2014/15 as a part of the La Liga raid which also saw Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa join Chelsea, a lot was anticipated from him. Signed in his prime and on the back of 127 appearances for Atletico Madrid, he was also presented with the iconic number 3 jersey at Chelsea, inherited from the outgoing legend Ashley Cole. He was, in short, supposed to be a direct replacement at left-back, and a stopgap signing of sorts. He had all the qualities to excel at the position, and had proved his worth in the Spanish top flight. However, he could not cement his place in the starting line-up with Jose Mourinho preferring the more defensive minded Azpilicueta. He lasted just one season at Chelsea, and being unsettled, he returned back to the Spanish capital from where he made the switch to London exactly 375 days prior. Since returning, he made another 113 appearances for the Los Rojiblancos before joining Flamengo in Brazil. That proves that he, in fact, did have more to offer, but could not display his abilities under the circumstances to woo the Portuguese manager in 2014/15.
He is the only player on this list who has not featured for Chelsea, but was very close to joining the Pride of London. Luke Shaw was born in London, and hails from a family which supports Chelsea. He reportedly visited the Chelsea youth academy facilities as an eight year old, but was not offered a contract following a trial. He then proceeded to join Southampton, and became a regular at the U18 age group at the age of 15. He also made his first team debut at the age of 16, which saw a host of top Premier League clubs turn their heads towards him. In his first full season for Southampton, at the age of 18, he played a crucial role in the side and made the PFA Team of the Season in 13-14. The young Englishman was also listed for the young player of the year award.
In the summer transfer window of 2014, Southampton accepted his request to leave the club for his development. Every top club was linked with the left-back, with Chelsea and Manchester United topping the list. Both their long serving left-backs, Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra respectively, had left the club, and they were on the lookout for a successor. Being the rich sides that they are, neither were put off by Southampton’s 30 million valuation, which would make him the most expensive teenager in football. However, Jose Mourinho reportedly rejected the chance to sign him despite the club agreeing to meet the demands of the players. He believed the wages that Shaw was demanding were too high, and it would cause unrest in the dressing room. Instead, his mentor, Louis Van Gaal, who was the manager of Manchester United, acquired the highly-rated left-back, while Chelsea settled for Filipe Luis.
Six years on, it doesn’t seem like a very big loss as Shaw is not on the level of other world class players, but his horrifying injury against PSV certainly played a part in hindering his growth. A double fracture in his leg saw him miss nearly 300 days due to injury. The worst part was that he had featured for every single minute in every game prior to his collision with Hector Moreno. That was supposed to be his breakout season; the season where he finally announced himself on the global stage. However, he has not been the same since recovering, and has become injury-prone. This season he has found some consistent playing time under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, making 26 appearances despite rotating with youngster Brandon Williams. Still only 24 years old, he has a lot of time to improve and still fulfil the potential he was once dubbed to achieve. However, one can only sit and wonder how different his career would have panned out had Jose Mourinho not rejected the opportunity to sign him.
Well, exiting the world of ‘what could have been’ and returning to the real world, we still have Emerson and Alonso at the club, neither of whom have shown any signs of reaching the levels of Ashley Cole. With Reece James on the right hand side, we might have found the successor for Ivanovic for a long period of time. It is absolutely paramount to find a suitable partner for him on the left hand side, with Azpilicueta seemingly past his peak. A host of names including Telles and more recently Tagliafico have been linked, along with promising left back Maatsen from the academy. The decision lies in the hands of Frank Lampard, and we have to keep faith in him, as he knows what his best for the squad.