Chelsea’s pursuit of Declan Rice has been well chronicled. After a remarkable summer transfer window and an outlay of over £200 million, one area of the squad remains slightly thin – defensive midfield.
Whilst N’Golo Kante remains a world-class midfield option, and rated by Frank Lampard – the Frenchman is now 29 and struggled with recurring injuries last season, starting only 22 league games. Jorginho is also now 28, and divides fan opinion about his best position and role in a Chelsea midfield.
The club opted to let both Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek leave late in the window on loan moves, whilst Billy Gilmour [who is highly regarded by the club] has only just recovered from a long-term knee injury and surgery.
It is argued Chelsea lack a defensive ‘anchor’ in a 4-3-3 midfield set-up – similar to Fabinho, Rodri and Thomas Partey for rival clubs, and in the mould of John Obi Mikel – tall, physical, and excellent at breaking up play and launching attacks with a range of passing.
Step forward Declan Rice, who spent time in Chelsea’s academy aged 7 to 14, and is best friends with Mason Mount. Frank Lampard is a known admirer of the 21-year-old, and monitored the midfielder throughout the summer, although did not make an official bid. Prizing Rice away from West Ham will not be an easy task at all. He is the current captain of West Ham and has made over 100 Premier League appearances, using this platform to represent England.
Furthermore, Rice is tied down to a contract running until 2024, and despite West Ham’s financial issues, the incentive to sell a crucial player right now is not imperative. After a gargantuan expenditure in the summer, Chelsea could not justify spending another £60 million plus late in the window.
According to Football Insider, Chelsea will revive their interest for Rice in the January window, on the proviso that at least two senior players can be sold. These include Jorginho, Marcos Alonso and Antonio Rudiger, the latter two the club tried to move on in the summer.
However, if this can not be accomplished, and West Ham continue to demand ‘Bank of England’ money for Rice, what are three other options Chelsea could consider for the defensive midfield position?
Denis Zakaria has been a regular for Borussia Monchengladbach since his arrival from Young Boys in 2017, and remains just 23-years-old. After operating as a box-to-box midfielder, as well as in a double pivot with Christoph Kramer, Zakaria established himself as a traditional ‘defensive midfielder’ last season, tasked primarily with shielding the back four.
Zakaria also played four games in a back three last season, proving his adaptability and versatility, an attribute Rice also has, as Gladbach finished fourth in the Bundesliga.
Zakaria is an interesting and impressive profile. Standing at 6’3, he possesses a superb combination of power with agility and elegance. Zakaria is an excellent dribbler – last season he completed 2.18 out of 2.92 dribble attempts per 90, drawing comparisons to Paul Pogba and Patrick Vieira in his ability to drive out of deep midfield positions and begin attacks.
Zakaria also has the tools to beat a midfield press – last season he averaged seven passes whilst ‘under pressure’ per 90. Zakaria has the ability to press opponents himself, last season he applied pressure to an opponent who received a pass 17.3 times per 90. This high-energy, high-intensity style is attractive for the type of football Lampard hopes to implement; winning the ball back quickly, and freeing up players like Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech in forward positions. Zakaria has the passing capacity to do this – his pass completion percentage last season was 86.7%.
In terms of purely defensive statistics, Zakaria also looks superb. He averaged 1.6 interceptions, 2.1 tackles, and 1.1 clearances per 90 last season – evidencing his role as a ‘complete midfielder’ able to defend, dribble and pass competently. Valued at £36 million by Transfer Markt, Zakaria has been linked with both Manchester clubs, and could be a shrewd signing for Chelsea if Rice proves unattainable.
Marcelo Brozovic has been linked to Chelsea in the past. Ex-manager Antonio Conte, who currently manages Brozovic at Inter, attempted to bring him to the club in the 2016 summer transfer window, with Foot The Ball reporting the club were close to lodging a £25 million bid.
Fast forward to 2020, and Brozovic is now 27 and remains at Inter, having now made over 125 league appearances in four years. Brozovic was also a mainstay in the Croatia squad at the 2018 World Cup, playing the full 90 minutes in the final.
Brozovic was a regular in midfield for Inter last season, playing primarily in a deeper defensive midfield role, alongside Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi. He played 46 games in all competitions, scoring three goals and registering eight assists.
The 2019/20 campaign was another superb season for Brozovic, flourishing in Conte’s 3-5-2/3-4-3 system. According to Sofa Score, he recorded an average rating of 7.17 across the Serie A season, proving to be a rounded midfielder capable of performing in various aspects of the game.
In terms of passing, Brozovic averaged 1.3 key passes per 90, with a 90% pass completion rate, including 92% in his own half – showing his ability to play out from deep whilst under pressure and build attacks.
Brozovic also averaged 80% completion of ‘long ball’ passes – this is attractive for Lampard in establishing a system where Christian Pulisic and Timo Werner, among others, are able to run in behind. If Jorginho leaves in January, Brozovic can partially reproduce the Italian’s long range passing into the final third.
Brozovic also put up impressive defensive statistics last season, important for the role of the deepest midfielder in a three. He averaged 1.4 interceptions per 90, 2.1 tackles, and 1.2 interceptions. Brozovic is also valued at £36 million by Transfer Markt, and was linked with Tottenham in the summer. Chelsea may look to revive their interest in the Croatian in January or the summer, dependent on the situation with Rice.
The third potential Declan Rice alternative is already a Chelsea player – 20-year-old Ethan Ampadu, currently on loan at Sheffield United. Various Chelsea fans believe signing Rice in any event would be unnecessary due to the potential Ampadu has to perform in the central defensive midfield role.
He was the first 2000-born player to represent Chelsea in any competition, and the third-youngest debutant ever for Wales, at 17 years and 56 days old.
Ampadu’s progress has somewhat stalled since 2019. After featuring primarily for the u23 squad, he joined RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga on loan for the 2019/2020 season. However, Ampadu found minutes hard to come by, unable to establish himself as either a defensive midfielder or a centre-back in a back three. Ampadu also struggled with a back injury, and played only seven games for Leipzig in all competitions.
Ampadu has now joined Chris Wilder at Sheffield United for the 2020/21 season, a move which seems better suited for all parties.
Upon joining, Ampadu said: “They play with high intensity and energy and I am a player who can do that. They play with freedom and I feel I am quite composed on the ball and it fits and suits me here.
“I back myself to be versatile and be able to play in a couple of positions. I have spoken to the manager about positions.”
Ampadu’s versatility is one of his key strengths – like Rice, he is able to interchange between defensive midfield and centre-back roles with ease.
Ampadu particularly stood out in the 2-1 defeat to Liverpool in October. Playing in a midfield role, he completed 89% of his passes, including one key pass. He won 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and blocked one shot, winning 3/3 aerial duels and 8/9 ground duels.
Despite the result, Ampadu put in a superb and mature performance in defensive midfield, leading many fans to question whether the Rice signing is necessary when the club has such talent already on the books.
Retaining Ampadu and integrating him into the side next season would save Chelsea anywhere upwards of £40 million in transfer fees for Rice, not including his higher wages. However, it would be wise to see how Ampadu performs for the rest of the season, and then contemplate the benefits of such a decision next summer.
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