As most other clubs rang in the New Year with the traditional round of games on the first day of the year itself, television rescheduling means Chelsea have had to wait until the third to open their account for 2018 (as it seems nowadays that calendar year statistics are all important) away at the Emirates. This additional waiting period provides some downtime to assess the important months that are to come. A new year means the beginning of the real crux of the season. Any team worth their salt and competing on all fronts will be playing twice a week every week from here on in – something Chelsea must do. It also means the opening of the January transfer window, and enough rumour to put Fleetwood Mac to shame.
One of these undying rumours is in the left wing back position. Since the summer just gone, the press has made it seem that Antonio Conte is determined to replace Marcos Alonso in the Chelsea first eleven. The most frequent of these players linked is Alex Sandro of Juventus. Whilst signed the season after Conte has left to take the Italian national team job, Serie A is undoubtedly a league the Italian manager knows, having already dipped into it numerous times in his tenure at Chelsea. Alex Sandro is, undoubtedly, a world class player in his position, very possibly the best left wing back in the world. If the club can get him, and can afford him, then we should clearly go for it.
However, there are some who want next to any left wing back, at any cost. This, admittedly, is bearing too much credence to my Twitter timeline, which is ridiculously polarised on the most serious of subjects, let alone who plays where on a football pitch. Nevertheless, there are the Marcos mainstays, and the foes of Alonso, who argue on the subject until the cows come home. In this regard, I am probably the annoying centrist who proclaims that both sides must come together and compromise, while saying they are both wrong. Here’s why:
Marcos Alonso, like any footballer, has his merits and his flaws. He is a good crosser of the ball, creating 1.15 chances per 90 minutes of league football played this season. To put this into context, Chelsea as a side have created 12.67 chances per game, meaning Alonso has created 11% of Chelsea’s chances this season. He also has a brilliant knack of scoring goals: he is joint second-top goalscorer in the league with Eden Hazard, behind only Alvaro Morata. Two of those goals this season came from free kicks, an important skill to possess with the number of fouls just outside of the box we pick up with players like Hazard magnets for kicks. Alonso is also adept at another set piece, being an asset at corners, both attacking and defending, due to his height and heading ability.
However, on the other hand, there is one large fault: his pace, or lack of it. Pace is key in a wing back. Victor Moses’s abundance of it a large factor in why he was so adept at transforming into one last season. Alonso’s lack of it creates two issues in the side. Firstly, on the attack, particularly when looking to counter, it means it takes him longer to get forward, especially in comparison to Moses on the other flank, providing less support for Morata, Hazard and co. up top. Then secondly, on the back foot, when he has overlapped and we lose possession, it takes him longer to get back, leaving the defence exposed, especially whoever is left centre back (usually Gary Cahill – that Twitter argument is even more heated than this one and best left alone for now).
Now, I must say, I really like Alonso. He always gives 110%, and is one of the few foreign players to have come into Chelsea in recent years and get ‘it’ about the club; he has a real rapport with the supporters. Additionally, pace isn’t a technical trait, but something that is mostly natural, and to blame Alonso as a person for not having it seems harsh. Yet for a club like Chelsea who want to compete on all fronts, wanting to win both leagues and European Cups, a regular starting player who is not great, but merely good, frankly isn’t good enough.
Here is the issue, though. There is a dearth of top quality wing backs. Even more so those that would be available. Alex Sandro is obviously one talked about in the rumour mills. Alex Telles of Porto is another. However, if January is the time that Conte wants to strengthen, then he must take into account that neither of these players would be able to play against Barcelona in the Champions League. One left wing back who would be eligible to play is Ryan Bertrand, who has come on leaps and bounds at Southampton, become an England squad regular, and let us not forget, was like a lion in Bayern when winning the Champions League in 2012. He would also count as a homegrown player not only from the nation but also the club for UEFA’s squad rules.
However, there is one other solution, that whispers suggest will be what actually occurs, at least in the short term, giving Conte some rest bite until the summer. Kenedy looks likely to be loaned out to Newcastle for the rest of season, meaning Chelsea will only have one left wing back in the squad. This is something Conte has already struggled with, as he hasn’t rated Kenedy enough to play him in any competition other than the League Cup. This has meant Davide Zappacosta playing on the wrong flank at home to Atletico in the last Champions League group fixture, as well as Azpilicueta being pushed out to left wing back when Alonso has been taken off for various reasons. Yet quietly over the past six months or so, the forgotten man Baba Rahman has been doing rehabilitation from his ACL injury about a year ago whilst in a great spell of form on loan at Schalke. Rahman was inconsistent in his spell at Chelsea in the infamous 2015/16 season, but had a stand out performance away at PSG in the Champions League last 16, and if he could re-find anything approaching how he played that night, or his performances at Schalke, then he could be useful as at least some sort of competition for Alonso’s place.
Football in this modern, social media era, has become even more about the new toy. The next talent linked with your club is better than what you have currently. The player just sold was abysmal and the new one is the best ever. Now, as I’ve repeatedly said, Alonso is upgradable upon, but that does not make him a rubbish player, and he’s been anything but. For the past 18 months, he has been a brilliant servant to the club, and as we prepare to return to the place he made his league debut for Chelsea, and where we turned around our season last year, that is something that those who critique him should bear in mind.