Presence more pivotal than performance for Chelsea’s £23m signing?

The Juan Cuadrado who claimed 15 goals and nine assists in his last 49 Serie A appearances for Fiorentina – or for that matter, the Juan Cuadrado who left the 2014 World Cup with the most assists of any player – is yet to turn up at Stamford Bridge.

Failing to record any output for his new club in the six Premier League appearances since his January arrival, super-sceptics might even dare to claim Chelsea have made an almighty mistake, with Cuadrado’s  22 year-old replacement Mohamed Salah – used as a makeweight in the £23.3million deal that brought the Colombian international to west London – notching up seven goals already for the Serie A outfit.

But let’s refrain from skinny-dipping into the sea of hyperbole that often surrounds new signings in the Premier League – especially those who command fees as high as Cuadrado’s. He’s totalled just 187 minutes in the league thus far – the equivalent of two appearances – alongside substitute outings in the League Cup and Champions League.

Even Alexis Sanchez took a couple of games to get going for Arsenal this season and the Chile international walked into a far more accommodating scenario; amid the business end if a campaign in which Chelsea are set to claim their first Premier League title since 2010, any acquisition the Blues made in January would’ve had to hit the ground running to make any kind of impact this season. Jose Mourinho isn’t too fond of rotating his starting XI and right midfielder Willian is one of his particular favourites – so it’s no surprise opportunities to bed in have been few and far between for the 26 year-old.

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In a sense, however, none of that truly matters. Regardless of form, Cuadrado’s personal mission for his opening Chelsea campaign is already complete; namely, keeping the rest of the Blues’ attacking options on their toes for the season’s run-in.

Andre Schurrle was subbed off at half-time during two of his final three appearances for Chelsea, creating a negative dynamic within the squad. Whilst he’d often contested Oscar, Willian and Eden Hazard for a starting berth the season previous, making 43 appearances in all competitions – one more than Willian and only three less than Oscar – by the opening of the January window it was clear he’d lost Mourinho’s confidence altogether and wouldn’t be selected over the trio any time soon.

If the situation hadn’t changed, the Blues would’ve entered the second half of the season with their three attacking midfielders knowing their place in the starting XI comes with a guarantee. You could argue this for many players in Chelsea’s habitual line-up – John Terry, Nemanja Matic or Cesc Fabregas – but there’s still a strong incentive behind all of them, a prodigiously talented Kurt Zouma or a tried-and-trusted John Obi Mikel for example, to ensure standards don’t slip.

And although it’s now clear Cuadrado’s role will be a cameo one at best this year, the doubt his sheer presence created during the intermitting months has had a huge impact on Chelsea’s title bid. Since the winger’s arrival on February 2nd, the Blues have claimed 23 points out of a possible 27 in the Premier League at an average of 2.6 points per match. Previously, they’d amassed 53 points in 23 games – averaging out at the slightly lesser 2.3 points per match.

Of course, this can be traced to other factors – Mourinho’s move towards more functional tactics to grind out low-scoring wins, the fact Chelsea haven’t lost since New Year’s Day, the lack of pressure from the rest of the Premier League’s apparent title contenders – so consider the changes to Willian and Hazard’s form in the same time period.

Since rumours of Cuadrado’s arrival became somewhat more concrete in late January, Willian has bagged two goals, three assists and one Man of the Match award in 14 appearances across all competitions, whilst his all-round contribution has remained as exemplary as ever. His 25 outings prior, on the other hand, produced just three goals and two assists.

Meanwhile, Eden Hazard’s game has reached a whole new level over the last few months; of his 18 goals and ten assists this term, 33% have come in the 12 appearances since Cuadrado signed on the dotted line, working out at just over 25% of his playing time – a purple patch that ‘s almost certainly ensured him this season’s PFA Player of the Year award.

It’s unlikely the Belgian maestro will mention Cuadrado in his acceptance speech at the end of the month. After all, he’s made the least Premier League starts of any player in the Chelsea squad barring the rabble of young Englishmen waiting in reserve. But the Colombian’s subtle influence on both Hazard’s and Chelsea’s season has been a vitally important one – and adding him to the squad in January, rather than delaying the deal until the summer, has proved to be a Mourinho masterstroke.