Three into two just doesn’t go, so picking two from eight leaves Maurizio Sarri with some big decisions to make before the Premier League season gets underway.
Indeed, the new Chelsea gaffer’s Napoli spell and his pre-season lineups strongly suggest he’ll turn the west Londoners back into a 4-3-3 team after two seasons of 3-4-3 under Antonio Conte, and should Sarri get one signing over the line this summer he could well end up with eight genuine choices for just two centre-back positions.
Quality in depth is all well and good, but who should form Chelsea’s first-choice centre-back partnership for the season? We run through the individual options and then give Blues fans the chance to vote for the two defenders they want to see anchoring Sarri’s backline on a weekly basis…
Already capped at senior level by Wales, 17-year-old Ethan Ampadu looks like a real talent – a young defender who brings passing range and quality on the ball to the heart of defence.
That’s exactly what Sarri demanded from his centre-halves at Napoli so the future looks bright for the one-time Exeter prodigy, it’s just a question of whether he’s ready yet to be first-choice over a whole season. His experience at senior level so far amounts to just 22 games.
Chelsea have been chasing Daniele Rugani for so much of the summer that it seems inevitable a deal will be struck before the August deadline, and Sarri’s interest in the Juventus centre-back – harking back to their days together at Empoli – suggests he’s being brought in as a key starting XI addition.
But the Premier League isn’t always the easiest league to settle into, especially for a 24-year-old defender from Serie A, so perhaps it’s a case of Rugani using his first season at Chelsea as a chance to integrate before really coming into his own next term.
In hindsight, Stoke City probably wasn’t the best place for Kurt Zouma to rebuild his career after that harrowing injury under Jose Mourinho, impressing in patches but nonetheless finishing the season as part of a relegation side that conceded a disturbing amount of goals.
It shouldn’t be forgotten just how widely revered Zouma was before his stint on the sidelines though, and if Sarri can get the Frenchman back to that level Chelsea will have an imperiously physical centre-half to anchor what will otherwise be a really offensive-minded team.
After spending most of last season out in the cold, David Luiz’s Chelsea career could be set for another surprise revival. The 56-cap Brazilian offers all the high-pressing, optimistic qualities Sarri needs from his defence to play his way, and after missing out on World Cup selection he’s been a prominent figure in pre-season – partnering the aforementioned Ampadu.
If there’s one concern though, it’s that Luiz always looks more suspect in a back four than a back three.
He’s the club captain and most experienced defender at Stamford Bridge, but Gary Cahill’s never been the most exceptional of talents and he seems particularly rudimentary these days at the age of 32. He struggled to play out of the back in Conte’s three-man defence and won’t naturally suit Sarri’s philosophy either, but the skipper could still be a key figure in transitioning this Chelsea team between the ideals of the two Italians.
After a slightly shaky start to his Chelsea career, Antonio Rudiger finished last season as one of the new fan favourites at Stamford Bridge. Physical, aggressive, quick and no-nonsense in style, he’s a classic Chelsea centre-half – someone befitting of Mourinho’s two trophy-laden spells in west London. The big question then, is whether a classic Chelsea centre-half is what Sarri really needs. The German international is economical but by no means expansive on the ball.
Cesar Azpilicueta’s played everywhere across the backline for Chelsea, simply because he’s one of the most natural defenders in the Premier League, but the switch to a four-man defence suggests he’ll return to his primary position of right-back for the coming season; while the Spaniard’s lack of height wasn’t such an issue in a back three, it could become a glaring weakness in a two-man defence without that added protection behind him in the air.
Then again, Azpilicueta’s reading of the game on the deck is second to none, and his ability to step into midfield with the ball was a key aspect of Chelsea’s build-up play under Conte.
It was a promising first full season for Andres Christensen at Stamford Bridge last time out, although some felt a little underwhelmed by the end of the campaign. The 22-year-old reads the game fantastically well and adapted quickly to the physicality of the Premier League, but he struggled against truly elite opposition and will have a little less protection in Sarri’s back four.
He’s certainly a massive prospect though and is tidy enough on the ball to suit the Chelsea gaffer’s style, completing 93% of his passes in the Premier League last season.
So, Chelsea fans, who do you see as Sarri’s strongest centre-back partnership? Let us know by taking part in the poll below and giving the two defenders you’d pick a thumbs up…