Chelsea began Thomas Tuchel’s reign with 12 clean sheets in 14 games. Cesar Azpilicueta’s Stamford Bridge career was revived under him. Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen produced arguably their best form for the club. Thiago Silva continued to defy the ageing process. A side who conceded one goal in seven Champions League games defended their way to glory.
So it may feel incongruous that their next arrival could be for a centre-back. A club with a most glaring need for a goalscorer have instead signed a goalkeeper; Marcus Bettinelli, who should be third choice. Their next aim is Jules Kounde, the Sevilla centre-back who could prove the most expensive defender in this summer’s transfer market.
And yet Chelsea are entitled to argue they are financing much of a potential deal. They have raised a combined £43 million ($60m) by selling two young centre-backs, Fikayo Tomori to AC Milan and Marc Guehi to Crystal Palace. Kounde has a £68m release clause. If the serial Europa League winners want Kurt Zouma in part-exchange, that could reduce the Champions League winners’ actual outlay. So might negotiating a lower fee.
With Rudiger, Christensen and Thiago all out of contract next summer, signing Kounde would ensure a defence does not fall apart in 2022. Perhaps it would spur the German and the Dane towards a decision on their future; Rudiger has reportedly told Tuchel he is committed while the manager has made no secret of his desire to keep his compatriot. Christensen, meanwhile, can look the long-term successor to Thiago in the middle of the back three.
Perhaps Kounde could be Azpilicueta’s replacement. Certainly, at 22, he offers the promise of a decade’s service. Given the importance of an outstanding centre-back in the last two Premier League title wins, when Virgil van Dijk and Ruben Dias were exceptional, it is understandable Chelsea have targeted the position.
Kounde’s appeal has been apparent to others. He attracted Manchester City’s interest before they signed Dias. He managed a feat that eluded Dayot Upamecano and broke into France’s Euro 2020 squad, even if his only start came at right-back against Portugal. It was where he spent some of his formative years.
It is evidence of versatility; also, perhaps, that he lacks the stature of many a central defender. He is under six foot, though he possesses a prodigious leap, but was converted to a centre-back by then Bordeaux manager Gus Poyet.
He has excelled at the heart of the Sevilla defence alongside Diego Carlos. He has emerged as a very modern defender, excelling at pressing. Last season, Tuchel sometimes wanted his centre-backs to follow the man they were marking into midfield; Kounde looks very capable of following such instructions.
Kounde is also a ball-playing centre-back whose 90.7 pass completion rate in La Liga was impressive. Chelsea may note in particular that he completed 165 passes into the final third; only two centre-backs – Harry Maguire and Dias – did better in the Premier League and that ability to move the ball forward is prized. Kounde also ranked sixth in La Liga last season for progressive carrying distance; an ability to run the ball out from the back can add another dimension and brought a superb solo goal against Barcelona last season.
It could all render him the opposite of the potential departure. Zouma was arguably Chelsea’s finest centre-back in Frank Lampard’s final few months, but soon slipped down the pecking order after Tuchel’s appointment. A taller figure is more of an old-fashioned centre-back, less assured in possession but likelier to score from a set-piece. Given the uncertainty about the future of many of Chelsea’s central defenders, he could prove the man around whom they build for years.