As part of our review of the 2016-17 Chelsea Loan Report season, we’re focusing on ten of the 44 players who embarked upon temporary moves away from Stamford Bridge. The ten players have been selected as being amongst the most interesting of the group; be it for their proximity to the first-team squad under Antonio Conte, for the league they’re playing in, the progress they’ve made at a tender age, or simply because their situation warrants closer inspection, we’ll take a look at the year just gone, review the footage in depth, and take a moment to ponder what the future holds.
Today’s focus is on Andreas Christensen.
– 43 appearances, 4 goals for Borussia Mönchengladbach
What does he do well?
Going straight from development football into a regular starting berth at the business end of the Bundesliga, Christensen has established himself as one of the very best young defenders in the world over the past two seasons. He’s grown into a lean but powerful 6’2” frame, has the pace to get around, and reads the game like a seasoned pro with several years more experience.
His composure is evident each and every time you watch him play, his anticipation is elite, and he’s a serial interceptor. Such are his smarts that he has consistently ranked amongst the top players in Germany in interceptions, blocks made, and clearances, all the more impressive for the fact that Gladbach have been a top half team during his time there and typically have less defensive work to do than many struggling clubs. Squawka credited him with just two defensive errors last season.
He’s patient in possession, rarely forcing passes and attaining one of the highest passing success rates in Europe whilst setting a new Bundesliga record earlier this season too. He’s as nimble as they come for a defender and is very good in tight spaces, making him ideal to operate in the build-up phase, where many in his position are much less capable under pressure. He has Champions League and Europa League experience, has become a regular in the Denmark squad, and continues to go from strength to strength whilst only turning 21 back in April.
Where does he have room for improvement?
Those passing numbers are eye-catching but, upon closer inspection, are perhaps the result of the safety-first approach he tends to adopt. He’s always been risk-averse – a strong trait to have as a defender – but will often circulate the ball between him and his flanking centre-backs without really going anywhere, and could occasionally do with being more ambitious with his distribution. He does compare favourably with the rest of the league (and other leagues) overall at the end of the day as far as the numbers go, but you come away with the impression that he could be even more decisive if he had the confidence to be.
It’s a small detail to take issue with, one that some might disagree with, but it’s testament to his all-round game that it’s one of the few flaws you can readily identify. He’ll have to adapt to handling a more physical workload in England – he struggled from time to time in a pair of matches against Manchester City early last season – but the Bundesliga is close enough in style to the Premier League to give plenty of reason to be confident in his adaptation.
Digging deeper into his game, Mark Thompson’s analysis makes for interesting reading, particularly the comments regarding his perceived ‘blinkeredness’ when forced into making quick decisions, but even he admits that the Dane has come along leaps and bounds in the last twelve months and has managed to refine some of the more obvious issues with his game.
How does he fit into this Chelsea team?
At Gladbach, Christensen spent time playing in a 4-2-2-2 formation as well as a back three in a 3-5-2, setting him up perfectly for a return to Chelsea, who have of course favoured the 3-4-3 shape under Antonio Conte. However, he featured as the central defender in that three at Gladbach, a position held by David Luiz at Stamford Bridge, and the Brazilian is unlikely to relinquish the spot according to Conte:
“I think this position is perfect for David to play as a central player in three defenders. This is the best position for him because he has good technique, he’s strong, he can start our possession and the personality to do this”
If he’s to become first-choice in the near future, therefore, he’ll have to supplant either Gary Cahill or Cesar Azpilicueta either side of him. Having made his Chelsea debut at right-back, and being right footed, he’d favour playing on Luiz’s right, but he did line up as the left centre-back in a two-man central pairing throughout his time in the academy and would be comfortable enough on that side if needed. In his case, his defensive attributes will serve him well anywhere in the back three, but it’s the rest of his game that might need work if he’s to step out of the middle of a back three.
Azpilicueta and Cahill played a crucial role in Chelsea’s build-up play last season. They were charged with feeding the ball from back to front in a variety of manners; either into Diego Costa in the channels whilst support arrived, or into Eden Hazard and Pedro between the lines to draw defenders out and allow Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso to transition into attack at wing-back. Azpilicueta in particular was integral in the success of this, playing some 500 more passes over the course of the season than Luiz, and 300 more than Cahill. Luiz was left to play the lower percentage balls over longer distances (almost six metres longer per pass on average), which naturally reduced his accuracy overall, but was part of the overall plan.
The good news for Christensen is that his own numbers at Gladbach compare favourably and almost mirror those of Azpilicueta. It’s almost criminal to suggest after the Spaniard played every minute of the title-winning season and was amongst the very best Chelsea players throughout the campaign, but when you consider that Christensen is a better defender, a natural centre-back, and can contribute just as much in possession, a change could be in the offing sooner rather than later.
(all stats via Squawka and cover 2016-17)
What are his prospects for 2017-18?
Christensen confirmed to the Danish media that he would be reporting for pre-season duty at Chelsea on July 7th and, although he had ‘many options’ available to him, he was expecting to compete for a place in Conte’s squad. If he doesn’t, it’ll be hard to loan him out again – neither he nor his family (his father Sten is his agent) are prepared to entertain the idea – and he could have his pick of clubs if he was to instead force a move.
Only Thibaut Courtois has achieved more whilst out on loan as a Chelsea development prospect, and he was able to return from three years away good enough to supplant a club legend and begin his own legacy in SW6. He, however, never stepped foot in the academy, whereas Christensen spent three years there before eventually going on loan, and is therefore the litmus test for the whole operation.
No other loanee of his type has developed the same credentials or the same attributes as Christensen has whilst in Northern Germany. Were he contracted to another club, he would almost certainly have been linked with a £40m+ move to the Bridge already (indeed, John Stones, a player who bears a close resemblance to Christensen, was heavily rumoured to be London-bound before eventually joining Manchester City), and so it makes far too much sense for them to integrate what is essentially a world-class free transfer into the squad, and use those funds to strengthen the rest of the team.
If only it was that easy.