Thomas Tuchel’s decision to start Reece James at centre-back in Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham sent a clear message — he wants a central defender, preferably Wesley Fofana.
The Leicester man has been on the Blues’ shopping list all summer and a deal looks to be edging closer after he was left out of the squad for the 2-1 defeat to Southampton yesterday.
Fofana, 21, has reportedly told the Foxes of his intention to move to West London after growing frustrated with the club’s £85million valuation.
Ahead of Chelsea’s trip to Leeds, we ask whether Fofana is worth the fuss and whether they can build around the Frenchman in the long term.
Making a point
Speaking before his side’s dramatic draw with Tottenham at Stamford Bridge, Tuchel confirmed in no uncertain terms his desire to sign another centre-half.
He said: “We could use one more central defender if you look at the numbers and that we play with a back three.”
The German promptly selected James on the right of the back three with Ruben Loftus-Cheek filling in at wing-back.
Chelsea’s three most senior central defenders are Cesar Azpilicueta, 32, Thiago Silva, 37, and Kalidou Koulibaly, 31. Between them, they have an average age of 33 — clearly, they are not the future.
Controlled aggressionFofana is the man Tuchel and Chelsea have their hearts set on — and with good reason.
The Frenchman has proven himself to be one of the Premier League’s best young centre-backs since arriving from St Etienne in 2020 for a reported £36.5m.
Speaking in April, Foxes boss Brendan Rodgers was effusive in his praise of the young defender.
He said: “His anticipation as a defender is top — he just has an in-built brain for the game, his reading of the game is great.
“With all due respect, he has no respect in terms of [when he is] on the field.
“He defends forward, he is aggressive and in my experience working with world-class players, they have got great human qualities outside of the field but when they’re on there, they’re super-aggressive and that’s exactly what he is.”
A cool, calm and composed defender, Fofana’s impressive physical attributes are enhanced by his impressive reading of the game and ability to position himself in the right place.
The left-sided defender is quick, athletic, aggressive and equally comfortable driving forward and progressing play.
In 2020-21 — his last full season with the Foxes — Fofana ranked fourth among all Premier League centre-halves for interceptions per 90 minutes with 2.42, evidence of his awareness and timing.
He was third for possession regains in the defensive third (4.45) but perhaps more impressive were the 2.74 he averaged in the middle third (ranking fifth overall) — underlining his ability to step up and nick the ball in less dangerous areas.
First line of attackIn possession, Fofana was heavily involved in Leicester’s build-up play from the back.
He averaged 84.32 touches per 90 minutes — 12th compared to all central defenders in 2020-21 and third versus his Foxes team-mates.
At Leicester that campaign, only centre-back partner Caglar Soyuncu averaged more completed passes per 90 minutes (60.2) than Fofana (57.9).
Fofana is not scared to bring the ball out either. He averaged the 10th-most take-ons per 90 minutes (0.83) in his maiden season in English football and was successful with 0.6 (seventh).
In the early weeks of the season, new-boy Koulibaly has played on the left-hand side of Chelsea’s back three — but Fofana’s arrival could change that.
The France Under-21s international is most comfortable there despite being naturally right-footed.
Koulibaly will be expected to shift over to the right, relieving James of the need to play inside.
That has a significant impact on how the Blues attack too, given the England full-back’s forward-thinking nature.
He scored five times against an expected goals tally of 2.53 last term, as well as recording nine assists on an expected assists figure of 5.79.
Signing Fofana will not only strengthen Chelsea’s backline but enhance their attack too.