Antonio Rudiger’s departure from Chelsea will leave a void far greater than pure footballing ability.
He’s proven himself in the last 18 months to be a fantastic defender, but while his skills – positioning, speed, aggression, the occasional howitzer into the top corner – are relatively easy to replace, there’s an untouchable quality to his game, a ‘je ne sais quoi’, that’s close to unique.
Think of the world’s best defenders and you will likely have an image of calm authority. Virgil van Dijk, Thiago Silva, David Alaba, Ruben Dias, they’re almost irritatingly unflappable. Rudiger is one of very few world class centre-backs to play football on the edge. Boy, it’s entertaining.
Before Thomas Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge, the times in which Rudiger failed to toe the line, or forgot where it was, usually ended in calamity. Owing to his exuberance, he was cast as the most error-prone of a group of obviously talented centre-backs that Frank Lampard had no idea what to do with.
It’s incredible to think – given the high regard he is now held in across Europe – that Rudiger featured in just four of 19 Premier League games in the 2020-21 season before Tuchel arrived in late January. He’s barely been out of the team since and his journey from running joke, to cult hero, to absolute hero at Chelsea, has been glorious.
He continues to play every football game as though it’s his last: celebrating wildly; smiling at angry forwards he’s knowingly poked in the ribs; giving the fans something so often missing from the sterile modern game – pure, unadulterated passion. It’s his character, combined with his enviable talent, that Chelsea will miss dearly.
90min understands that Real Madrid are confident of completing a deal for Rudiger on a free transfer this summer. The sanctions imposed on Roman Abramovich have hampered negotiations, but the crux of the matter appears quite simply to be that Rudiger wants more than Chelsea are willing to pay him. The question now is how to replace him.
Chelsea won’t be able to buy a ready-made Rudiger. His affiliation with the club and the fans was forged over time, and the love that’s felt for the German international isn’t just about his quality, or his demeanour, but also due to the way in which he overcame adversity at Stamford Bridge to become the giant of a player and person he now is.
But in truth, particularly given Andreas Christensen is off to Barcelona and Cesar Azpilicueta may follow suit, Chelsea could do with a centre-back without the same career curve as Rudiger. They need someone to fit immediately into Tuchel’s system and hit the ground running.
Jules Kounde may be the man. Chelsea’s interest in the Sevilla centre-back is longstanding, with the 23-year-old originally seen as a replacement for Kurt Zouma when he departed for West Ham last summer. 90min understands that Kounde is still keen on a move to Stamford Bridge and has been told by the Chelsea hierarchy that he will be among the first signings through the door when the takeover of the club is complete.
Levante UD v Sevilla FC – La Liga Santander / Angel Martinez/GettyImages
Kounde has similar attributes to Rudiger: he’s quick – if not quicker – than the German; he reads the game well; he’s aggressive in the tackle; he’s comfortable in possession. And one aspect of his game that may be an improvement on Rudiger is his passing range. He’s known for his accurate switches of play and given the chance to get forward, which he will should Tuchel play him to the side in a back three, he can put a mean cross into the box.
And although Kounde will cost upwards of £50m, he will likely be on roughly half Rudiger’s wages, and at just 23 years old, offers greater longevity to his counterpart.
No matter how it’s dressed up, Rudiger’s boots will be tough to fill. No Chelsea fan wants to see a player that’s perhaps most synonymous with the success of Tuchel’s short tenure leave the club.
Rudiger has been both brilliant and great fun, but the club has to move on, and in six months time, the guttoral roar from Chelsea fans could be reserved for a crunching tackle or rampaging run from Kounde, rather than ‘Ruuuddddii’.
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