Chelsea’s rather scatter-gun approach to the transfer window since their takeover went through has been one of the talking points of pre-season.
New owner Todd Boehly has been a busy man but missed out on a host of players who were apparently key targets.
Jules Kounde, Raphinha and Matthijs de Ligt all went to other clubs; Ousmane Dembele opted to sign a new contract with Barcelona; and the Blues were unsuccessful in reported pursuits of Presnel Kimpembe and Nathan Ake. On top of that, Chelsea saw Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen leave on free transfers.
Sky Sports pundit and former Manchester United defender Gary Neville has likened Boehly’s activity to someone playing on the computer game Football Manager.
But for all their failed dealings, Chelsea have brought in Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly and now Marc Cucurella.
The deal for the latter, however, certainly hasn’t been completed without criticism. First of all, Chelsea could end up paying £62million to Brighton and Hove Albion for the Spaniard, which would be a world-record fee for a left-back.
Manchester City were apparently unwilling to pay more than £30m for him, so why are Chelsea so convinced by him?
— Brighton & Hove Albion (@OfficialBHAFC) July 19, 2022
MAKING HIS MARC OUTSIDE OF SPAIN
A graduate of Barcelona’s La Masia academy, Cucurella has always looked extremely promising.
As such, it was a surprise Barca ever let him go on loan to Eibar with a purchase option in the first place four years ago. It was even more bizarre 12 months later when the Blaugrana exercised their buy-back clause just 16 days after officially selling him, only to loan him again to Getafe with a €6million option – and reportedly 40 per cent of any future transfer fee – about 48 hours later.
His form at Eibar and Getafe regularly suggested Barca were being short-sighted, although neither club nor Brighton would be considered especially fashionable, which is perhaps why he’s still only played once for Spain.
One might even say Cucurella’s only season at Brighton went under the radar until City’s interest surfaced a few weeks ago – but make no mistake, he took to the Premier League impressively, his development in the physically intense teams of Jose Luis Mendilibar and Jose Bordalas clearly coming in useful.
The 24-year-old was used predominantly in his favoured left-back position last term, while also filling in as a left wing-back and as a left-sided centre-back at a time of need for Brighton, despite previous doubts over his ability to defend.
“There were people who said I couldn’t play as a full-back because I couldn’t defend, but now I’m proving I can even play as a centre-back in a back three,” Cucurella told Spanish outlet Marca earlier this year.
“What I was looking for was to play as a full-back, which is what I have done all my life. I had never played left centre-back before, but [Brighton head coach Graham Potter] has given me the confidence to feel very comfortable there.”
Thrown in at the deep end as Brighton dealt with an injury crisis midway through the 2021-22 season – his first outside his native Spain – Cucurella more than passed the test and added further strings to his bow.
CUCURELLA THE ALL-ROUNDER
Whether operating at full-back, wing-back or centre-back, Cucurella helped Brighton keep 11 clean sheets in the Premier League last season, a tally that only six other clubs could better.
Far from being someone who is unable to defend, he led the way among players who played predominantly as full-backs in the English top flight last season in terms of winning back possession, doing so 247 times.
He also ranked behind only Tyrick Mitchell for tackles – 93 compared to the Crystal Palace youngster’s 104 – showing he is happy to get stuck in when required.
The one-cap Spain international also proved he is capable of attacking, with his 40 open-play chances created placing him behind only new team-mate Reece James (42) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (51), who many would consider to be two of the finest attacking full-backs around.
Granted, those key passes only translated to one assist – for context, James recorded nine last season – but some of that can be put down to the finishing of Brighton’s attacking players, rather than Cucurella alone failing to deliver from wide.
Indeed, his expected assists (xA) return of 2.8 last term was still the 14th-highest of any full-back. While that may not sound outstanding, it’s worth bearing in mind the only players to exceed 4.0 xA were James (4.7), Andrew Robertson (5.5), Joao Cancelo (6.6) and Alexander Arnold (13), all of whom obviously play at clubs who dominate most of their games.
Furthermore, given his near decade spent in the Barca youth set-up and then on the fringes of the first team, it comes as no surprise to see Cucurella is very comfortable with the ball at his feet.
The 1,558 passes he completed last season were bettered – again among those who can be considered full-backs by trade – by only Robertson (1,642), Alexander-Arnold (1,684) and Cancelo (2,516).
Cucurella is clearly a feisty competitor who can also play, a combination that in itself is an asset.
A GAMBLE WORTH TAKING?
On the basis of those numbers and the importance Thomas Tuchel places on his wing-backs, bringing in Cucurella in this window does make some sense for Chelsea. But one problem, of course, is the mammoth transfer fee.
Of course, as Graham Potter said on Friday, Brighton didn’t need to sell, and Cucurella still had four years left to run on his contract, so the Seagulls were in a position of absolute strength.
From Chelsea’s perspective, that leads us to a key question: was Cucurella a necessity? Right now, arguably not, and the fee does look remarkable given he only cost Brighton £16m a year ago.
There remains the likely scenario that Marcos Alonso leaves the club, in which case Cucurella and Ben Chilwell will be left to fight over that spot on the left flank, but again, does a club need two players of such expense for one position?
Sure, Cucurella’s greater versatility means the pair could potentially play together, although clearly one or the other would be playing at least slightly out of their natural position in such a scenario.
It’s difficult to escape the feeling Chelsea might’ve been better served signing another natural centre-back or perhaps a striker.
But in fairness to Cucurella, the noise around his transfer has nothing to do with him. All he can do is concentrate on the obstacles in front of him, and he’s done a pretty good job of adapting to his surroundings at each of his past three clubs.
As a player with Barcelona pedigree, who has proved himself in numerous roles during his short time in England and is still young enough to further improve, don’t bet against Cucurella being a hit at Stamford Bridge, even if his signing has left plenty puzzled.