Ben Chilwell shook his head as he was helped down the Stamford Bridge tunnel by two members of Chelsea’s medical team. This was no run-of-the-mill injury and the wing-back knew it.
The incident that led to the England international writhing in pain on the cold pitch was innocuous enough. A loose pass from Federico Chiesa was chased down by Chilwell. He challenged Adrien Rabiot for possession but appeared to jar his knee in the process. That was his game over.
“He was in a lot of pain, now he feels a bit better,” Thomas Tuchel said after the 4-0 victory on Tuesday evening. “We have an examination tomorrow to be a bit more precise and we hope for the best. Hopefully, we get away with fingers crossed, with not too bad news.”
Unfortunately, Chilwell’s injury is as serious as it first appeared. According to The Telegraph, he has damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and while a decision as to whether he will need surgery will not be taken until January, Chilwell is set for a prolonged spell on the sideline and could even be ruled out for the rest of the campaign.
It is a cruel blow for the 24-year-old, who overcame a difficult summer with England to reclaim his left wing-back spot from Marcos Alonso and play the best football of his Chelsea career. In six Premier League appearances this term, Chilwell has three goals and an assist. The Blues also conceded just twice with him in the starting XI in the top-flight.
Chilwell’s absence will allow Alonso to step back into the fold. The 30-year-old started the campaign well before his form tailed off and he was usurped by the former Leicester City star.
Alonso will not be able to cover Chilwell alone, however, as Chelsea face a run of 10 matches in 35 days, starting on Sunday against Manchester United. The Spaniard will have to be rotated, have to be given an opportunity to recuperate.
How Tuchel ensures that happens will be intriguing. Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi are potential options to fill in, although both are somewhat limited defensively. Cesar Azpilicueta could be deployed in the role but he is far more defensively-minded than Chilwell and is also right-footed.
There is another option available to Tuchel, a wildcard choice the Chelsea head coach could explore in the weeks ahead: Saul Niguez.
Signed on a season-long loan – with a £30million option to make the move permanent – from Atletico Madrid on transfer deadline day, the 27-year-old hoped to kickstart his career at Stamford Bridge.
He was tired of being played out of position by Diego Simeone and wanted to be given a run in central midfield, the position in which he developed his reputation.
“I spoke with (Diego) Simeone,” Saul told Spanish streamer Ibai Llanos on Twitch shortly after his move to Chelsea was confirmed.
“I have been playing in different positions for three seasons. I owe everything to Diego and he must be selfish and think of the group. But I saw myself stuck in a position that was not mine.
“Chelsea was an option to get out of the comfort zone, a challenge. I asked Simeone and Miguel Angel to play in my position. I understand that he refused and from there they decided this. I’ve been here since I was 13 and it’s very hard.
“I want to take up other movements and positions that I did not perform from the other position. It is the most important reason for my decision.”
Saul knew when he signed he would be Tuchel’s fourth-choice central midfielder, behind N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic. He would not have banked on falling behind Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who has enjoyed a renaissance this term.
At the time of writing, Saul has made just six appearances for Chelsea and only three of them have been starts. He has played just 16 minutes since the beginning of November.
The harsh reality is Saul’s game time will be limited for the remainder of this campaign if he is steadfast on his desire to only play in central midfield. He is simply not going to get the regular minutes needed to impress and usurp the likes of Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek.
Yet there is an opening at left wing-back following Chilwell’s injury and while Saul may not want to play the role regularly, it could be a gateway to further central midfield opportunities.
Before he joined Chelsea in the summer, Saul started two of Atletico’s opening three La Liga games at left wing-back. As you can see below (via WhoScored) from Atleti’s 1-0 win over Elche, he was largely stuck out on the flank and was rarely playing passes in dangerous areas of the pitch.
That wouldn’t be the case if used in the role under Tuchel, especially in games Chelsea are favourites to win. The Blues head coach has given his wing-backs licence to drift infield and influence attacks from central midfield positions. Chilwell and, in particular, Reece James have thrived under this instruction.
The above is where Chilwell played his passes from during the 1-1 draw against Burnley prior to the last international break. As you can see, the majority came in the opposition half and several were played in areas usually occupied by a central midfielder, the role Saul wants to play.
It’s an experiment Tuchel can run if Saul is willing. He should be, given the Spain international needs to make his Chelsea loan work given there is currently no room on Atletico’s wage bill for him to return to the Wanda Metropolitano early.
Saul certainly wouldn’t have envisaged such a scenario when he decided to swap Madrid for London in the summer. Yet circumstances change, unexpected opportunities arise. And if if there are minutes to be had at left wing-back for Saul in the weeks ahead, he’s got to make the most of them.