Chelsea rolled back the years in the summer of 2020, splurging north of 200 million during a typical Roman Abramovich transfer window. Ironically, or perhaps in true Chelsea style, while most of those big-money signings have faltered to impress, the club’s best signing (and maybe best player) has been one it didn’t spend a dime on. The ever-young, Thiago Silva.
While the arrival of the legendary centerback was heavily scrutinized by large parts of the Chelsea fanbase, the Brazilian’s performances and attitude have quickly made him a fan-favorite. On the field, the veteran’s masterful positioning and immaculate passing have brought a calming effect to the defense. Off the field, his leadership and mentorship have been praised by staff and players alike.
First under his new manager Lampard, and then under his old-yet-new manager Thomas Tuchel, the Brazilian was viewed as captain material. For a squad brimming with talented, young players, Silva slowly but surely became a figure quite resembling Chelsea’s finest; John Terry.
The Brazilian continued to be a key figure after Tuchel’s appointment, even when the German changed up the tactics and system at the club. But while his mind was sharp as a sword, Silva’s body let him down during the game against Spurs. He has gone on to miss eight games through injury since, but the lack of his presence has been barely felt due to a certain Andreas Christensen stepping up.
Andreas Christensen reannouncing himself in Thiago Silva’s absence has given Chelsea a dilemma they weren’t prepared for and didn’t see coming. The Dane has been quite magnificent since his mid-match introduction against Tottenham, which has caught every viewer and pundit by surprise. Gone is the frail body language and the shaky touches, Christensen looks purposeful with every action he takes. There’s a certain impregnable aura around him right now, not too dissimilar to his half-season form under Conte in 2017/18.
There’s also no denying that the improvement in his performances is interlinked to the return of the 3-4-3, but Dane deserves all the praise coming his way after more than two years of being a bystander under Maurizio Sarri and Frank Lampard. After plenty of false dawns, the player finally looks like he can deliver on the promise he had once shown.
His biggest task at hand though is not to keep a hungry opposition striker at bay, but the even hungrier Thiago Silva as he returns to the fold against Leeds United. The vice captain’s return sparks the biggest selection headache Tuchel has had since he took over; who starts between Christensen and Silva? That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.
Looked at from a long-term perspective, there’s no denying that the 24-year-old Christensen’s development should take precedence over the last hurray of a 36-year-old Silva. But conundrum really kicks when Tuchel’s short-term contract in taken into account. The German has not been given the time or luxury to build a team as per his vision, the criteria for his renewal are simple; results.
In a top-four race that will most likely to go right down to the wire, and chances of winning the Champions League and FA Cup very alive, the German has close to no room for error. Replacing Christensen in the starting lineup might disturb the rhythm of an in-form team, while keeping Silva out would mean losing out on his experience during season-defining moments.
While healthy rotation is an option against the likes of Leeds United, who is deemed to be the starter for big matches like the one against Atletico Madrid?
Christensen can seem to do no wrong right now, but it’s anybody’s guess as to how long that will last. The Dane infamously crumbled under the weight of expectation during the Champions League tie against Barcelona three years back; the biggest game of his career so far. He has shown glimpses of good form, as he did during Project Restart last year, but his record proves that these purple patches don’t last long.
And while Tuchel has nothing to worry about on the mental side of things for Silva, his age and body certainly go against his favor. Can Tuchel risk Silva chase a striker as the last man only for his hamstring to give in? And similarly, can the German risk Christensen having a breakdown during the most pivotal games of the season?
Arsenal was in a similar predicament with their goalkeepers over the summer, selling the in-form Martinez for Leno. While the latter has been one of the club’s better players, Martinez is in the running to be Premier League’s best keeper. Sometimes, all it takes is a leap of faith to make the right decision, even when there is a lack of evidence to back it.
The role of the central defender that’s been contested for is arguably the most important in the team. He who is tasked with it needs to be constantly aware in all directions, sweep the ball away from plenty of awkward situations and control the transitions of play from defense to attack. At Stamford Bridge, it can simply be called the John Terry role.
Deciding between the once-touted heir to Terry’s throne in Andreas Christensen and the Brazilian equivalent of Terry in Thiago Silva is the hardest of tasks, but Tuchel might have dropped a subtle hint at his decision. When Zouma seemed to be injured during the Everton game, Tuchel asked Silva to warm up over Rudiger, who was the natural replacement for the left-sided centerback role. It’s a position that neither Silva nor Christensen has been deployed in for a variety of reasons, but Tuchel might have another ace up his sleeve.
Can’t decide between them? Play ‘em both.