While it may have been The First Trophy Of The Mauricio Pochettino Era™, Chelsea’s 2-0 win over local rivals Fulham at FedEx Field to wrap up the inaugural Premier League Summer Series was eclipsed by news of the club’s fourth centre-back signing within 12 months.
Axel Disasi is moving to Stamford Bridge from Monaco in a deal worth €45million (£38m). Aside from being reunited with former clubmate Benoit Badiashile in west London, his arrival will also help mitigate what is expected to be a lengthy spell on the sidelines for Wesley Fofana following surgery to reconstruct his anterior cruciate knee ligament earlier this month.
But the ripple effects from the Disasi signing will be felt throughout Chelsea’s pre-existing centre-back depth chart. At 25, he is the oldest player recruited by the club since last summer (taking into account that Christopher Nkunku’s transfer to Stamford Bridge was finalised almost a full year in advance). He profiles as less of a prospect and more of an immediate contender for significant first-team minutes.
Clearly his signing is bad news for Trevoh Chalobah who, until leaving the pitch with a muscular injury against Fulham on the hour mark, was on course to lead the entire Chelsea squad for minutes played in Pochettino’s first four pre-season games. The Cobham graduate was also in prime position to claim a big chunk of competitive playing time in Fofana’s absence; Disasi’s arrival underlines that he is not trusted to fill that role.
Chalobah has for some time been regarded internally at Chelsea as one of the more saleable assets in the squad. He went into this pre-season inclined to stay and fight for his place at the club despite interest from Inter Milan, but the presence of another centre-back signing above him in the pecking order may force a change in his thinking.
What exactly that pecking order looks like remains unclear. Pochettino’s pre-season selection was never likely to be a reliable guide given Badiashile’s absence with a hamstring injury, but his choices have been even less indicative than expected. Chalobah and Bashir Humphreys have each played more minutes in the US on their own than Levi Colwill and Thiago Silva — for many the most realistic available starting partnership against Liverpool — have combined.
Silva, twice the age of several of his pre-season teammates, requires the most delicate load management at this late stage of his career. But even if his energy reserves are full, how athletically viable is he in this Chelsea team? Thomas Tuchel concluded he could not survive in a back four two years ago, and the attacking responsibilities of each full-back in Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 system could expose him even more to fast Premier League attackers.
Disasi’s greater mobility better equips him to cover the space vacated by a surging right-back. His extensive experience playing alongside Badiashile at Monaco is also something that Pochettino may want to explore in an area of the pitch where collective chemistry is vital to success. Doing so would necessarily be at the expense of Colwill, who has shown no inclination to sign a new contract at Chelsea until he finds out if he can earn a regular starting spot.
His best chance will come early. Badiashile will need to ramp up at Cobham and perhaps even play for the development squad before Pochettino can consider throwing him into Premier League games, while the timing of Disasi’s transfer leaves him little time to assimilate and adapt to his new environment before Liverpool visit Stamford Bridge.
A strong start to the season from Colwill could very quickly make all the speculation around his Chelsea future look ridiculous, and Pochettino’s glowing public endorsement of his elite potential after the Brighton game suggests he has the new head coach’s full faith. But the competition will be fascinating to track, not least because he, Badiashile and Disasi all have serious aspirations to establish themselves as key players for their respective national teams ahead of Euro 2024.
Then there is Humphreys, who deserves much more than to be considered an afterthought in light of his highly impressive pre-season performances. No defender in Pochettino’s squad has played more minutes across Chelsea’s first four matches in the US, and the Cobham graduate was a reliable progressor of the ball out of defence against Newcastle and Fulham in addition to solidly carrying out his more traditional centre-back duties.
Chelsea’s plan was always to make Humphreys available to other clubs after giving Pochettino an opportunity to work with him in the US. It is one he has embraced. “I came into pre-season not really expecting anything — just work hard and see what happens — and I’ve come out with a lot of minutes, so it’s been really positive,” he said after the Fulham win.
“I feel like you’ve always got to have that mentality: whether or not things are going on above you or players are being signed, you’ve just got to always be pushing, do your best and work your way in there.”
In other circumstances, Humphreys might have done enough to win a place in Pochettino’s first-team plans for the season. More likely he has instead improved the calibre of club eager to take him on loan — itself a real achievement and one which, if last season’s productive spell at Paderborn is anything to go by, may actually prove more beneficial for his development.
Chelsea’s final pre-season friendly against Borussia Dortmund in Chicago should provide hints as to Pochettino’s thinking ahead of the Liverpool game. Given their relatively low minutes totals so far, Colwill and Silva are the freshest centre-back options and look due to reprise the partnership initiated against Brighton, but the signing of Disasi will provide an intriguing new variable in a critical area of the pitch when the squad return to London.