How Enzo Fernandez debut reveals extent of Chelsea’s rebuild

The Argentine immediately settled into the Blues side after his £107 million move from Benfica on Tuesday

Jack Rathborn
Stamford Bridge
Friday 03 February 2023 22:28 GMT
Astonishing record total Premier League clubs spent in January transfer window revealed

Chelsea remain a work in progress and the return on their lavish spree may take a while yet, but Enzo Fernandez offers immense promise and a start.

Graham Potter might just cling onto that for now, as his grin at yet another shiny new toy gradually turned to a grimace as Fulham held the Blues in a goalless stalemate.

Yet Fernandez, immediately flung into the line-up after Tuesday’s late night drama, represented an immediate upgrade as the Blues endure this frustrating transition.

It has been a staggering rise for Fernandez, from Benfica’s speculative £8.8 million outlay last summer, a pivotal role in Argentina’s World Cup glory in December and now this week’s £107 million move to spearhead Chelsea’s revival.

The 22-year-old has certainly thrived with each sniff of an opportunity, but his presence under the lights of Stamford Bridge may not have even been possible had River Plate gone deeper in last year’s Copa Libertadores, such was Benfica’s patience to wait until January for his arrival until River Plate’s last 16 exit at the hands of Velez Sarsfield accelerated the process.

An international debut against Honduras soon followed in September, as his form for the Portuguese giants made it impossible for Lionel Scaloni to ignore. The exorbitant outlay has shone a light on the Chelsea ownership’s wisdom, yet the ingredients are there for Fernandez to blossom into a transcendent player.

Potter is barely familiar with Fernandez on a personal level, yet his immediate selection, at the heart of the Blues’ midfield, was revealing.

There is a lot to unpack in Fernandez’s game; inheriting the No 5 shirt from Jorginho, who moved across London to Arsenal this week, Chelsea hope they have another metronome in possession. His magnetic presence in Portugal this season suggests he might just be that. Fernandez’s prolific distribution, having led the league with 1,432 passes, 286 more than the next most in former teammate Nicolas Otamendi (1,145), shows the potential. Yet Chelsea aren’t anywhere near as dominant in the Premier League as Fernandez’s former employers.

There is hope Fernandez’s infectious presence can be seen without the ball too, having made the fifth most tackles by centre-midfielders in the Champions League group stage.

He immediately stood out here with his peroxide hair providing a white flash across the base of Chelsea’s midfield. And his passing would soon illuminate a game lacking quality elsewhere. Neat and tidy while splitting Thiago Silva and Benoit Badiashile in possession, Fernandez soon showed his range, thumping a switch out wide to the onrushing Reece James.

And while the smooth distribution caught the eye, Fernandez’s combative style ensured he thrived in the cauldron of this London derby. The hardened shell of Fulham’s shape and organisation asked whether Fernandez was up for the fight. Quite literally at times, when Aleksandar Mitrovic wrestled him to the turf at a corner.

But for Hakim Ziyech’s wild finish, Chelsea might have had an opener thanks to one of several crunching Fernandez challenges, which left Andreas Pereira crumpled on the turf before the quick release opened up the Whites.

Chelsea's Enzo Fernandez in action (REUTERS)

Part of the difficulty for Fernandez was how isolated he was at times though, with Conor Gallagher and Mason Mount pushed up in possession. It limited where Fernandez could receive the ball and the angles to manipulate the ball to unsettle Fulham’s block.

The game gradually opened up in the second half, allowing a glimpse of a more expansive role with Fernandez floating into areas and picking up scraps. A sturdier partner in midfield, such as Denis Zakaria, ,could unlock his game further. Fernandez sniffed a debut goal and was inches away when his curling effort beat Bernd Leno and the far post.

There was not to be a decisive impact on this game though, with a number of pieces to Potter’s puzzle in front of Fernandez still a mystery.

Ziyech and Mykhailo Mudryk started the game, both were substituted, with Noni Madueke and Raheem Sterling adding little more coherence in relief. And Mount and Gallagher frustrated at times, too. Kai Havertz is still unconvincing as the side’s No 9.

It all means Fernandez is just one answer to a host of questions left for Potter to answer in what is still a work in progress.

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