Chelsea were embarrassingly poor in their 4-1 loss at Manchester United on Thursday night. Yes, they had chances to score, with Kai Havertz, Conor Gallagher and Mykhailo Mudryk all missing big chances in the opening 45 minutes. The Blues, though, were made to rue those missed opportunities as United eased to a victory that secured their spot in the Champions League next season.
For Chelsea, it was another nail in the coffin that has been the 2022/23 season. They've had four different managers, including caretaker boss Bruno Saltor between Graham Potter's sacking and Frank Lampard's curious return to the Stamford Bridge helm, the latter of which has proved disastrous, but at least they have a plan in place for next season.
Mauricio Pochettino is set to take over in west London, much to the dismay of supporters of rudderless Tottenham, so the Blues can at least focus on improving the squad in the off-season. The priority needs to be a striker. Only Wolves (31), Southampton (32) and Everton (33) have scored fewer Premier League goals than Chelsea (37) this season, and despite efforts to rid themselves of the dreaded 'Number 9' curse, they are still struggling to find the right player to put the ball in the back of the net.
There are other areas in need of improvement at Stamford Bridge, with a central midfielder, and notably the right partner for Enzo Fernandez in the middle of the park, high on the wishlist. The Argentine joined in the death throes of the January transfer window following a prolonged pursuit of his services at the turn of the year.
Fernandez was key in Argentina's World Cup triumph in Qatar, and was crucial in Benfica's sprint-start to the Liga Bwin season that set Roger Schmidt's side on the cusp of domestic glory. Yet, another key cog in the Benfica machine was Fernandez's midfield partner, Florentino. The 23-year-old was the ball winner alongside the 22-year-old that allowed the pair to dominate midfields with ease, with Florentino chipping in with an impressive 3.4 tackles per 90.
While Fernandez is adept at winning possession for his side, he is far better suited at getting on the ball and dictating the tempo, something he hasn't be able to do to his lofty standards at Stamford Bridge due to the youngster playing alongside the wrong type of midfielder. As such, Chelsea are seeking to rectify this issue, and may return to Lisbon to bolster in the middle of the park.
💪 Manuel Ugarte this season:— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) May 26, 2023
🇵🇹 Most tackles (121) in Liga Portugal
⭐ Most tackles (29) in the Champions League
🇪🇺 Only 5 players have made more tackles (24) in the Europa League pic.twitter.com/j0F0cwQ91a
Florentino may top the tackles per 90 metric for Benfica, but leading this stat in Liga Bwin is Sporting CP star Manuel Ugarte (4.3). Having lost key midfield pair Joao Palhinha and Matheus Nunes in the summer, Sporting will be reluctant to lose another central star in the off-season, but the general consensus now is that Ugarte will depart the Estadio Jose Alvalade once the transfer window opens.
Chelsea aren't the only side linked with a move for the Uruguayan, with PSG, Tottenham and Aston Villa all monitoring the Sporting machine, but it's a move to west London that has the potential to unlock a truly dominant midfield.
Pochettino, like Schmidt, favours a 4-2-3-1 setup, so the aim will be to have one destroyer and one advancer at the base of the midfield once the former takes over the reins at Stamford Bridge. Fernandez already covers the latter role for Chelsea, and Ugarte would make for a solid candidate to fulfill the duties of the former.
Not only does he rank high for tackles in Liga Bwin, but it's a metric he leads in the Champions League, too, with an unbelievable average of 5.6 tackles per 90. In addition, Ugarte has won possession in the midfield third more times (149) than any other player in Portugal's top tier this term.
Crucially, any player that does hunt down the ball, they need to be able to find a teammate with ease when they do win possession. This is another quality of Ugarte's that has helped boost his reputation. A return of 59.9 passes per 90 ranks 19th in Liga Bwin, yet importantly, he boasts the third best pass success rate (91.8%) in the division. The youngster doesn't seek to play the balls that'll pry defences apart, but rather looks to keep play ticking over and allowing others in the squad to advance possession, much in the way Fernandez did so brilliantly for Benfica. Despite leaving in January, Fernandez still ranks second for accurate long balls (161) of outfield players in the 2022/23 Liga Bwin campaign.
As such, Chelsea's interest in Ugarte has understandably excited fans. Both the Sporting star and Fernandez are 22 years of age so have plenty of time to develop further and truly become world beaters in their own right. The Blues have goal issues aplenty, but if they can win the race to sign Ugarte, there is a sound midfield foundation that has the potential to dominate opponents under Pochettino.