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Why Chelsea should prioritise Skriniar over Gvardiol in centre-back pursuit

Posted on July 29, 2022

Chelsea's pursuit of a new centre-back finally bore fruit earlier this month as they secured the services of Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli. The Senegal star has long been linked with a move to the Premier League, and it was a transfer that finally came to fruition. Importantly for Chelsea is that the transfer marked the long-awaited arrival of a new centre-back.

When it became clear that both Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen were both set to leave Stamford Bridge this summer, the duo joining Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively, attention turned to strengthening at the back. However, the pursuit of new centre-backs has been bumpier than some may have hoped.

Long-term target Jules Kounde has turned down Chelsea in favour of Barcelona, while Bayern Munich beat the Blues to the signing of Matthijs de Ligt. There are other defensive targets on Chelsea's wishlist, but it seems with each passing week, another name is chalked off. Presnel Kimpembe remains an option, the Frenchman having worked with Thomas Tuchel in the past, while Milan Skriniar and Josko Gvardiol are others who have been mooted with a potential summer move to west London.

If push does come to shove, though, then Chelsea are perhaps better suited to pursuing Skriniar than they are Gvardiol. The latter is a defender in demand on the continent this summer. Tottenham and Manchester City have also been credited with an interest in the young Croat, who only moved to RB Leipzig last summer having spent the 2020/21 campaign on loan at Dinamo Zagreb.

Yet in a whirlwind 12 months, Gvardiol is now considered one of the best young centre-backs on the continent. RB Leipzig aren't adverse to cashing in on defenders, as proven by the sales of Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate and, most recently, Nordi Mukiele since last summer, but Gvardiol is one of the more untouchable players at the club and it would take a monster bid to convince them to sell one of their prized assets.

Were Chelsea to go all out for Gvardiol in the coming weeks, then there is no denying he'd improve the team defensively, while a willingness to get the ball forward quickly would suit their style of play. However, the 20-year-old wouldn't come cheap and with four years left to run on his current deal, RB Leipzig are under no pressure to sell the Croatia international.

Conversely, Skriniar is entering the final year of his Inter contract and considering their financial issues, the Nerazzurri do still need to sell players to help balance the books. Tottenham had sought to capitalise upon these issues as they considered a big money move for Alessandro Bastoni, only for the Italian to reject their advances and opt to remain with Simone Inzaghi's side.

As such, Skriniar, who was actually linked with a move to Spurs two years ago, is viewed as a sellable asset at Inter as they look to raise the relevant funds to ease their FFP concerns. He'd be significantly cheaper than Gvardiol given his contract situation and age, while in truth; he could be the more viable target for Chelsea.

Only Manchester City and Liverpool (both 26) conceded fewer goals than Chelsea (33) in the Premier League last season, with a three-man defence the core reason behind that fine return. However, the departures of Rudiger and Christensen means that backline is weakened significantly and even with the arrival of Koulibaly, there is work to be done. Importantly here is that while Koulibaly is right footed, he played much of last season on the left of Napoli's four-man backline.

The 31-year-old impressed on this side of the defence, too, and while any top tier professional can transition their game to play on either side of defence, the right-footed Rudiger also played a similar role for Chelsea last season. Were Chelsea to pursue Gvardiol then this would undo some of Koulibaly's good work for Napoli last season and would, in turn, also see the Blues spend big on a young defender who does have just one season of top-flight experience under his belt.

By comparison, Skriniar spent the entirety of last season on the right of Inter's three-man backline, a position Chelsea need to bolster this summer. With the addition of Koulibaly, there is less of a need to actively persue Gvardiol when, in actuality, RB Leipzig may be more open to his sale next summer. Chelsea already have the left sided centre-back position wrapped up with Koulibaly, so they can instead focus their efforts on Skriniar.

Now, the Inter man may not be as forward thinking as his RB Leipzig counterpart - just 28% of Skriniar's passes went forward, a difference of over 15% compared to Gvardiol (43.8%) - but the 27-year-old is a solid performer when it comes to retaining possession. Only Patric (93.3%) had a better pass success rate than Skriniar (92.9%) of centre-backs in Serie A last season, that in itself the third best overall. Considering Chelsea ranked third for possession (62.2%) in the Premier League last season, Tuchel needs his centre-backs to hold onto the ball when needed, something Skriniar does well, and to a better extent than Gvardiol, who managed a pass success rate of 84%, though that may be down the latter taking more risks.

A centre-back trio of Skriniar, Thiago Silva and Koulibaly would be as solid as they come and with the experience the former has of operating in a three-man backline, it should, in theory, prove a relatively smooth transition. They'd have to act quickly to secure Skriniar's services, with PSG also interested in the Slovakian, and while Gvardiol may have the higher ceiling, the Inter man is perhaps the better option at this point in time as Chelsea seek to properly rebuild their depleted backline.