Antonio Rüdiger marshalling Chelsea to Premier League success
Starting over at a new place is always hard. It's a life most footballers have grown accustomed to. At age 25, Antonio Rüdiger has already lived in five major cities: Berlin and Dortmund during his youth career, Stuttgart where he got his big break in the Bundesliga, Rome, and London.
Rüdiger’s origin story is important in understanding his mentality on the pitch. Born to a German father and a Sierra Leonean Mother who had fled the civil war in her country. He grew up in Berlin and learned his trade out on the concrete pitches of Germany’s capital. Losing was never an option and football probably saved him from ending up in trouble, a jail cell or maybe worse. His brother, turned-agent, Sahr Senesie was vital in helping him settle and concentrate on football.
Trouble followed him everywhere. VfB Stuttgart offered him a chance to play for their 2nd team instead of the Dortmund U-19 setup. He moved readily despite knowing he would have to sit six months out, suspended as the two teams could not agree to terms before the end of the transfer window. He impressed after being allowed to get on the itch and was linked to Chelsea and Manchester United even back then. Roma took him on an initial loan and later bought him for a mere €9million.
An anterior cruciate ligament tear saw him miss out on the Euro 2016 tournament, but Chelsea had seen enough to shell out €39million for his services. David Luiz, Garry Cahill, and Cesar Azpilicueta had formed a tight backline as Antonio Conte’s Chelsea won the Premier League in the 2016/17 season. As Andreas Christensen took David Luiz’s spot in the middle of the three, Rüdiger won his place, ensuring captain Garry Cahill would move to, and remain, permanently stuck on the bench.
As Maurizio Sarri took the reins at Stamford Bridge, midfielders were far happier than defenders. For starters, Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation meant that one less central defender would be on the roster. The midfielders would, however, have an extra spot. Whilst Eden Hazard and midfield dynamo Jorginho have been earning plaudits for Chelsea's unbeaten start, the German defender has been the foundation upon which their success has been built.
Chelsea has undergone a total transformation of tactics. Under Jose Mourinho and the aforementioned Conte, the Blues were always proactive, soaking up the pressure and capitalising on mistakes made by opponents. Things are different under Sarri. Chelsea is playing with a distinct attacking and possession-based style. The three attackers are the first line of defence, with the midfielders close by. The defenders are thus expected to hold a high line. Paired with the often-erratic David Luiz, Rüdiger has been the stabling presence at the heart of the back line.
His history of playing as a right-back for Roma helped him gain confidence carrying the ball forward. Jorginho may be the team's metronome, but he and David Luiz are also tasked with playing passes through the midfield or over the defence when the chance arises. His ball-playing skills are an extremely underrated trait. He is averaging 91.7% pass accuracy and manages 3.3 long balls per game. Both equally impressive.
His discipline has also massively improved with maturity. Rudiger is yet to be booked in the Premier League this season and commits just 0.5 fouls per game. Chelsea’s number 2 is arguably the league’s best defender. He is vocal on the pitch as well as off it. Never afraid to bark orders at a teammate or share his views to the media.
While Azpilicueta may deserve the captain's armband for longevity, and Hazard for being the star of the team, Rüdiger deserves it for being a performer that leads by example. He's earning a reputation of being a hard man. He did accidentally step on France’s Benjamin Pavard while on international duty, leaving his neck bloodied. It's also a common sight to see him charging after attackers with no fear. With David Luiz and Garry Cahill on the wrong side of 30, Chelsea already has a future legend in their books. Antonio Rüdiger.