Chelsea’s remarkably successful sales push has brought the defining question of their summer transfer window into sharper focus: how do you build a midfield to maximise Enzo Fernandez?

N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic, Mason Mount and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are gone. New head coach Mauricio Pochettino’s only experienced central midfield options are Conor Gallagher and Fernandez, who started every one of Chelsea’s final 22 matches of the 2022-23 season after completing a £106million ($137m) transfer from Benfica in January.

Those minutes were overwhelmingly spent operating as Jorginho’s direct replacement at the base of midfield, though caretaker manager Frank Lampard admitted in May that Fernandez’s role had been dictated more by circumstances than his attributes.

“In my time here, it’s just been a fact that he is the most natural No 6 in a midfield that doesn’t have many natural No 6s,” Lampard said.

“My personal view with Enzo is that he can probably play in all the midfield roles. But seeing him train and play, I get the feeling from him that he has more to offer than as a single No 6. He can play as a double No 6 or as a No 8 where he can join into the game more.

“He’s got a really good eye to play forward. That’s something we as a club have not been doing enough in my opinion: playing forward and being more direct higher up the pitch, finding passes that really test the opposition.

“Enzo can play that pass, so playing higher up the pitch is good for him.”

Fernandez joined in January (Photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Fernandez agrees with Lampard’s assessment of his game. “That’s the position I like the most,” he told Argentine newspaper Ole in January 2022. “I’ve always felt comfortable playing near the goal, looking for pockets of space so I can create a chance or shoot.”

It is easy to see, then, why Chelsea have made acquiring a defensive midfielder capable of freeing up Fernandez to be more expansive — a Nemanja Matic to his Cesc Fabregas, if you will — their top priority in this transfer window. That search has led Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital back to Brighton & Hove Albion for Moises Caicedo, but how well-suited is he to the task?

The Athletic took a closer look…

Caicedo’s idol growing up was Kante, a man whose best career work at club level was produced in a central midfield pairing with a wide range of partners: Danny Drinkwater in Leicester City’s fairytale Premier League title run, then Matic, Fabregas, Jorginho and Kovacic at Chelsea.

Last season, Caicedo blossomed into a dynamic destructive Premier League presence at the midfield base of Roberto De Zerbi’s 4-2-3-1 alongside the more progressive Pascal Gross or Alexis Mac Allister. In doing so, the core of his defensive influence was in the area of the pitch you might expect, but he also demonstrated an ability to disrupt opponents almost anywhere he went.

Pochettino has also traditionally — though not exclusively — favoured 4-2-3-1 as his starting formation, with one of his two central midfielders asked to drop deeper, operating in front of and at times between the two centre-backs in order to help maintain possession and offer added protection against opposition counter-attacks.

During his Tottenham tenure, that role was most often entrusted to Victor Wanyama or Eric Dier, a converted centre-back. Pochettino needs a player in that position who is highly reliable in his use of the ball while also being extremely aware defensively.

Caicedo, who occasionally played as a centre-back for Independiente del Valle’s under-18 side and styled himself as a traditional South American No 5 (the midfielder just in front of the defence), appears to provide this valuable blend of qualities at the level Chelsea require.



‘He was made for big clubs’: The rise and rise of Moises Caicedo

Firstly, the Ecuador international compares very well with the Premier League’s best central midfielders when it comes to not giving the ball away, particularly among the possession-heavy players with 2,000+ touches last season.

His turnover rate in the competition last season — which denotes possessions lost as a share of total touches — was lower even than Declan Rice, a player valued at £105million ($135.6m) by West Ham.

Secondly, without the ball, Caicedo was every bit as important to Brighton in 2022-23, ranking in the top 10 among all Premier League defensive and central midfielders with 900 minutes played or more for ‘True tackles’ and ‘True interceptions’ per 1,000 opponent touches (for the best definitions of how these advanced metrics work, read the fourth commandment of football analytics here).

The fact Caicedo also ranked in the top 10 for aerial duel win rate is a surprise and particularly useful for a relatively small Chelsea squad that regularly found themselves bullied in the air from open play and set pieces last season. He is a decent size at 1.78m (5ft 10in) and his combination of athleticism and aggression means he competes against most opponents.

It may appear there is room for improvement when it comes to the efficiency of Caicedo’s tackle win rate on the evidence of the graphic above, but he still ranks in the top third of all players in that cohort. And, at 21, he has time on his side. He would also walk into a favourable environment to refine this aspect of his game at Cobham, not least because Claude Makelele can still be found at Chelsea’s training ground on a regular basis.

But how about the fit with Fernandez?

In some aspects, their games are quite similar: both are technically polished midfielders capable of dictating possession who were also utilised to great effect in more advanced roles during their football journeys in South America.

As you can see in the graphic below, there was also considerable overlap in their primary areas of influence on possession in the Premier League last season (Caicedo is the yellow No 25, Fernandez is the blue No 5):

But while they often ventured into similar areas for Chelsea and Brighton respectively, Fernandez and Caicedo’s qualities are more complementary than conflicting.

Below is a graphic which compares the two using data from Smarterscout, ** **which gives players’ games a series of ratings from zero and 99 relating to either how often a player performs a given stylistic action or how effective they are at it compared with others playing in their position.

It is worth noting that Fernandez’s ratings are based on far fewer Premier League minutes than those of Caicedo, but it remains a big enough sample size to be broadly representative.

As you can see, Caicedo is considerably more reliable in possession in part because he does not seek to progress the ball up the field as Fernandez does. He is also a far more impactful, destructive defensive presence, while Fernandez is much better at generating value for his team in the final third with his passing, as well as carrying a greater shooting threat himself.

Fernandez’s defensive shortcomings make him ill-suited to operating as the deepest man in a Premier League midfield at this stage of his career. He is also creative and dynamic enough to be a dangerous playmaker in more advanced areas.

On both of those counts, Caicedo is exactly the type of midfielder Chelsea should be looking to pair with him.

Brighton value Caicedo at £100million ($129m). That partly reflects the strength of their position with regards to the 21-year-old’s contract, which was renewed until 2027 in March, and partly reflects the brilliantly executed ‘buy low, sell high’ philosophy that has powered their emergence as a Premier League force under uncompromising owner Tony Bloom.

Primarily, though, Chelsea are confronted with a problem of their own creation.

By agreeing to make Fernandez the most expensive player in Premier League history six months ago, Boehly and Clearlake inadvertently set the market for the most coveted midfielders looking to move clubs this summer.

The staggering size of that deal emboldened West Ham to make sure they extracted a nine-figure fee from Arsenal for Rice following protracted negotiations. Jude Bellingham’s blockbuster move to Real Madrid from Borussia Dortmund for an initial £88.5million ($114.3m) will also rise significantly above the £100million mark if add-ons are activated in the coming years.

Caicedo’s body of work at the highest level is smaller than that of both Englishmen, but Brighton can credibly argue that he belongs in their talent — and therefore price — bracket based on what he showcased in the Premier League in 2022-23. Last summer’s £63million sale of Marc Cucurella to Chelsea also gives them plenty of reason to believe their valuation will eventually be met.

Caicedo holds off Enzo as Brighton win at Chelsea in April (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Chelsea have been more exacting negotiators so far this summer, with co-sporting directors Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley leading their impressive selling effort.

This is their biggest test yet against a club Winstanley knows very well. How far are they willing to go to secure the midfielder they have identified as Fernandez’s ideal partner? Are they prepared to lose Levi Colwill to make it happen? Who are the alternative targets to Caicedo and are they anywhere near as good or suitable for Pochettino’s needs?

Fernandez and Caicedo could provide a formidable midfield foundation at Stamford Bridge for the rest of this decade at a minimum. It is a hugely attractive prospect and Brighton know that every bit as well as Chelsea do.

(Top photos: Julian Finney/Getty Images; Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)