It seems Chelsea’s interim sporting director Todd Boehly learned a tough lesson from a frantic summer transfer window. Having seen deals for Raphinha and Jules Kounde hijacked by Barcelona, Chelsea moved with considerable speed to derail Marc Cucurella’s presumed move from Brighton to Manchester City.
Chelsea have agreed personal terms with the Spaniard and met Brighton’s asking price with a deal that could end up being worth more than £60 million ($72m) — blowing City’s best and final offer completely out of the water.
Why the Premier League champions drew a hard financial line in the sand over a player who appears close to perfect for Pep Guardiola’s system and style isn’t clear, but Boehly won’t care. Neither will Thomas Tuchel, who insisted on getting a natural left-footer in defense after being denied Nathan Ake and Presnel Kimpembe.
Cucurella is a less obvious fit for Chelsea: his natural position is left-back, which doesn’t exist in Tuchel’s current 3-4-2-1 system. In terms of age and skill, there’s considerable overlap with Ben Chilwell, who was becoming one of the more important players at Stamford Bridge when an ACL injury wrecked his 2021-22 season.
You can expect Cucurella to play a lot of minutes on the left of Tuchel’s back three, providing an unlikely 5ft 8in (172.7cm) solution to the void created when Antonio Rudiger departed for Real Madrid. Tuchel believes he can be highly effective there, having seen it in action when Brighton came to Stamford Bridge in December.
Cucurella lined up to the left of Dan Burn and Joel Veltman that evening as Brighton coach Graham Potter matched Chelsea’s starting formation. The Spaniard’s covering speed was particularly important in enabling the visitors to press high up the pitch and ultimately enjoy a 52.3 per cent share of possession away from home.
Here, in the opening minutes, Romelu Lukaku gets the chance to send Mason Mount running through on goal with Cucurella in his wake…
But by the time Mount approaches the edge of the Brighton penalty area, Cucurella has caught up and harassed him into turning back, where he is swarmed by two more recovering defenders.
Cucurella’s speed allows him to adopt a more aggressive, front-foot style of defending — the kind favored by high-intensity coaches like Tuchel.
Here, he steps up to swarm Mount as Jorginho shapes to pass the ball in his direction. The Italy international instead finds Christian Pulisic by the touchline as Mount launches a sudden dart into the space Cucurella has just vacated…
But that clever coordinated misdirection isn’t enough to shake off Cucurella, who is tight on Mount when the latter attempts to cross from the byline.
Later in the game, Chelsea challenged Cucurella to cover even more ground.
He charges deep into the opposition helped to pressure Callum Hudson-Odoi, only for the winger to flick the ball out to the right:
Cucurella arcs his run towards the advancing Pulisic, who gives him no chance to affect the attack by playing a first-time pass into the right channel of Brighton’s half…
Pulisic’s pass is played into the stride of Lukaku, but by the time he takes his first touch on the right, Cucurella has recovered to a position where he can deter or intercept any cross towards Hudson-Odoi.
Chelsea could not even exploit Cucurella’s most obvious weakness as a central defender. His height puts him at a disadvantage in many aerial duels, but his controlled aggression, good timing and leaping ability give him a chance to compete.
It’s natural to assume Lukaku will be the one to connect with this deflected Hudson-Odoi shot looping towards Brighton’s back post, but Cucurella rises to head the ball clear.
In the final minutes, Cucurella makes his most memorable contribution at the other end of the pitch, digging out a perfect cross for Danny Welbeck to head in an injury-time equalizer — almost a mirror image of the type of ball Cesar Azpilicueta frequently used to deliver to Alvaro Morata from a similarly deep position on the right of Antonio Conte’s three-man Chelsea defence.
Cucurella revealed after the Stamford Bridge draw that he had only played the role “for one or two games in my life” prior to joining Brighton in August of 2021, and never from the start. Potter asked him to repeat it with increasing frequency as the 2021-22 season went on and by the end of the campaign, a quarter of his total Premier League minutes had been played in central defence.
That sample size of 795 minutes isn’t huge, but it is big enough to provide a brief picture of what Cucurella can offer on the left of a back three.
Here is a profile of his game using smarterscout, a tool that gives players a series of ratings from zero to 99 indicating how often a player performs a given stylistic action or how effective they are at it compared with others in their position.
As you can see, Cucurella’s aggression and sharp instincts make him a hugely disruptive defensive presence, and he excels at generating the ball recoveries that Tuchel values so highly. That particular aspect of his game also manifests when he is deployed as a left-back, while his high overall defensive impact remains broadly intact.
*age at the start of 2021-22
Cucurella’s desire to hunt the ball high up the pitch was fully weaponized in Potter’s pressing system.
Here, midway through the first half of Brighton’s 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United in May, he recognizes Anthony Elanga is primed to intercept a loose layoff from Welbeck…
… and turns on the jets to beat him to the ball, before holding him off and sliding a pass to the unmarked Leandro Trossard.
Later in the first half, he exploits Elanga again, charging forward to pressure him as the winger gathers a loose ball…
… and muscling him out of the way without fouling, thereby generating a dangerous crossing opportunity against a scrambling United defence.
In possession, Cucurella is every inch a La Masia graduate: calm and comfortable on the ball in tight spaces, generally favoring shorter passes to keep his team in control and move them upfield.
Here, in Brighton’s 3-0 win over Wolves in April, he sees an opportunity to take three opponents out of the game with one incisive pass to Trossard…
And here, he smartly draws two Wolves defenders to him before flicking Moises Caicedo’s pass around the corner to Trossard, who is now unmarked in a dangerous position.
As a left-sided centre-back for Brighton, Cucurella defended diligently and brought dynamism to build-up play that had arguably been lacking since Ben White was sold to Arsenal for £50 million in the summer of 2021.
As a left-back, he pressured crossers, he overlapped and underlapped the winger in front of him with speed and real intent, and he always looked to pick out a team-mate when delivering the ball from wide areas himself.
One assist in the Premier League last season did not do full justice to Cucurella’s attacking threat, which includes deep crosses, high and wide deliveries, and cutbacks — as the graphic below illustrates.
Cucurella’s arrival could allow Chelsea to offload Marcos Alonso, Emerson Palmieri and Malang Sarr without fear of leaving themselves short on the left of defence. It could afford Chilwell time to re-find his best form without the burden of too many minutes early in the season. It also could bring the team closer to Tuchel’s vision.
Premier League opponents will inevitably seek to exploit Cucurella’s lack of height if left centre-back becomes his default position at Chelsea, but it’s still possible that he could add more than he takes away. If not, Tuchel will have alternatives — not least the relatively straightforward counter of simply sliding Kalidou Koulibaly to the left of the back three.
The £52.5 million price is steep, and steeper still considering that selling Cucurella to Chelsea set the stage for Brighton to bring Cobham graduate Levi Colwill in the other direction. Losing the 19-year-old permanently in this summer window would have carried unwelcome echoes of Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guehi for some supporters, so the fact that his is a loan with no option for Brighton to buy leaves open the possibility of a first- team future at Stamford Bridge — even if his smarterscout profile based on last season’s highly productive Championship loan at Huddersfield Town suggests a player Tuchel could have used immediately.
*age at the start of 2021-22
Chelsea’s head coach, however, has made it clear that he is prioritizing the here and now, and in the current makeshift football structure at Stamford Bridge, he is the key decision-maker. From a business perspective, declining to sell Colwill is a significant statement from Boehly and Clearlake Capital; he also represented the easiest path to raising funds through sales in a window in which the new owners’ net transfer spend is heading rapidly north of £100 million.
Is spending big on Cucurella the smartest use of potentially finite transfer resources? Maybe not. But in a transfer window conditioned by urgent need and unique upheaval, Cucurella, like Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly before him, is exactly the kind of high-quality footballer Tuchel needs.