When Saul Niguez did not return to the pitch from the Vicarage Road changing rooms at half-time on Wednesday night, even his most ardent defenders would have had a difficult time being optimistic about his loan.
The Atletico Madrid loanee has made two Premier League starts in his time at Chelsea and not made it past the halfway mark either time.
He was far from the only player that struggled in the opening 45 minutes against Watford but the 27-year-old’s perfomance was reminiscent of his display against Aston Villa. His failure to adjust to the Premier League’s pace offered him a yellow card in this instance.
Following the Spaniard’s deadline day move, Tuchel made the thought process behind the transfer clear. The club had allowed Billy Gilmour to head on loan to Norwich and wanted more depth in the position.
The German coach said: “We have the chance [to make it permanent] which is good. Now it’s on us and the player, and we can get to know each other in detail and see if this is a good fit.
“As you know, we agreed for Billy Gilmour to go to Norwich to have more minutes at the highest level, he was our fourth midfielder last season. Now with the Covid situation and the Euro and Copa America, I personally was a bit concerned to go into the season with only Jorginho, N’Golo and Mateo [Kovacic].
“Not because of a lack of quality or character; I’m the happiest coach I can be to have these three guys. But it’s a bit unpredictable, we have a Club World Cup to play in December and nobody knows exactly how many games there are to come. Normally two of those three guys always play, so once you have one injured or suspended you already are in danger of overloading the players.
“We were looking, not desperately, but we were looking for alternatives. Saul has been on the radar for Chelsea for many years. I’ve known the player for many years and I fought at other clubs for him but it wasn’t possible. So when the situation was that we could have a loan, we were excited about it.”
With the Blues still in the Champions League and Carabao Cup, and FA Cup and Club World Cup duties still to come in addition to the Premier League, it’s already clear that depth is going to be used.
While Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s outing was lacking against the Hornets, he has shown signs that he still has plenty to offer the Blues, and is firmly ahead of Saul in the pecking order. Trevoh Chalobah stepped into midfield before his injury in the second period against Watford as the Spaniard’s replacement.
The Atletico star was never expected to take a starting role, but that gap seems to be growing.
Despite Tuchel’s enthusiasm for the move, the uncertainty in any transfer perhaps highlights why the German coach was also pleased the opportunity was temporary. That loan has a £30million option to make the deal permanent. It seems unlikely it will be activated by Marina Granovskaia at the moment.
However, it is not unlikely that Chelsea could find themselves in a similar situation in the summer of 2022.
The Blues always hope to compete on all fronts, Kante and Jorginho will be another year older despite their immense quality and there will be difficult decisions to be made over the roles of Gilmour and Conor Gallagher. Add in an early start to the season and compacted fixture list due to the winter World Cup, a midfielder could be on the shopping list.
Enter Aurelian Tchouameni and Declan Rice.
The Blues were linked with both over the course of the summer and no doubt will continue to be. Neither will be as cheap as Saul, but may be able to provide a more long-term solution.
The 21-year-old Tchouameni has continued his rise to prominence for Monaco this season and made his France debut in September when he replaced Thomas Lemar. A fee of up to £42m has been touted.
Chelsea have long been linked with completing a transfer with Rice, but West Ham’s progress could see that deal become even more difficult. Even £100m may not even be enough to land the midfielder who the Irons have been reluctant to sell, though he does have the benefit of having played in the Premier League.
With Manchester United said to be in the frame for both there is both competition and a risk of driving prices higher to contenders.
Both signings would hope to challenge for starting spots at Stamford Bridge, and it could stem the progress of the likes of Gilmour and Gallagher into the first team.
A bid for a high-quality midfielder could be the logical next move after Saul’s struggles. Landing Rice or Tchouameni will bring a different set of issues.
The 19-times capped Spain midfielder, in many respects was a risk-free move but two 45 minute outings later, is already feeling like a failure.
In some respects Chelsea’s next step is obvious, to find a new midfielder, but there is little chance of a sure thing.