By George Perry
Torino may already be moving towards making Ola Aina’s loan a permanent transfer this summer. Aina would be a great pick-up for the Serie A side, but Chelsea must make sure they have a long-term plan before letting him go.
Antonio Conte certainly has an eye for wing-backs in the making. Conte gave Ola Aina in his senior debut in his – Conte’s – third game in charge of Chelsea, and EFL Cup tie against Bristol Rovers. Aina played at right-back in that game, as Chelsea were still in a 4-1-4-1. By Aina’s next start Chelsea were in the 3-4-3, and Aina was the right wing-back. Aina made only six appearances for 230 minutes that season, but his use as a wing-back after nearly 100 youth games as a full-back or centre-back presaged his current loan at Torino.
Aina has played in all but three games this season for Torino. He has low-key been one of the loan army’s success stories of the season. Despite playing most his time at Chelsea and his 2017/18 loan at Hull City on the right, he has been Torino’s starting left wing-back since opening day.
Aina has done more than enough to warrant Torino executing his £10 million option to buy. Torino are in a five-team battle for Serie A’s final Europa League spot: 6th – 10th place are separated by two points. If they qualify, they will need reinforcements for the additional campaign. Whether they do or not, they need to fortify their defence until they either return Andrea Belotti to last season’s form or find a goal-scoring solution. Additionally, Aina’s counter-part on the right, Lorenzo de Silvestri, will be 31 this summer. The Italian side need a line of succession for the wing-backs, and Aina can cover either side as necessary.
On the subject of teams who need a line of succession among their full-backs / wing-backs, and who have benefitted from versatile defenders: Chelsea FC.
Chelsea would have an easier time projecting their needs at defence is they had anyone whose job it was to project such needs (476 days). Their current starting full-backs are looking increasingly uncomfortable in their positions, although extenuating circumstances wield a strong influence.
Cesar Azpilicueta is likely at his physical and mental brink from overuse, having played nearly as many minutes as Kepa Arrizabalaga this season. He will also turn 30 this summer, making workload management increasingly important. On the other side, Marcos Alonso is looking more like the journeyman left-back he once was than the world-class wing-back he more recently was.
Maurizio Sarri’s tactics and organization do little favours for either defender, both of whom are exposed by their wingers up front, have too much space to cover given the centre-backs’ struggle with zonal marking and Alonso is often not helped much by his same-side midfielder. Azpilicueta at least has the benefit of being close to N’Golo Kante.
Behind these two are Emerson and Davide Zappacosta. Emerson finally had a performance of note on Sunday against Manchester City: 18 months after arriving. Zappacosta was expected to leave in January, but remained with no real prospect of regular first team action.
Both Alonso and Azpilicueta would benefit from Chelsea returning to a three-man defence. This would restore Alonso to his best position as left wing-back. It would also return Azpilicueta to the back-line, where he could emphasize his strengths on the defensive side of the game and reduce the amount of pitch he has to cover. Using Azpilicueta as a centre-back would also clear the way for Reece James to come into the first team.
The idea of James and Aina on either side of Chelsea’s defence is not and should not be just a fantasy for Cobham fetishists. Both have the talent and both are already in the club’s system, a factor that cannot be underestimated with the upcoming transfer ban.
Neither player, though, will want to sit on the bench and wait for Chelsea to straighten out their technical director, coach and depth chart situations. Aina is already a top-five league, top-half starter and could add the Europa League to his resume next season. James could start deputizing Azpilicueta within two seasons if the Blues shift Azpilicueta to centre-back or even left-back, if necessary, to replace Alonso, either long-term or on a game-by-game basis.
If. There’s that word again. If Chelsea come up with some semblance of a plan for their technical director, coach and their overarching system – will they rely on wing-backs or full-backs, will they play three centre-backs or two – they can present Ola Aina and Reece James with a clear prospectus of what their future will look like. Aina can then decide if he wants to stay with Torino or return to his boyhood club. James can decide if he wants to extend at Chelsea and take another loan, or try to force a stay in the first team.
If Chelsea can give them that, they will know who they will be learning from, who they will be competing with and who they should someday replace. Then they can make the right decision with no regrets for anyone involved. If. With so much riding on that word, Ola Aina may have few second thoughts about staying in Italy.