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  • By Alessandro in Lyon's GROUPAMA Stadion

Why Chelsea should have signed the 17x cheaper Tagliafico and not Cucurella

From Alessandro Schiavone in Lyon

A former Chelsea chief transfer target showed once again that he’s right up there with the most complete left-backs in the world when Lyon beat Champions League hopefuls RC Lens 2-1 on Sunday evening.

Nicolas Tagliafico, who won the FIFA World Cup with Argentina and started the final against France in Qatar little less than two months ago, was tracked by Chelsea on a number of transfer windows.

The Blues, led by Marina Granovskaia and Petr Cech at the time, were reportedly interested in bringing the left-back to London in the summers of 2019 [when his stock peaked having reached the Champions League semis with Ajax] and 2021 and in January 2022.

But for some reason the hard-working Argentine always ended up staying in Amsterdam.

And it was only last summer, after he turned 30 and noticed that the clock was ticking on his burgeoning career, that he decided on a fresh challenge in Ligue 1 with Olympique Lyon last term. A step up league-wise, but not the move he craved.

Yet in light of Marc Cucurella’s struggles to replicate his Seagulls form at Stamford Bridge, one can only wonder why Todd Boehly and his new backroom staff didn’t go for Tagliafico instead, who cost 17 times less and is used to the pressure and expectations that come with playing for big sides.

In the end Chelsea parted with an eye-watering fee of £62m to sign the Spaniard, as opposed to to the £3.5m the French giants tabled for the former Banfield man. Barring the age gap in Cucurella’s favour, with the 24-year-old having plenty of time to carve out a career like Ashley Cole’s, the fortunes couldn’t have been more contrasting since September.

Tagliafico has been one of Lyon's top performers in a whirlwind season. Cucurella has not even come close to justifying the price he was paid.

And as an improving Lyon side entertained Lens at GROUPAMA Stadion, the World Cup winner was one of his side’s best players. The likeable Argentine, who is ageing like fine wine and is still only 30, showcased his defensive aptitude, aggressiveness and at the same time a satisfactory attacking output.

His tackles, aggressive yet clean, are evocative of iconic former Italy and Milan defender Alessandro Nesta.

His composure and footballing intelligence remind observers of his Seleccion predecessor Javier Zanetti.

Statistically he's one of the best tacklers in the game and is very difficult to get past.

And the proactive full-back, who has had three Eredivisie winner’s medals with Dutch giants Ajax around his neck, made two crucial sliding interceptions outside of Lyon’s box in either half, indicative of his quality and confidence since winning the biggest prize in the game. But for Argentinian, Dutch and French football fans that's nothing new. One of his main strengths is his extraordinary ability to read the game and guess the opposition's next move. Sniffing and smothering dangers before they can lead to trouble are his calling cards.

Despite his Argentinian grinta that got him so far, the likeable Argentine is a fair player. Minutes after a tough challenge on Julien Le Cardinal from behind, he went to the player to offer his apologies when the ball was out of play on the other side. That shows that his ego has not grown despite playing a central part in Argentina's first Copa America triumph in 28 years in 2021 and helping Messi and co. to World Cup glory in Qatar.

And even though he’s a rather defensive full-back, he loves to overlap, surge forward when he has the ball or unpredictably cut inside the pitch as he did midway through the first period.

He may not be the most explosive left-back like prime Javier Zanetti but there’s something in his game that oozes the same calmness and reliability. And just like the Inter Milan legend, when the stakes are high, Tagliafico plays his best game as pressure rarely gets to him. He may not possess Paolo Maldini’s class or elegance, nor Zambrotta’s quality of crossing but ticks every box. He’s good at attacking the space with and without the ball and is tactically a cut above every other Ligue left-back, including PSG’s well-paid.

And he’s also a very calculated player. He didn’t take any risks for large parts of the game, preferring to stay deep and provide cover in case Lens broke quickly. And that either side of ex-Arsenal man Lacazette’s opener. But in the second-half he had the brilliant intuition to commit himself forward without the ball to lurk in behind the last Lens defenders. And he almost made Franck Haize’s men players paie cash, were it not for a first touch that led him down with Brice Samba closing him down.

All things considered, Tagliafico would easily be Graham Potter’s first-choice left-back if he was part of the crowded Chelsea dressing room right now. Former Brighton & Hove Albion star Cucurella will eventually come good and may represent Chelsea’s future but ask any supporters and most of them would pick the 2022 World champion over him any day of the week at the minute.

Tagliafico offers more at both ends, steps up to the plate in big game and is also less-error prone than his talented counterpart.

And Blues fans only have to watch his 30th and 73rd minute clearances, generosity and consistency throughout games for the penny to drop.


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