Andreas Christensen has always been a little bit special. When he arrived at Chelsea in February 2012 there was a tangible intrigue around the centre back who had reportedly turned down offers from Manchester City and Bayern Munich1. Was the boy from Brøndby a genuine prospect or another overhyped wunderkind? Time would ultimately tell, but early indications of him in a Chelsea Academy shirt were foreboding.
Even before his loan to Borussia Mönchengladbach, Christensen saw the game differently to many of his peers. While not lacking in athleticism, his game was often characterised by cerebral decision making that belied his age. You frequently see fantastic athletes and physical specimens dominate during academy football, who ultimately end up establishing a career at a much lower level. Christensen has never relied upon his physical traits and was perhaps always better suited when it came to transitioning to senior football: he remained one of the smartest players on the pitch.
After being an integral component of the sides who won the U21 Premier League, FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League, the logical step for Christensen was to pursue regular first team football. His time spent at Mönchengladbach would enable the young Dane to establish himself as one of Europe’s brightest young centre backs. A position which is increasingly seeing a push towards being a footballer first and defender second, Christensen bucked the trend by showing his capability as a ball-playing centre back and defender. What separates him from the crowd is his innate ability to determine when to play and when to keep it simple. As I write this it feels like a very basic point to make, but how often do we see defenders overplaying at the back? Bournemouth seem to do it every week.
He left Germany having been named the Danish Talent of the Year in 2015 and also Mönchengladbach’s Player of the Year for 2015/16. Arguably his standout moment came in a Mönchengladbach victory over Bayern Munich. Christensen exhibited every facet of play we have become accustomed to seeing in one virtuoso performance. Defensively he kept Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller quiet, while remaining calm in possession and the keystone in terms of defensive organisation. He followed this up with an exceptional performance against Barcelona.
Returning to Chelsea, there was naturally speculation around where he might fit into Antonio Conte’s plans. After all, the Italian prefers experienced players and Chelsea were pushing hard to sign a centre back or two. Approaches for Virgil van Dijk amounted to nothing, but a long-term interest in Antonio Rüdiger saw the German international join for a fee of £34mm. Where would this leave the precociously talented Dane in the pecking order? Gary Cahill had just been declared captain, David Luiz was named into the Premier League Team of the Season and César Azpilicueta was resembling a peak Paolo Maldini. The fee for Rüdiger suggested he was not joining to simply make up the numbers. Christensen was also far too good to simply sit on the bench.
So much of the “will they, won’t they” equation comes down to opportunity. How that opportunity manifests itself is the crux of the entire youth debate (but not something I am going to touch on today). Oftentimes it is merely a case of being in the right place at the right time (Marcus Rashford goes from being pocketed by Fikayo Tomori in the FA Youth Cup to Manchester United’s saviour in a few months due to injuries). Had Cahill remained on the pitch against Burnley, we would never have witnessed Christensen’s excellent display against Tottenham Hotspur. The same applies to David Luiz’s red card against Arsenal. Christensen’s “serious” starts have come primarily due to the suspensions of those ahead of him (Tottenham and Stoke).
What Christensen has shown during his game time is that he belongs at this level. More importantly, he belongs on an individual basis and not because a team has been deliberately set-up to protect him. Tomáš Kalas once had a fantastic game at Anfield, but the team design almost made his performance a formality. In Christensen’s case he is operating without any special protections afforded to him because of his inexperience. Equally, he is not starting in meaningless end of season games or low intensity cup matches: the starts against Tottenham and Stoke really meant something.
So what makes Christensen so special? Looking at his development, I do not think it is hyperbolic to suggest we are only starting to scratch the surface when it comes to his potential. Christensen has had the temerity to effectively ease himself into Premier League football. Usually a player will exert every sinew to show they belong and to adapt to the tempo of Premier League football. Christensen, though, is so talented that he is actually simplifying his game to acclimatise to England. Perhaps the most impressive of these adaptations is his ability to almost exclusively play the game at one or two-touch. This allows him to both effectively deal with pressure and to quickly circulate the ball to avoid any sort of press. It was also one of John Terry’s most underrated skills ; the ability to play a perfectly weighted pass first time under duress (aerially or with his feet). When you see certain players tap dancing to bring the ball under some semblance of control, Christensen’s grace is a welcome relief.
Defensively he reminds me of when I used to watch Franco Baresi as a child. Those may be heady words, Baresi is after all one of the finest centre halves to play the game, but conceptually they are very similar. Christensen has an equally cultivated style, with precocious talent and a rare football IQ. He is quick, stronger than he looks and assiduous. A wonderful organiser, tackler and has a knack of forcing opponents into mistakes/conceding possession. Christensen has Baresi’s ability to play short and sharp or expansive. However, the biggest similarity is the astute positional play that really defined Baresi’s career; we often see Christensen in excellent positions to block or clear play.
What we have seen so far is an incredibly disciplined, efficient and intelligent young player, who can both organise and command a back three. What remains is everything else that Christensen has shown while in Germany and for Denmark. Christensen is capable of carrying the ball from one penalty area to the other, hitting outside of the boot passes that split teams apart and acting as a catalyst for attacks. Once his level of comfort reaches a point where he is confident enough to expand his game, it really is a game changer. Christensen can really be whatever he likes: a player with his understanding of the game at twenty-one is a rare thing.
The current reality sees Christensen competing with Luiz to become the central back in Conte’s back three. Essentially it is a question of style – do you want the central back to be incredibly aggressive (Luiz) or a reference point for the team (Christensen)? With and without the ball, Luiz sits more aggressively on the risk-return spectrum. Luiz plays longer passes (average pass length of 22 metres to Christensen’s 15.60 metres) and wins more tackles and interceptions (3.83 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes vs 1.70). However, this aggressive style means his passing completion is lower (88% to 95%) and he commits a lot more fouls (1.82 fouls per 90 minutes vs 0.34). Christensen uses his positional intelligence a lot more and this is noticeable in the way he blocks more shots (1.36 blocks per 90 minutes to 0.20) and makes more clearances (6.14 clearances per 90 minutes vs 3.83). Luiz is very much a front-foot player and Christensen a more intelligent reader of the game. I actually think Luiz would be better suited to playing in one of the other centre back spots, with Christensen playing centrally – but that is another debate for another time.
At some point Christensen is going to establish himself at the heart of Chelsea’s back line. While he may not have the flamboyance or gregarious style that the Brazilian possesses, he certainly has the ability. If we continue to persist with a back three, then the central back role is tailored for the Dane. A technically excellent, calm and assured presence, who is never going to overcommit or leave spaces. He already sweeps excellently in both the left and right centre back channels. Comfortable defending one-on-one and more importantly he is superb at restricting his opponent to low quality shot opportunities. It feels like we have a wonderful talent on our hands, who simply needs to be given the chance to play on a regular basis.
To close, here is an interesting statistic: if Andreas Christensen starts against Manchester City, he will be only the fifth Chelsea academy graduate in nearly 15 years to start 3 (or more) Premier League games.