PROFILE By Robin Bairner
Papy Djilobodji trod a well-worn path from Ligue 1 to the Premier League this summer. Yet his move from Nantes to Chelsea must rate as one of the most unexpected of a busy transfer window.
The Senegal international has spent his last five years establishing himself as a respectable defender in France’s top flight – but one of Chelsea quality? Not exactly.
Standing close to 6ft 4 and broad shouldered, there can be little doubt that the 26-year-old possesses the physical build to play in England. As one would expect of a player of his bulk, he is a formidable opponent in the air, but he will be tested by the pace of the Premier League, both in terms of his foot speed and his reading of the game.
A questionable positional sense has been masked in Ligue 1 by his ability to recover sharply, though at a higher level it will be more readily exploited.
On the ball, too, Djilobodji will be seen as a target to be pressed and forced into errors. When he moved to Nantes initially, he was seen as a potential holding player in the midfield, but after struggling in that role he was eventually forced back into a more defensive role. He is, however, almost equally capable with both feet, though predominantly left sided.
In two totally different brackets they may be, but it is impossible to see this deal without the context of John Stones' failed move. The Everton and England man might have cost in the region of 10 times more than Djilobodji, but at least he would have brought quality and potential to the heart of the rearguard.
Chelsea fans may look to Nantes’ formidable defensive record last term as a source of optimism over their new recruit, but in truth this also gives something of a false impression of his capabilities. Theirs was a triumph of collectivism.
Michel Der Zakarian’s side were pragmatic, to put it kindly, and willingly invited pressure on to their rearguard, which in part explains why Djilobodji won so many duels and completed more interceptions; there was simply much more work for him to do than for defenders in other sides.
Equally, there was inevitably plenty of cover around him and in front of him, relieving the pressure on his shoulders.
In short, he proved himself a very capable ‘park-the-bus’ centre-back.
OFFICIAL Chelsea complete shock Djilobodji move
Several clubs of a lesser stature than Chelsea followed him closely this summer. Bournemouth, for example, were credited with a very serious interest at the end of last season, while there was also attention from the likes of Sunderland, Celta Vigo, Olympique de Marseille, Bologna and Trabzonspor.
With a year left on his deal, the player had his heart set on moving and went to war with Nantes over a departure. As a result, he has not featured for them in any of their opening four matches of the campaign, yet that has not stopped the Stade de la Beaujoire side maintaining their impressive defensive record, with three clean sheets already this season.
Speaking in July, club president Waldemar Kita, who had previously wished outgoing captain Jordan Veretout well in his English adventure with Aston Villa, lashed out at his player.
“He’s made us a circus ... He’s forgotten that when we signed him he was playing CFA [fourth-flight] football in Paris. We took him and we taught him how to play football. I exaggerate, but it’s almost that. He must be more upstanding and stop blackmailing us,” he told L’Equipe.
There was to be no resolution, though, with the player’s ambitions fuelled by interest from Chelsea.
“It’s a deal [which has] been ongoing for several weeks, but it’s accelerated over the last few days,” vice president Frank Kita admitted to France Bleu Loire Ocean radio.
“He dreams of playing Champions League football with Real Madrid, but we hope he’ll be content with Chelsea. I know they have defensive problems.”
The Madrid comment was almost a barb at a player whose ambition seems to outstrip his abilities, yet has not stopped him joining one of Europe’s biggest sides, who clearly have little confidence in the players that helped them win the Uefa Youth League last April.
It is a move as remarkable as it is unlikely, and now the challenge for Djilobodji will be succeeding where the likes of more talented players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Flilipe Luis and Juan Cuadrado have failed, by establishing himself as part of Jose Mourinho’s regular squad.