There was another significant juncture in Chelsea’s extraordinary period of upheaval last week, as Cesar Azpilicueta bid farewell to the club after 11 trophy-laden years of loyal service. His departure immediately adds to Mauricio Pochettino’s in-tray, with the new head coach now facing a big decision over who should take the armband.
Indeed, the Argentine needs to form a new on-field leadership team altogether, as Jorginho’s move to Arsenal in January means the club has lost both its captain and vice-captain in the space of six months. Mateo Kovacic, another player to have worn the armband recently, has also moved on.
Chelsea’s unprecedented overhaul of the first-team squad this summer means the options to replace Azpilicueta as skipper are limited, but a few names in particular stand out as candidates…
6. Enzo Fernandez
In his brief time at Chelsea, Enzo Fernandez has demonstrated his leadership credentials in his attempts to dictate play from the middle of the park amid relative chaos around him. Indeed, he aspires to be a leader on the pitch, saying in April: “I always dream to be a leader because when I started, I always wanted to be an example.”
His authority was noted by interim manager Frank Lampard, but his thoughts are perhaps an accurate reflection of where the midfielder will sit in Pochettino’s thinking: “Enzo is becoming a leader,” he said. “But he’s 22, I think it’s quite difficult for us to talk about that, he’ll have to find his way.”
The language barrier is also an issue, with Lampard revealing in May that Enzo “doesn’t speak English much at all”. Consequently, this feels like an opportunity that will come too soon for the club’s record signing.
5. Ben Chilwell
A name that will likely be mentioned in despatches in discussions over the club’s next club captain and leadership team is Ben Chilwell. Despite only signing in 2020, the 26-year-old suddenly finds himself among the club’s longest-serving players.
A Premier League and Champions League-winner as well as an England international, he has a wealth of experience at the highest level and knows what it means to represent Chelsea through thick and thin, while his disarming, warm character means he is popular among the squad and the fanbase.
His injury record should be a concern, however, as Pochettino will want his captain to be ever-present. Some will also argue that he is perhaps too nice for the job.
4. Kepa Arrizabalaga
The notion of Kepa Arrizabalaga even being in contention for the captaincy would have been laughable less than a year ago, but the goalkeeper has battled back to prominence at Stamford Bridge.
Kepa enjoyed a quietly solid campaign after reclaiming his place between the sticks from now ex-Chelsea stopper Edouard Mendy, and Lampard even handed him the armband for the home game against Brighton at the backend of last season – although that ended in another disappointing defeat.
He is an outsider for the role, but it has been reported that Pochettino is willing to stick with the Spaniard as his No.1 next season rather than spend on a replacement. That makes him a contender for the captaincy as a vocal presence at the back and one of the longest-serving first-team regulars, despite his shortcomings.
3. Raheem Sterling
Raheem Sterling still hasn’t even been at Chelsea for a year, but his experience and winning mentality mean he will feature prominently in Pochettino’s thoughts as he ponders his decision.
Sterling has emerged as a natural-born leader, captaining both Manchester City and England in the past and earning the respect of his peers with his exploits both on and off the pitch. His trophy-laden time at the Etihad Stadium means he is comfortably the most decorated player in the Chelsea squad.
It’s a role the player relishes at international level, saying after captaining the Three Lions last year: “It’s a great privilege and never in my wildest imagination as a young player coming through did I ever think I would captain England one day, it comes with maturity the manager sees in you, the passion and love I have for the country.
“I always have this thing where I remember me coming through as a young player and it’s nice when senior players put their arms around you, it’s a new environment and all we can do is make sure the new ones feel as comfortable as possible.”
The main thing that will count against Sterling is his brief time at Stamford Bridge to date, but don’t be surprised to see him in his manager’s new leadership team.
2. Reece James
The man who many feel is Chelsea’s captain in waiting. One of the great success stories of the academy, Reece James’ 17-year association with the club means he has a deep understanding of what it means to wear the blue shirt, and at 23 years old his trophy cabinet already contains a Champions League winner’s medal.
Wearing the armband has always been James’ long-term ambition, and indeed to become the face of Chelsea, as his father Nigel revealed in 2021. Speaking to The Athletic, he said: “The part where I will be emotional is the day he becomes Chelsea captain. That’s his ambition and mine as well. The goal is to be the man that, when you hear ‘Chelsea’, you think ‘Reece James’.”
The England international deputised as captain following an injury against Tottenham in February, and he may well feel that he is ready to step up following a meteoric rise to becoming one of the best full-backs in the business and a fan favourite – endearing himself to the club’s supporters even more so and provoking calls for him to be named skipper with his recent snipe at an Arsenal fan who suggested he could make the switch across London.
His path has been cleared not only by Azpilicueta and Kovacic’s exits, but also by fellow Cobham graduate Mason Mount’s shock move to Manchester United.
While he will feature prominently in his manager’s thinking, James would need to overcome his recurrent fitness issues to fulfil the role to the utmost of his ability. That will be a concern to Pochettino, as well as the flying wing-back’s fairly reserved demeanour.
Perhaps he would be a better fit for the vice-captaincy…
1. Thiago Silva
Surely the man who will fill Azpilicueta’s shoes on a permanent basis? With the Spaniard becoming increasingly peripheral in 2022-23 and following Jorginho’s exit, Thiago Silva was the man to take up the armband more often than not in the second half of the season.
The language barrier could be considered an issue as the Brazilian veteran continues to get to grips with English, but his experience and gravitas transcend that; despite never officially possessing either the captaincy or vice-captaincy, the centre-back has been a leader on the pitch ever since joining Chelsea in 2020.
Silva is able to lean upon a wealth of experience at the very highest level, including skippering Brazil, Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan down the years, and he remains one of Chelsea’s most consistent performers and most-respected figures at the age of 38.
Dubbed ‘The Monster’, he won’t be a long-term solution for the role, but it would certainly make the most sense to appoint him captain for the foreseeable future. Source: goal.com