Wesley Fofana remembers his first training session at Leicester City. Jamie Vardy lunged at him with both feet. This was welcome in English football, but the young defender quickly made a comeback at home.
When he was injured last season, Brendan Rodgers compared his absence to Liverpool’s loss to Virgil van Dijk. His progress was so rapid that former Chelsea defender and World Cup winner Frank Leboeuf likened his rise to that of Kylian Mbappe.
Leicester’s centre-back, Jonny Evans, even advised him to become one of the best defenders in the world after watching him tackle Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Speaking to Rodgers about Fofana in April, he was similarly convinced.
He said, “He’s a very impressive talent, this young man.” Sky BEIN. “He’s a star in the making. Raw talent, anticipation for a defender. He’ll be the absolute elite player.” Now, 21, Fofana is ready to show that he is indeed one.
A £70m move to Chelsea would make the unselected Frenchman one of the most expensive defenders in the game’s history. The graphics reflect his level of performance with Leicester, but they also reveal something about how much Thomas Tuchel thought he needed him.
Chelsea’s defensive record since the German’s arrival at the club has been quite impressive, keeping as clean sheets as Liverpool with Jurgen Klopp. Even Manchester City led by Pep Guardiola have conceded only two times less than Chelsea since Tuchel joined.
But Antonio Rudiger’s departure to Real Madrid was a huge loss. It’s not just about its quality but more specifically its pace. Rudiger scored as the fastest player in the Premier League last season – ahead of Mohamed Salah and Adama Traore.
Kalidou Koulibaly, 31, could replicate Rudiger’s presence, but combined with 37-year-old Thiago Silva means Chelsea need to pay attention to their defensive line-up. It partially explains why Tuchel sometimes wants Rhys James there on Cesar Azpilicueta.
No other Chelsea defender came close to Rudiger’s top speed of 36.7 kilometers per hour last season. Trifuh Shaloba was closest to 33.2 kilometers per hour. But Fofana changed that. His top speed with Leicester last season was 34.5 kilometers per hour.
He makes him one of the fastest defenders in the Premier League and that has consequences. He allows his team to play in a different way. “He allowed us to attack, he stopped the counterattack,” James Madison said after beating PSV Eindhoven last season.
Speaking to Rodgers at Leicester’s training ground the morning after the win in Europe, he explained the impact Fofana’s style of play has had on his team. They were defending higher and the gaps were smaller. He said “Bess do it” Sky BEIN.
“The size of the field is always determined by the midfield and the fullback.” If the defense is too deep, worried that the ball is over the top, it undermines everything. “You can be there pressing but if they sit on the halfway line the pitch is too big.”
He added, “It’s a trait we love to have in the team. We ask them to defend forward. This is about anticipation, closing the field and continuing the attacks. You can’t always score with the first pass but you have to get it back. And counter-press when you lose it.”
This ability to intercept, and dash out of the baseline to reclaim possession, is a feature very cherished in the top teams. They want a defender who can run towards his target but also influence the game in the other direction with this controlled aggression.
Add to Fofana’s aerial ability thanks to a jump that allows him to jump over taller opponents. Notice the ball skills that ensure you are comfortable in possession. This is why Leicester looked like a different team in their absence during the first half of last season.
“Any team will miss him,” Rodgers said. Sky BEIN.
“You have to be honest and open enough to admit that you are going to miss someone with this ability. Of course that will hamper performance. There is no rocket science for that. You miss your best players and it takes you way off your level of game.”
This is Lester’s problem now. With the help of Evans on the field and Kolo Toure, the boy was nicknamed “Little Wes” due to the presence of title-winning captain Wes Morgan at the club, and he became a man in the Midlands. But they should have known that this could be transient.
The circumstances of Fofana’s arrival were controversial. Saint-Étienne did not want to sell but the player lobbied for the move, and his family was subjected to personal abuse as a result. He was single-minded then, and he was single-minded now. All that matters is the next step.
For Fovana, that means Chelsea. He was 11 years old when hero Didier Drogba won the Champions League with the club in 2012. By following the same path, he is determined to secure a place in Didier Deschamps’ World Cup squad later this year.
Chelsea will benefit from this ambition just as much as they will benefit from the tactical flexibility that Rodgers has implanted in him. Fofana is well-suited to the right side of a three-defender, but he can also play as one of his centre-backs. This may be the only aspect left to improve.
“We just need to be careful with him,” Rodgers said in April. “He is still learning aspects of the game tactically. We have to remember how young he is.” When he completes his £70m move, it may be time to look at it another way. How good can Wesley Fofana become?