It’s a well documented fact that Chelsea severely under-performed last season. While Guus Hiddink was able to somewhat steady the ship, the Blues still finished in 10th spot. Antonio Conte will want to implement his own style and will be bringing in players who would help him do the same in his bid to make Chelsea a force again, quickly.
Fans who have watched him play have been calling for Radja Nainggolan to be targeted by big Premier League clubs in the last few years. There are strong links suggesting the player is badly wanted by Chelsea’s boss-in-waiting Antonio Conte as the Italian looks to rebuild the side.
Nainggolan started his professional career at Serie B side Piacenza. He joined the club in the second tier of Italian football after being scouted while playing for Belgian club Germinal Beerschot. He spent four years in Serie B with Piacenza after which he made a move to Serie A with Cagliari. He was signed on loan before his deal became permanent at the end of the 2009/10 season. Nainggolan established himself as a regular at the Italian club for whom he made 131 appearances. His performances caught the eye of AS Roma who signed him signed him on a half-season loan for €3m (£2.3m) before buying 50% of his rights for another €6m (£4.7m). Nainggolan signed a permanent deal with the Rome club in the summer of 2014 and has since become an indispensable member of the team.
Strangely enough, he wasn’t included in the 2014 World Cup squad by Marc Wilmots; perhaps the manager wasn’t looking at the “smaller” clubs in Italy. However, he has since established himself in the side and is expected to feature prominently in the coming European Championship for the Red Devils.
Nainggolan plays deep in the midfield and manages to combine the role of a defensive midfielder and an attacking playmaker. The 27-year-old central midfielder is able to combine the attacking as well as defensive duties in the centre of the pitch, something Chelsea lack. The Blues don’t have an individual who could perform both these tasks. They don’t have the balance as their central midfielders are either too defensive or too attack minded. Last seasons unsung hero Nemanja Matic has been one of the players who has suffered an inexplicable contrast in form from the title winning season while Cesc Fabregas doesn’t contribute enough defensively. The need for someone to combine both these aspects is imperative and Nainggolan provides exactly this balance.
He averaged 1.4 interceptions and 2 tackles every 90 minutes in the league last season which illustrates his skill of breaking the opponent’s attack in the heart of the pitch. He can defend high up the pitch as well, something that sets him apart from other central midfielders. His 1.3 key passes every 90 minutes, 6 goals and 1 assist in the league shed a light on his offensive contribution.
While Conte made use of the 3-5-2 formation mostly at Juventus, the manager is flexible as he has used the 4-2-4 at Bari and Siena and has also employed the 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1 for Italy. But Conte does use certain tactical principles everywhere. There is an emphasis on quick transitions from defence to attack which naturally requires players who are technically good and can work hard.
Nainggolan is relentless on the pitch and doesn’t stop running. He can push forward from deep for attacks along with another defensive minded midfielder who could cover the space made. In a possible 4-4-2 system, he could play a more box-to-box role. Whatever system Conte employs, Nainggolan has shown he has the versatility to play anywhere in the midfield and do a great job in all those positions.
His aggressive style of play, relentless energy and already existing physical approach would make his transition to the Premier League possibly seamless.
The player has been likened to Bayern Munich’s Arturo Vidal. Interestingly, a few years back many called him “a poor man’s Vidal” but since becoming a key team member, firstly under Rudi Garcia and then Luciano Spalletti, the “poor man” prefix has been shed. Vidal was integral for Conte at Juventus, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out exactly why the Italian is so keen to bring the Roma midfielder to Chelsea.