After spending the January transfer window lurching from one failure in the transfer market to another, it will come as some relief to Chelsea fans that the Blues are set to sign Roma full-back Emerson Palmieri.
The 23-year-old will undergo a medical today (Monday) before sealing a £17.6million move to west London. It’s not the striker Chelsea have been desperately searching for but the Brazilian-born defender will provide some much needed competition and despite for Marcos Alonso.
Only César Azpilicueta (2,958) has played more minutes than the Blues left wing-back (2,824) this season, although the latter’s position is far more demanding than his compatriot’s.
For his part, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte claimed he wasn’t concerned about Alonso’s fitness at the weekend. “I’m not worried,” the Italian said. “Last season we faced this situation in the same way. I’m not worried. He is ready to play and to play every game.”
It’s credit to Alonso that he has improved as the season has progressed. He has seven goals in all competitions, his latest an excellent free-kick in Sunday’s FA Cup win over Newcastle United.
But with Kenedy joining the Magpies on loan last week, Chelsea needed another option to deputise. And Palmieri is no stranger to playing a supporting role to a more established star.
Who is Emerson Palmieri?
Born and raised in Santos, Brazil, Palmieri’s footballing career started close to home. After spending several years in the Santos youth ranks, he made his debut for the club in April 2011, coming on as a substitute for Keirrison in a win over Paulista.
Instead of that being a launchpad for his career, it was more of a false start. He made sporadic starts over the next three years without holding down a first-team place in the Santos side.
It’s why a move to Serie A side Palermo in 2014 came as something of a surprise. He hadn’t truly proven himself in Brazil, after all. The Italian side signed Palmieri on a season-long loan but he made just nine league appearances and all came from the substitutes’ bench.
He remained in Italy, however, with Roma deciding to loan him for the 2015/16 campaign: “Roma are a successful club and they will have one more warrior on the pitch. I will fight for every minute of every match I play in,” he said upon joining.
Much like his time at Palermo, though, he was only a back-up option. He made just one start and yet impressed the Roma coaches enough for his loan deal to be extended.
And finally, with Lucas Digne moving to Barcelona, Palmieri was given his chance in the Roma first-team. It’s one he took gratefully. He made 36 appearances in all competitions for the club who made his loan deal permanent for just €2million in December 2016.
Italy, too, were impressed and he was given the chance to represent the Azzurri thanks to ancestry on his mother’s side. It was an offer he took but before he could make his Italy bow, he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury on the final day of last season.
Palmieri missed the first half of the current campaign as he recovered and has been kept out of the side since his return by new signing Aleksandar Kolarov.
He’s made just three appearances and only two starts since returning at the start of November, which is why Roma are willing to let him leave this month.
How does he differ to Alonso?
Since Conte overhauled Chelsea’s system last season, few players have benefitted as much as Alonso.
Defensively the Spaniard is far from perfect. He can be caught out of position and lacks the natural pace to help him in one-on-one situations. But given Chelsea often dominate games, his vulnerabilities are rarely exposed.
It’s going forward, however, that Alonso’s quality shines through. He may look, at times, somewhat awkward but the 27-year-old is technically gifted and a difference maker in the final third.
He is extremely adept at finding space in a crowded penalty area, either by sneaking in at the far post or making near post runs that catch defences out.
Add in his proficiency from dead-ball situations and it’s little surprise Alonso has scored 13 goals in 68 Chelsea appearances.
Palmieri, however, is a very different outlet on the left. He has the natural pace that Alonso lacks and is, therefore, happier to stay out wide and run at opposition defenders.
Last season, prior to his injury, and while playing in a back four, he was averaging 2.14 successful dribbles per 90 minutes in Serie A. By comparison Chelsea’s No.3 this term is only completing 0.54 dribbles.
That direct approach and ability to beat players could serve Chelsea well – particularly in home games when defences are sitting back and space is limited.
And when Palmieri does have space, he can produce dangerous passes. Last season he averaged 1.2 key passes per 90 minutes and one cross. Again those figures are higher than Alonso has achieved this term in England’s top flight.
Defensively, too, he comes out well. During the 2016/17 campaign, Palmieri averaged 2.19 tackles and 2.14 interceptions per 90 minutes for Roma. They are impressive figures, especially given it was his first full season in the first team.
Alonso this season has averaged 1.77 tackles and 1.68 interceptions per 90 in the Premier League for Chelsea. While they don’t stack up to Palmieri’s figures, it’s worth remembering Roma played a back four during 2016/17, so he was more likely to be involved in defensive duels.
What is certain, however, is that for £17.6million, assuming he is fully recovered from his knee injury, Chelsea are signing a wing-back who is more than capable of filling in for Alonso until the summer.
Beyond that and there may be a genuine battle between the two for the starting berth in the Chelsea side. Palmieri has proven himself once before, it would be unwise to bet against him doing so again. Something Alonso will have to be wary of.