A strange and troubling season for Chelsea has given way to an even stranger and more troubling post-season with uncertainty in the dugout, at the top of the club and work halted on their new stadium.
The seventh-richest club in the world and one of the most successful of the Premier League era are at a crossroads in the Roman Abramovich era. With their owner exiled of sorts in Israel due to visa issues with the British Home Office and concerns over his long-term involvement and interest, these are unsteady times at the Bridge.
Add in a manager who wants to leave in Antonio Conte, the nominated replacement proving too expensive in Maurizio Sarri and two star players potentially on their way out of the club in Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois.
At least Chelsea fans can take some solace from the performances of Antonio Rüdiger who arrived at the club as part of a hurried and haphazard summer recruitment drive which could be identified as where the early seeds of chaos were sewn, but the German proved by far the pick of the Blues new signings.
His £29 million arrival from Roma could prove one of the few black marks on the otherwise glistening resume of the Italian side’s sporting director Monchi. Should the 25-year-old be on the open market again, his price would likely be nearer double that fee.
But that is not only a mark of the relative bargain Chelsea secured but also his progress in a Premier League season which didn’t begin all that convincingly but ended with a sizeable bang as he was named man of the match in the FA Cup victory over Manchester United.
Rüdiger has always been a victim of his own strength in the sense his physicality has marked him out as an obvious dominating centre-back but his athleticism and acceleration over 20 minutes lent him towards possibly specialising as a right-back.
It was the latter role which earned him his first international honours as he made his Germany debut in 2014 and would have been part of the Euro 2016 squad if not for an ACL injury on the eve of the tournament.
By then Rüdiger had become a permanent Roma player after spending the previous season on loan at the Stadio Olimpico and, like so many before him, his time in Serie A proved to be the making of him as a defender.
The extra focus on tactics, positioning and defensive diligence helped eradicate some of the more adventurous and potentially worrisome aspects of Rüdiger’s game and gave him a greater focus and sense of concentration.
Roma also ensured he would specialise as a centre-back who could deputise as a full-back, not the other way around. Then Chelsea came calling.
Defensive signings never gain the same traction among support as attacking players and Rüdiger was far from a household name in a week where the Blues had lost out to Manchester United in the battle for Romelu Lukaku.
When his signing was announced it raised barely a ripple but although it may not have seemed it at the time, as attempts to sign Kalidou Koulibaly and Leonardo Bonucci proved unsuccessful, he was the addition at the back Conte needed.
The Italian’s steadfast commitment to a back three demands players who are ostensibly centre-backs but comfortable also operating as cover defenders in wide areas. Given his experience as a full-back, Rüdiger was perfect on the right side of the trident.
Initially there were concerns; notable defeats at home to Burnley on debut, at Tottenham and Newcastle implied that the defensive steel Chelsea had built their title success on had eroded and when that happens, whatever changes made to a winning formula are sure to be pinpointed.
Rüdiger was the odd-man out in that sense with César Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill the recognised figures at the club but, then again, that role as the new man in the team meant he had to learn quickly to build a chemistry in an established order. That takes time.
Conte was also not sure exactly where to play him or what his best defensive combination was as Chelsea’s first three games saw three different combinations experimented. The only constant was Rüdiger.
But the German didn’t look 100 per cent assured in the new system and Chelsea’s early-season wobble was both a cause and an effect of an unconfident start to life in the Premier League.
There were notable mistakes and lapses in judgement against Roma in the Champions League and in the League Cup against Arsenal. But after January something clicked and the 25-year-old grew into his role.
One theory is he was too keen to impress, diving into tackles instead of holding back and assessing the situation and likewise trying to force the issue when, instead, he needed to play his way into the team and league.
One aspect of Rüdiger that has come to the fore has been his character and personality on the field and his form appears to have improved as his human aspect has risen to the surface. As he’s become more comfortable in his surroundings, so he has on the pitch.
Although, bizarrely, as Chelsea’s overall defensive record has slightly worsened – in the first half of the season their xG conceded was 0.85 and from January 1 it rose to 1.1 – Rüdiger has shown incremental improvement, to the extent he finished the season as arguably Chelsea’s standout individual.
Individually his defensive stats are modest, averaging 1.19 successful tackles per 90 minutes at an accuracy of 65 per cent; 2.27 headed duels won per 90 with a success rate of 60 per cent; one interception per 90 puts him outside the top 100 for Premier League defenders.
His 65.7 passes per 90 ranks 16th and his pass accuracy is at a reasonable 89.5 per cent which, again, doesn’t especially leap out. Both are an improvement on his numbers at Roma (83.3 per cent and 86.8 per cent) where, in theory, with less pressing he had more time on the ball.
There’s been greater assertiveness in how he’s attacked the ball and read the pace of the game, which naturally needs time given he had spent the last two seasons in the more patient confines of Serie A.
With Rüdiger, Andreas Christensen, Azpilicueta and Cahill, Chelsea have four fine defenders moving forward, across four different age ranges – 25, 22, 28 and 32 – with the former two still to hit their ceiling which should ensure easy transition through the coming campaigns.
Chelsea may be a club embroiled in chaos and uncertainty, but Rüdiger can prove a stabilising figure and clearly his best is yet to come.