Who is Attila Szalai? The centre-back targeted by Chelsea to replace Rudiger

Chelsea sought to strengthen their defence over the summer as they pursued Jules Kounde’s services.

The club had agreed terms with the player, but were unable to strike a fee with Sevilla, which saw the move fail to materialise.

Fortunately for the Blues, Trevoh Chalobah’s emergence as a first team regular eased the need for a new centre-back, but with January fast approaching, Chelsea are weighing up their options. 

Kounde is again on the club’s radar, with Matthijs de Ligt another rumoured target for the Premier League side, the Dutchman supposedly disillusioned with life with Juventus.

Despite conceding fewer goals (4) than any other Premier League team this season, centre-back is a priority position, and that’s because of the ongoing contract standoff between the European champions and Antonio Rudiger, among others. 

Rudiger struggled for game time until Thomas Tuchel took over the Stamford Bridge reins in January, but has been imperious at the back for Chelsea this calendar year. Unfortunately for Chelsea, though, is that Rudiger’s current contract expires next summer.

They are desperate to tie the Germany international down to a new deal and understandably so given his solidity in Tuchel’s three-man defence. 

His good form has caught the eye of some of Europe’s powerhouse sides and with less than a year to run on his current contract, the possibility of Rudiger leaving for free increases with each day.

Chelsea are still working to come to an agreement for the German, and are of course aware that Thiago Silva, Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen will be free agents next summer, yet they are understandably taking precuations in order to maintain their defensive resolve in both domestic and European competition. 

Kounde and De Ligt are targets for Chelsea, yet an outside choice has been linked with a move to west London in recent weeks. Nine days before Tuchel was appointed as Chelsea boss, Fenerbahce announced the signing of Attila Szalai from Apollon Limassol.

The Hungarian would go on to become a key man since penning a four-and-a-half year deal at the turn of the year, starting 21 of 23 possible league games last season.

Following Szalai’s arrival, only Trabzonspor (16) conceded fewer goals than Fenerbahce (20) in the Super Lig. For context, they shipped 21 in 17 2020/21 league games prior to the signing of the Hungary international.

While Fenerbahce’s defensive solidity has come under criticism this term, Szalai’s stock continues to rise, with Atletico Madrid also rumoured to be considering a move for the Chelsea target.

A key reason for Chelsea’s interest as a potential replacement for Rudiger is the experience of playing in a three-man backline, specifically on the left of the defence.

In every league match this season, Fenerbahce head coach Vitor Pereira has used this setup with Szalai the man tasked with operating on the left.

Having tested out as a left-back earlier in his career, this experience from playing this role has allowed him to comfortably transition to a left centre-back and is likely to be a key reason for Chelsea’s interest in Szalai. 

Who is Attila Szalai? The centre-back targeted by Chelsea to replace Rudiger

Yet despite his continued development into a January target for the Champions League holders, there are areas to Szalai’s game that require improvement.

At 23 years of age, that is to be expected and given his rapid rise to stardom, he needs an elite coach to smooth out the rough edges to his game.

One of those is his aerial ability. Standing at 6’3″, fans would expect Szalai to dominate in the air, yet an aerial success rate of 60% in the Turkish Super Lig, a metric topped by former Chelsea man Papy Djilobodji (79.5%), suggests a weak point comes from his inability to win headed battles with great frequency. 

Fans would be quick to note that he didn’t win a single aerial duel at Euro 2020, losing all five aerial duels contested, though a 74.2% aerial success rate in Hungary’s World Cup qualifying campaign is an example of how he can dominate in the air. Szalai’s distribution is another aspect that needs improvement.

Considering Fenerbahce rank sixth for possession (53.8%) and seventh for pass success rate (81.7%) in Turkey’s top tier, you’d expect a better pass success rate from Szalai than his current average of 78.2%, that lower than any other Yellow Canary defender. 

Conversely, that could be down to Szalai’s desire to set Fenerbahce on the front foot more frequently than his defensive teammates.

A return of 307 forward passes ranks second in the Super Lig this season and is at least 105 more than any other Fenerbahce player, with this aggressive approach to building attacks from the back a key asset for the Turkish giants.

In terms of winning the ball on the deck, though, Szalai does impress. 

A return of 39 tackles and interceptions combined is the 26th highest in the Super Lig this season, while Szalai has won possession in the defensive third 38 times, the 17th best in Turkey’s top tier.

In addition, 40 clearances also ranks 17th in the division, with Szalai’s proactive approach to defending proving crucial for a Fenerbahce side that has admittedly struggled in the opening months of the campaign. 

There is more to come from Szalai as he continues to grow into a well-rounded centre-back and given the mooted price of Kounde and De Ligt, the Hungarian powerhouse could prove a shrewder pick up in Chelsea’s quest to add at least one new centre-back in January.

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