Thomas Tuchel boasts one of the strongest squads in the Premier League but it is now a squad with an obvious weakness that he wants to correct over the next month. Ben Chilwell’s long-term injury has left the left wing-back position in the German’s 3-4-3 looking bare, with Marcos Alonso the only senior left-back currently in the squad.
So January provides the opportunity for Tuchel to dip into his transfer kitty and see whether he can conjure up something that will take the Blues closer to Manchester City at the top of the table, and allow them to defend their European crown.
Everton’s unhappy full-back Lucas Digne has been touted as a possible target and given he wants to make Didier Deschamps’ World Cup squad in November - will surely push for a move after his issues at Goodison Park. Ross Barkley could return to his old stomping ground as part of a swap deal, while Serginho Dest has also been touted as an option despite playing the majority of his career on the right.
But Chelsea still retain Alonso, who began the season as first choice, and £50m man Chilwell will return next season at the latest - which begs the question, do they really need to spend more money on what theoretically, will only be a six-month option? Digne would likely be second-choice to the Englishman next season while Alonso is likely to be shown the exit door in the summer if another player comes in. Hardly the confidence boost the Spaniard needs from his manager at this stage of the season.
But Chelsea also have two left wing-backs out on loan. Emerson Palmieri is currently with Lyon, although his deal includes a permanent option to buy in the summer, so Chelsea are unlikely to tamper with that - and 19-year-old Ian Maatsen. The youngster is currently on loan at Championship side Coventry, who have been the surprise package of the league so far, although recent postponements mean they have dropped to tenth in the table.
This is where the Blues face a dilemma. Do they allow Maatsen to continue his development, playing regularly at left wing-back in the Championship, or do they bring him back from loan and use the Dutchman, Alonso and Saul as a trio to cover that position until Chilwell’s return?
First approach with Lucas Digne's camp as he's prepared to leave Everton.
Sergiño Dest is appreciated - nothing advanced yet. Nicolás Tagliafico has been discussed weeks ago.
Recalling E. Palmieri or Maatsen, plan B.
At this moment in time, Maatsen is not good enough to play for Chelsea and halting his playing time in the Midlands will hamper his long-term development. He has moments of attacking brilliance, with his surging runs forwards an asset for Coventry, while his glorious goal against Fulham proved his ability to strike the ball, but in the last month his form has tailed off.
He was sent off against Bristol City after an ignorant last man shirt pull, he was substituted at half-time against West Brom having struggled to cope physically with Valerien Ismael’s side and then he lost his place in the starting XI for the Sky Blues’ last match against Huddersfield Town.
His height, at 5ft 6in, can still be targeted by more physical sides in the division and the mistakes, such as the one he made against Bristol City, need to be cut out of his game before he is ready for the Premier League. But he is still only 19, and learning on the job.
Chelsea fans rightly have a keen interest in their plethora of loan players, but this is a teenager who still needs to prove himself in the Championship before making the step up. He could well start games for the Blues in the league in the future, but bringing him back at this early stage of his development would harm both the player, and Chelsea’s long-term aspirations for him.
Tuchel needs to get this balance right this window, but recalling either of his left-back loanees does not seem like a viable option. Digne’s arrival to pave the way for Alonso’s eventual exit looks like the most sensible strategy at this moment in time.