Antonio Rudiger's continued growth good news for Chelsea's present, future
After an uninspired 0-0 draw with Arsenal on Wednesday night there were few real positives for Chelsea to draw upon. One of those, however, was the display of Antonio Rudiger.
The 24-year-old was the pick of Chelsea's three centre-backs on a night when all of them shone. He refused to allow any of Arsenal's forwards a sniff of goal by combining his pace and strength to defuse any situation before it posed any danger. It was a welcome display from somebody that has been trying to make an impression at a new club without, until lately, ever being entirely convincing.
Understandably, the summer arrival from Roma has taken his time to adjust to his new environment, the increased expectation of playing for Chelsea and the rigours of English football. His Premier League debut saw him be part of the team that lost 3-2 to Burnley on the opening day and a week later Harry Kane gave him a torrid time throughout despite the Blues emerging from Wembley with a 2-1 win.
Since then there have been many bright spots, though also a lack of consistency in his performances. Often a good outing would be followed by a less favourable one, resulting in a loss of confidence and costing him his place in the starting XI.
Rudiger was perhaps not helped by Antonio Conte's search for the perfect blend in his back three. David Luiz started the season as the incumbent in the middle and Cesar Azpilicueta's extraordinary dependability has meant that Rudiger has often found himself vying with club captain Gary Cahill for the third centre-back spot. For Conte, it has often been a straight choice between the Englishman's defensive intelligence compensating for his lack of pace versus the German international's dynamism that is sometimes offset by inexperience and questionable positional sense.
But consistency now appears to be entering his game with Rudiger now stringing together performances of a high level. Simply playing more regularly has helped him find his groove, a solution that doesn't exactly require a rocket scientist to deduce. He has been the unexpected beneficiary of the illness that ruled Andreas Christensen out for much of the festive period with Luiz not yet deemed fit enough to slot back in. With Cahill moved centrally, Rudiger received more game time on the left of the back three and warmed to the task.
Now that he is fit again, the hugely impressive Christensen has resumed his place in the heart of the back three, leaving Conte with a pleasant dilemma. Does he show loyalty to Cahill's old head, one that effectively led Chelsea to the Premier League title last season as John Terry became all too familiar with the substitutes' bench? Or does he show faith in the younger man who might have fewer experiences to draw upon but has all the attributes to blossom into the real deal?
At the moment, it appears to be a case of horses for courses. Although Rudiger starred in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semifinal, in the 2-2 draw at the Emirates Stadium last week, it was Cahill that started away from home. His nous possibly more valued in a hostile environment than the physical talents offered by his teammate.
It is possible that Conte still had the memories of the 3-0 defeat to Roma in mind when Rudiger had an absolute shocker against his former team. In mitigation, the defender had been subjected to some abhorrent and inexcusable racist abuse from the Italian club's supporters in the 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge a fortnight earlier which might well explain his nervous display at the Stadio Olimpico. Whether that was the case or not, it is not unfathomable that Conte might subsequently have had some reservations in playing Rudiger in high-profile matches as a result.
Along with more minutes on the pitch, Rudiger's mindset will also have been enhanced by his recent appearances on the scoresheet. Although his first strike for the club came in the 2-1 Carabao Cup win over Everton, his winning goal against Swansea at the end of November will have carried much more weight. Rudiger followed that up with the opening goal of the 5-0 stroll against Stoke to prove that he is a genuine menace from set pieces with all three of his Chelsea goals coming via that route.
As he continues to compete with Cahill for a starting berth, adding goals to his repertoire will only help his cause not least as that has been an area in which the English international has proved invaluable for Chelsea. By learning from his experiences, growing in confidence and adding to his game, Rudiger can acquire all the tools necessary to become a fixture in the first team. With Christensen's defensive intelligence wise beyond his years and Azpilicueta still only 28, the Blues' central defence looks like it could be set in stone for years to come. If Rudiger delivers on his promise it might ultimately be bad news for Cahill's but it can only be good news for Chelsea's future.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.