Welcome to Window Shopping, a recurring feature in which Defector highlights and analyzes some of the biggest players rumored for a big-money transfer each window. Each summer and January, we will take a look at these potential stars in order to answer two simple questions: Who the heck is this guy, and why is he worth so much money?
How much should a soccer team value versatility? Obviously it takes skill to be able to slot in at multiple positions, in multiple roles, or in different formations, but is a jack of many trades worth as much as a master of one? And how much does that make Brighton’s Marc Cucurella worth?
The answer came on Friday, and it is staggering: Though a handful of top teams were after his signature, Chelsea has signed the defender for a €65 million fee, with a potential for €8 million more in add-ons. That price tag is above and beyond the previous reports that put Brighton’s price tag for its star defender at around €55 million.
A big part of why Chelsea has dropped such a big chunk of cash on Cucurella is that he can occupy multiple roles in defense and attack. The 24-year-old came through the Barcelona academy as a highly rated left back, then moved to Getafe where he broke out playing as a left-sided wide midfielder in a 4-4-2, which earned him a transfer to Brighton, where he’s thrived mainly as a left wing back but also at times as a center back in a three-defender setup. He’s not equally great at all of those roles; his strongest position is at wing back, which frees him up to create from the wings further up the field while minimizing the amount of time he spends defending close to his own goal. Regardless, the Premier League season is long and full of injury terrors, so having someone who can play up and down the left side of the field is valuable.
With that in mind, is a wing back who notched just one goal and one assist last season really worth upwards of €65 million? It’s hard to say, given that the Premier League has players of Andrew Robertson and João Cancelo’s quality at the full back positions. Why is Cucurella worth so much, then? Let’s find out.
What Are The Rumors?
For most of the summer, it looked like Cucurella would be on his way to Manchester City. The Spaniard fit Pep Guardiola’s system, as a pass-first wing back or a rapid left center back, similar to how Kyle Walker operates on the right side. Additionally, it’s City! The club has more money and prestige than anyone. If City wants a player, it’s usually a fait accompli. The problem, though, came from the price tag: City simply did not want to pay the rumored price of €55 million, despite its vast reserves of funds. Weird!
Enter Chelsea. New owner Todd Boehly has not shied away from spending a lot of money in his first transfer window at the head of the London Blues, so something as pedestrian as a €65 million price tag did not get in his way. The Athletic reported on Thursday that Brighton was keeping the defender out of first-team training ahead of the season opening weekend, which was the final step before this transfer became a reality.
Are These Rumors Bullshit?
Well, one of the fun things—or, at least, “fun” things—about the summer transfer market is that sagas can extend for weeks on end . . . or they can finish as quickly as they started. While I was in the process of finishing this blog, with the assumption that Cucurella would go to Chelsea, Cucurella did in fact go to Chelsea. So, safe to say that these rumors were not bullshit, though the price tag is higher than expected.
What Does He Do?
Cucurella is a perfect example of a modern full back. Given that he was trained at Barcelona’s La Masia academy, that is not particularly surprising. His game with the ball at his feet is stellar. Last season, as one of the best left-sided defenders in the league, Cucurella made around nine progressive passes per game, and added a couple of progressive dribbles to boot. He’s calm under opposing presses, and is able to find both the long balls into space to attackers as well as the short passes to recycle possession. His movement in the attacking third is also top-notch, as evident in his last goal for Brighton. He starts the move in almost a center defensive midfield position, before charging into the middle of the box for the pass. The finish is fantastic, though it’s not really a strong part of his game. It’s just nice to look at:
On the other side of the ball, Cucurella isn’t anyone’s idea of a defensive stopper, but he does provide a different set of skills. Namely, he’s a pressing machine. In his final season at Getafe, Cucurella led La Liga in presses for the season by a wide margin. He is fearless in getting at opposing wide players, and though his tackle success rate—about 65 percent last season—isn’t the best, it is more than good enough to be worth the risks he takes with his pressing.
Finally, we have the old “the best ability is availability” chestnut. Cucurella played in 35 of Brighton’s 38 games last season, and he has never suffered a major injury in his career. Often big injuries are matters of luck, but something about his playing style and conditioning should help him be constantly available for Chelsea.
What Doesn’t He Do?
If he’s playing as an attacking wingback, there’s very little that Cucurella doesn’t do. Sure, he doesn’t score many goals or even end up with assists, but his progressive play is worth his weight in gold. As a left center back, though, his weaknesses flare up a bit more noticeably. He’s only around 5-foot-7, which makes him an easy target when the ball is in the air. He’s also not the strongest of players, preferring quickness to muscling attackers off the ball. These flaws barely register when he plays further up the pitch, but if Chelsea has bought him with the intention of playing him at left center back, it will have to adapt the defensive scheme to not isolate him against big Premier League forwards.
Less important but still a part of his weaknesses: Cucurella fouls a lot. If he is deployed on the outside, those fouls will likely occur further up the pitch and outside of the dangerous areas in the middle of the field. As a center back, playing against bigger players who can jostle him for space, the fouls might become more of an issue. His recovery speed is great, but he’ll need to hone that into tackles from a trailing position, instead of simply fouling players who get by him.
How Does He Fit Into A Top Team?
If it is not evident from the above, allow me to reiterate: Cucurella was a top option available on the transfer market, but only if the buying team is committed to playing him as either left back or left wing back. His skills there will only get more prominent when a team controls most of the possession, as the top teams often do and as Chelsea did last season (62.3 percent average possession, third highest in the Premier League). His creativity from the wing will give Chelsea another weapon for breaking down packed-in defenses, and his pressing should help his new team get back on the front foot if it does lose the ball.
On the other hand, if Chelsea plays him at left center back in a three-defender formation, then Cucurella’s fit becomes a little more questionable. Rather, he will be a just okay fit at the price of a stellar starter. Against lower-quality sides, this might be fine, and he can push up from that position to overload the midfield with attacking players. Against other top teams, though, his defensive and physical weaknesses might pop up in the most inopportune of times, so Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel would do well to move him outside for those top six and Champions League showdowns.
Who Would Hate This Move?
Expensive transfers tend to shake things up, be it the dressing room, the roster hierarchy, the manager’s position, the fans’ outlook, and the domestic and international landscape. With that it mind, this section tries to determine who stands to lose from the potential transfer.
I suppose that Manchester City will hate this move the most, given that Cucurella was all but ready to pose in the sky blue jersey. This is a self-inflicted loss of player for City, perhaps because the club worried more about the perception of “over-paying,” whatever that might be, for a luxury buy. Still, though, it’s rare that City loses out on someone that it wants to sign, so there will likely be some 8–0 beatings in Brighton’s way for not budging closer to City’s rumored €47 million offer for Cucurella.
As for the Chelsea player most likely to be frustrated with the move, it’s probably Ben Chilwell. The former Leicester defender was brought in during the summer of 2020, but he has not carved out his spot on the left side of defense for Chelsea. A huge reason—maybe the only reason—why is that he tore a ligament in his knee in November of 2021, missing the second half of the year. He’ll be back for this upcoming season, but now that Cucurella has signed, there will be stiffer competition. Tuchel could play Cucurella at left center back and Chilwell at left wingback, but as stated above, that is not Cucurella’s best position, and did Chelsea really just drop €65 million-plus on a player just to slot him in out of position?
Important signings are bound to be controversial, so here we include a representative example at each end of the spectrum of sentiments.
Where Does He Rank On The Defector Boom/Bust Scale?
This transfer is the hardest one to rate on the scale, at least so far. On paper, Cucurella is exactly the type of squad player that top clubs tend to find among the margins. His versatility should be a boon for Tuchel, and his sterling injury record should make him available whenever needed. With all that said, €65 million is a lot of money. Part of the calculation that goes into the label of “bust” comes from the price tag, and it’s very unlikely that Cucurella performs as well as one might expect for a €65 million purchase. This isn’t his fault, so I won’t ding him too much, but I still will ding him just a bit. For these reasons, Marc Cucurella grades at a 11.3 on the Defector Boom/Bust Scale.