According to reports from Turkish division of outlet CNN, Chelsea are interested in a move for 23-year-old Hungarian centre-back Attila Szalai, currently at Turkish Super Lig side Fenerbahce.
Chelsea have reportedly submitted an ‘astronomical’ offer for the defender in the region of €23.4 million, who is set to sign a six-year contract with the Blues worth €4 million a year.
With the continued contract uncertainty regarding both Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen, as well as the sales of Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guehi and Kurt Zouma in the summer, it is understandable the club are in the market for a new centre-back to bolster defensive depth.
What kind of player is Szalai, and what could he potentially contribute to a Chelsea side?
Career to Date
Szaila joined Austrian side Rapid Wien aged 14, and primarily played for the club’s reserve team, making one senior appearance in May 2016, before he was signed by Hungarian side Mezőkövesdi in the summer of 2017. Szalai played 20 league games out of a possible 32 in his debut season as the side finished 9th, and a further 25 the following campaign as Mezőkövesdi finished 6th, their highest finish since 2016. Szaila solidified his position as a centre-back after several games at left-back during the 2017/18 season.
This form saw Szaila snapped up by Cypriot side Apollon Limassol in the summer of 2019 for roughly €400,000, where the defender picked up experience in the Europa League qualifying stage in his first season with the club, eventually losing to PSV Eindhoven. The following season was another step up for Szaila, missing just four of Apollon’s opening 20 league games, before Turkish side Fenerbahce agreed a transfer worth €2 million in the January transfer window.
Szalai instantly became a regular in the Sarı Kanaryalar team - missing two of the final 23 league games (playing the full 90 in 19) as Fenerbahce finished 3rd , two points off champions Besiktas, scoring three goals in the process. Szalai also played every minute for Hungary at the EURO 2020 tournament as his country finished bottom of Group F - Szalai made his international debut in November 2019 and has 16 caps to date.
So far this season, Szalai has played every minute of Fenerbahce’s league campaign as the club sit 7th, as well as starting three Europa League games in Group D, as the club sit third after four games, one point behind Greek side Olympiacos. Szalai’s form has been recognised in recent weeks with links to Atletico Madrid, and it appears a matter of time before another move, this time to a club competing in one of Europe’s ‘top five’ leagues.
Style of Play
After dabbling at left-back earlier in his career, Szalai has established himself as an out-and-out centre back. Under the management of Vitor Pereira, Fenerbahce have deployed a 3-4-3, or variant of that formation, in all of their league games so far this season, with Szalai slotting in at left centre-back, where he also frequently plays for Hungary, the role Rudiger operates in. Such a setup allows Szalai to frequently venture forward with the ball with the defensive support of two centre-backs (Kim Min-Jae and Marcel Tisserand), which can be viewed via his heat map for this season so far:
Standing at just under 6”3, Szalai is a powerful physical presence - this was evidenced in a run of three games for Hungary against Albania twice and Andorra between September and October, in which he won all nine of his aerial duels, as well as nine out of 14 ground duels. Combined with this physicality is a calmness on the ball and ability to play progressive passes that is encouraged by the use of a back three - Szalai averaged an 80 per cent pass completion rate across the three aforementioned games, including three ‘key passes’ and 12 accurate long balls.
Perhaps the greatest display of Szalai’s ability was the 2-0 win over Antalyaspor in August - the second game of an eight game run that included six wins. In 90 minutes, Szalai made six tackles and interceptions, a further six clearances and blocks, as well as completing 84 per cent of his attempted passes - including eight accurate long balls, and winning six out of seven total duels.
Szalai, not 24 until January, appears to be quickly developing as a rounded and confident centre-back, going from the Hungarian league to one of Turkey’s three biggest clubs within two years. His rugged physical element combined with a cool assertiveness and presence on the ball, as well as his experience in a back three, could make him a suitable fit for Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea.
Regardless of how Chelsea choose to operate in the January window, Szalai is a player worth keeping an eye on, who will surely make another big move in his career if he continues to perform for Pereira’s Fenerbahce.