Chelsea's midfield: Where does Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall fit in, and where does it leave Conor Gallagher?

For better or worse, the bold, new Enzo Maresca era at Chelsea has its symbol: Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, the Italian’s biggest individual success story in Leicester City’s run to promotion from the Championship last season and a £30million signing who promises to shake up the midfield pecking order at Stamford Bridge.

Dewsbury-Hall had a breakthrough 2023-24 campaign, registering 12 goals and 14 assists in 44 league appearances — the first time he had got to double figures in either category in a single professional season. Despite ostensibly being a No 8, he emerged as the secondary goal threat in Maresca’s revamped, post-relegation Leicester team, scoring only three fewer non-penalty goals than Jamie Vardy.

“Kiernan is probably the player that, since we have started, has improved more than the rest,” Maresca said of Dewsbury-Hall last November, five months after he got the Leicester job.

“He has the calmness that that kind of player needs. He’s fantastic with the ball, he knows when to attack and what to give the team. He is so dangerous near the box and has the quality to score or assist from anywhere.”

Dewsbury-Hall may not have been targeted solely because of Maresca — a productive 25-year-old available at that price will always be an attractive value proposition to Chelsea’s co-owners Clearlake Capital and Todd Boehly — but given his pre-existing relationship with their new head coach and intimate knowledge of his tactical system after their year together in the second division, expect him to play a lot.

This necessarily means that others in the Cobham midfield stable are going to play less.

So, who is most vulnerable to losing minutes on the pitch as a result of Dewsbury-Hall’s arrival? Let’s take a closer look…

The first thing to establish is the role Dewsbury-Hall played at Leicester under Maresca, who favoured a 4-3-3 formation which morphed into a 3-2-4-1 arrangement in possession, with one full-back inverting into midfield and the two midfield No 8s pushing high up ahead of the ball.

Dewsbury-Hall was the left No 8, tasked with providing incisive passes, direct runs and a supplementary scoring threat from the left half-space. Sometimes this entailed drifting into more of a No 10 position, receiving the ball on the half-turn and then playing a pass through to one of Leicester’s attackers — as he does here for the assist on a goal by Abdul Fatawu against Southampton:


The graphic below highlights that Dewsbury-Hall did the bulk of his chance creation in these central areas just outside the opposition penalty box:

kiernan dewsbury hall chance creation zones 2023 24

At other times, Dewsbury-Hall was the one stretching the game for Leicester, leveraging his speed to run in behind while Maresca’s nominal No 9 dropped deep to link play and draw out opposition centre-backs. The sequence below shows Swansea City being carved open by a sharp vertical passing move that ends with Dewsbury-Hall racing through to score:


Against deeper-lying defences, Dewsbury-Hall was encouraged by Maresca to crash the penalty area from midfield, particularly when Leicester worked the ball into crossing positions. Here, against Coventry City, he manages to connect with an inviting delivery from the right-sided No 8, Dennis Praet, and guide a header inside the far post:


The graphic below illustrates that almost all of Dewsbury-Hall’s goals from open play were scored from similar spots in the left half of the penalty area, usually as the result of well-timed runs from his advanced-midfield starting position:

kiernan dewsbury hall 2023 24 all shots

Maresca kept Dewsbury-Hall high up the pitch when Leicester did not have the ball, often shifting into more of a 4-4-2 shape with his left-sided No 8 pushed up alongside his striker to lead the first line of pressure.

The sequence below shows it working to great effect against Cardiff City, with Dewsbury-Hall’s initial press prompting two ill-advised opposition passes infield, yielding a costly turnover just outside their penalty area and a shooting chance, which he converts:


As with his attacking role in Maresca’s system, Dewsbury-Hall’s defensive contribution was overwhelmingly focused on the left half of the pitch:

kiernan dewsbury

All of the above makes it clear that Dewsbury-Hall will not be competing for minutes with Moises Caicedo, who will be the starting No 6 in Maresca’s system. The same goes for any of the other candidates to play at the base of midfield — namely Romeo Lavia, Andrey Santos and Lesley Ugochukwu.

Maresca wants Dewsbury-Hall for that left-sided No 8 role, which puts him into competition with Chelsea’s array of more progressive midfielders.

Enzo Fernandez is an interesting case, not least because his sphere of passing influence has tended to skew towards the left half of the pitch in his Stamford Bridge career to date. That will have to change if Dewsbury-Hall becomes the preferred option on the left of Chelsea’s three-man midfield. Fernandez faces a bigger adaptation to thrive as a No 8 in Maresca’s system, since operating ahead of the ball rarely seemed to maximise his passing excellence under Mauricio Pochettino last season and frequently left him unable to help the team’s transition defence.



Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall to Chelsea: The Athletic 500 transfer ratings

Maresca often selected Wilfred Ndidi, traditionally a midfield destroyer, as his right-sided No 8 to add teeth to Leicester’s press. To meet the physical demands of that role in and out of possession, Fernandez will need to show he has fully recovered from the hernia which limited him for much of 2023-24 and is back in peak condition.

There are no such concerns about Conor Gallagher, who could provide much the same energy, tenacity and all-round contribution as Ndidi, while building on his improved scoring form in the final stretch of last season. But there are approximately 106 million reasons to be confident that, unless his form completely falls off a cliff, Fernandez will be in the first-choice midfield.

Chelsea view Gallagher as more defensive and box-to-box than Dewsbury-Hall, and have not ruled out giving a contract extension to the academy graduate, whose current deal expires next summer.

Yet despite their differences, there is enough overlap between the two to conclude that this signing makes selling Gallagher more palatable.

GettyImages 1778998687

Chelsea have not ruled out giving a contract extension to Conor Gallagher (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Dewsbury-Hall’s aptitude for leading Maresca’s press from the front offsets the potential loss of Gallagher’s greatest on-field attribute. He is also a rare match in terms of durability, having incredibly only missed one game due to injury in a Leicester career that goes back to his debut in January 2020. Then there is the financial element; coming from the Championship, Dewsbury-Hall is almost certainly earning a lot less than what it would take to renew Gallagher after a career-best season.

It would be difficult for Chelsea to get less out of Lavia this season than they did in an injury-wrecked 2023-24, and the Belgian’s technical profile makes him a potential option for the right-sided No 8 role, as well as an alternative to Caicedo in a deeper position.

Dewsbury-Hall will fancy his chances of holding down a starting position as Chelsea’s most advanced midfielder in 2023-24, particularly given the inexperience of the other obvious first-team options available.

Carney Chukwuemeka and Cesare Casadei have four Premier League starts for Chelsea combined, while recent £19million signing Omari Kellyman has even less professional seasoning. Casadei did not even play in front of Dewsbury-Hall at Leicester while on loan there last season.

Chukwuemeka would likely have featured far more for Pochettino’s Chelsea were it not for a freak knee injury suffered against West Ham last August, though still managed to score two of the club’s best goals of the season either side of that setback.

He has the talent to make a real impact at Stamford Bridge in 2024-25, underscoring Chelsea’s reluctance to allow him to leave on loan. But the biggest threat to Dewsbury-Hall’s place in Maresca’s starting XI might come from a slightly unexpected source: the club’s reigning player of the season, Cole Palmer.

While most often deployed on the right by Pochettino, Palmer spent large swathes of his breakout 2023-24 campaign drifting into the No 10 position to function as the brain of a dynamic attack. He has all of the required attributes to function as Maresca’s left-sided No 8 in and out of possession, and this may well have been Chelsea’s Plan A if they had succeeded in signing Michael Olise from Crystal Palace.

Maresca could still go to a similar alignment with Noni Madueke on the right flank, but the history of coaches rekindling their working relationships with key players from their previous clubs heavily indicates that Dewsbury-Hall will be a regular starter for Chelsea — particularly in the early weeks and months, as the Italian works to make his system second nature to his players.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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