The FIFA Young Player, given to the best young player at each World Cup, often promises an extremely bright future for the recipient. Previous winners include Pele in 1958, Franz Beckenbauer in 1966, Marc Overmars in 1994, Michael Owen in 1998, Thomas Müller in 2010, Paul Pogba in 2014 and Kylian Mbappé in 2018. There is therefore every chance that it is the huge potential offered by Enzo Fernández, who was named FIFA Young Player at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, that encouraged Chelsea to pay Benfica a record-breaking fee for his services on deadline day.
Fernández played a key role in Argentina's World Cup win despite not starting either of their first two games. It was when Lionel Scaloni made changes to his line-up and brought Fernández in that Argentina's World Cup really got going. He was part of a midfield that protected the defence and provided a platform for Lionel Messi to work his magic. It proved hugely effective as Argentina went on to win the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Fernández earned his place in the starting XI, helped transform the team's fortunes and never looked back. Chelsea and Graham Potter will be hoping the midfielder can have a similar effect on their team. Here's what he'll bring to Stamford Bridge.
Fernández is a right-footed midfielder who has experience as a number eight in central midfield and in a deeper defensive-midfield position. He has a broad skillset, contributing a great deal both in and out of possession.
He likes to drop short to get on the ball, either just ahead of or alongside the central defenders. He is often the player who drops in to create a back three and allow the full-backs to advance. From here, he provides a link to the advanced full-back on his side or a winger who has rotated inside. He is very comfortable on the ball and is happy to step out of defence with it, before playing vertical, line-breaking passes into midfield.
He also has very good long-range passing ability, and is capable of switching play effectively from the false full-back positions he takes up (below). At the point at which Liga Portugal paused for the 2022 World Cup, Fernández had successfully completed more long passes than any other player in the division in the 2022/23 campaign. He tends to drop out to the left side of the central defenders, before switching play towards the right. He will spot opportunities to advance around the opposition’s structure on the opposite side of the pitch and miss teammates out with these long balls to quickly switch the play. There is an impressive variety to his long-range passes; he can delicately lift the ball over opponents or play longer, driven balls.
When higher up the pitch – when facing a lower block, for example – Fernández also has the ability to break the last line with precise, incisive passing. He often looks for penetrative movements in behind the opposition’s centre-backs, and will look to find these runs with dinked balls into the space between the last line and the goalkeeper (below). He also has the ability to play through the opposition’s structure with low, angled passes to look for a runner in on goal.
His forward passing into wide runners who want to get into a position to cross could do with some improvement – particularly in the timing of his release, as he doesn't always pass the ball at the best time to find his teammate in the best possible position. This is an easy problem to fix for a player with Fernández’s impressive passing ability to penetrate central spaces, though.
Fernández is a brilliant ball-winner. He is tenacious in making attempts to win the ball, an aggressive presser, and always willing to get stuck in. His energy and agility mean he can change direction quickly when fighting for loose balls. This is another way in which he effectively regains possession frequently.
These characteristics help him stay close to his opponent when hassling and harrying to try and win the ball. He stands out for how he stops the opposition playing forward – not necessarily winning possession directly, but limiting the opposition’s progress through the central areas. Fernández presses intelligently, and will aim to force the ball into a specific trap – usually towards the touchline – where a teammate then makes an attempt at an interception or tackle. One problem is that he’s so aggressive and keen to jump out and press (below) that on occasion he can get rolled – especially if his direct opponent uses their arms to hold him off, or drops a shoulder before spinning out the other way.
When his team have dropped back into a deeper block, Fernández does a good job of protecting the central spaces ahead of the back line. Although he can struggle aerially (he isn’t the biggest), he is always alert to second balls and has a remarkable ability to sweep up in the second phase – much like now fellow Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kanté. Fernández also shows good defensive awareness to adjust his position quickly, either screening specific opponents between the lines or moving to cover behind a centre-back who has pushed forward to make an attempt to win the ball at the first contact.
From a deep position in midfield for both Benfica and River Plate, Fernández drifted to the left side during build-up, allowing his team’s left-back to advance and provide the width on this side. The winger then inverts to receive through the inside channels. The main benefit of having Fernández take up positions like these is that he provides defensive cover and protection in transition. His aggressive pressing and combative approach makes him ideal for delaying opposition counter-attacks, or forcing the ball into the path of a recovering teammate, or into a more crowded zone in which a teammate is more likely to win the ball.
In possession, Fernández will regularly look to play long balls, either switching the play to the advancing right-back or lofting balls in behind for the left-back to chase. At Benfica, Fernández built up a particularly strong relationship with left-back Alejandro Grimaldo. Grimaldo played a key role in attack, advancing at every opportunity, in part thanks to the cover provided by Fernández. Midfielder Fredrik Aursnes then moved inside from the left to replace Fernández in central midfield (below).
João Mário has also been used in a wide left role, but he makes more penetrative movements to receive higher up the pitch than Aursnes. Fernández still connects with him effectively, using his strong range of passing to search for him beyond the opposition’s defence. Striker Rafa Silva will then drop into midfield to ensure the team still has a replacement for Fernández centrally. The team will always ensure they have width on the right when Fernández has a chance of getting on the ball, to receive one of his switches of play. These players on the right, such as Gilberto or Alexander Bah, will then attack the penalty area once play has advanced beyond Fernández.
As well as an ability to play penetrative passes, Fernández can also be the player making runs in behind. He isn’t the kind of player who can beat a defender with a dribble, but by timing his arrival to shoot with his first or second touch he can be effective in these situations. This timing of his movement makes Fernández difficult to mark, as he will join in late with a sudden change of speed at the opportune moment. At River Plate in particular, he had a big role to play in attacking situations. He went on an impressive scoring run towards the end of his time there, scoring nine goals in 12 starts between March and May 2022. Without tight and focused marking from the opposition midfielders, he can be a huge threat in the final third.
He is also a threat when it comes to latching on to second or third-phase balls, or when arriving late on the edge of the box for cutbacks. His anticipation means he is regularly in the right place at the right time to meet loose balls, and he has the ability to generate power on his shots, even with little time to wind up to shoot.
His impressive scoring run for River included a few penalties, but he also excelled when making third-man runs after a member of the front line dropped away from goal. His shooting ability – especially when striking across goal – and threat in attacking transition make him a useful player in attacking situations.
When Fernández plays slightly further forward in central midfield, he will hold his position and operate more in central spaces. However, his game doesn’t change much when he does this. He still provides accurate switches of play and penetrative forward passes that look for central runners in behind the opposition centre-backs. When playing in a midfield two, he likes playing with a teammate who has a similar type of game. For Benfica in 2022/23, Florentino provided similar movements to Fernández on the right, leaving the Argentine as the main central pivot player. Here, Fernández becomes the player through which the point of attack is switched. From these positions, he won’t play as many penetrative passes, but will move the ball quickly with shorter passes that build rhythm for his side.
Without the ball, Fernández has licence to press higher when used in central midfield. This has usually been in Benfica’s 4-4-2 shape, as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 in which Fernández plays as part of a deeper double pivot. In the 4-4-2, Fernández has the freedom to aggressively jump out to press centrally (above), with the wingers narrow and in a position to cover in the inside channels. At least one of Benfica’s centre-forwards will press backwards, even before Fernández has committed to jumping out. This means Fernández can be one of the team’s highest pressers, which instantly makes him a bigger part of any counter-attacks following a regain. This is far from the strongest side to his game, but his passing and vision means he can make helpful passes to find runners in dangerous positions.
A well-rounded midfielder with an extremely bright future, Fernández will bring a great deal to his new side both with and without the ball. Repaying the fee Chelsea paid for him is a big ask, but there is every chance he will improve the first team, and in time he should improve as well. He could be a huge asset for years to come.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice