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Why Chelsea should sign €60m-rated Liverpool & Aston Villa target this summer



(Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

Chelsea have been linked with a move for Sporting CP’s 22-year-old Uruguayan Manuel Ugarte, according to reports from Portuguese outlet Record.

The midfielder, under contract until 2026, has a £52 million release clause, and has been pursued by fellow Premier League sides Liverpool and Aston Villa after a stellar season in Portugal. 

A midfielder will surely be high on the Blues shopping list this summer in what promises to be a hectic window of both incomings and outgoings. The club still lacks the profile of an out-and-out ‘number 6’ to provide defensive balance and poise to the midfield – allowing January arrival Enzo Fernandez to operate in more offensive areas and contribute the elite attacking output he displayed at both the World Cup and Benfica. 

Additionally, the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Conor Gallagher and Ruben Loftus-Cheek could all depart the club this summer – not to mention Mason Mount’s ongoing contract stalemate, leading to heavy speculation Todd Boehly and the Clearlake Capital ownership will cash in on the midfielder with a sale to another Premier League club this summer.

Furthermore, despite N’Golo Kante’s undeniable world-class talents, the Frenchman is 33 next year and increasingly unavailable due to continued injury issues – picking up just 685 minutes in all competitions this season and missing a huge spell between August and April with a hamstring injury. He is also yet to agree to a contract extension. Kante is out of contract this summer.

With these factors in mind, it’s certainly wise for the club to target at least one new midfielder this season – Ugarte presents a unique profile and extensive experience at a young age; picking up over 160 senior appearances to date, and gaining plaudits across Europe for his fine displays. 

What has been Ugarte’s career trajectory to date, and what attributes could he add to a Chelsea side under incoming boss Mauricio Pochettino next season?

Career to Date

Ugarte progressed through the youth academies of local side Fénix in Uruguay, originally operating as a striker before repositioning as a midfielder early in his career. He made his first-team debut in December 2016 aged just 15, becoming the youngest ever player born in the 21st century to play professionally in Uruguay, having been promoted to the senior setup earlier that year by manager Rosario Martinez.

The 2018/19 season truly saw Ugarte break through into the first-team as a regular in the starting XI aged just 17 – the midfielder featuring in 35 games in all competitions and frequently completing the full 90 minutes, earning a place in the Uruguayan Primera División Team of the Year, and impressing with his performances for the Uruguay U20 side.

Ugarte also shone for Uruguay’s U23 side – featuring in seven of nine matches during the 2020 CONMEBOL Pre-Olympic Tournament as Uruguay finished 3rd, scoring the opener against Brazil in a 1-1 draw in the tournament’s final stage. 

In December 2020, Portuguese side Famalicão snapped Ugarte up for a fee of roughly €3 million – the midfielder having an instant impact on the Primeira Liga squad. Ugarte missed just two of Vila Nova’s final 21 league games, completing the full 90 on eight occasions and alternating between a defensive and more central midfield role, providing two assists in a 0-4 thrashing over Marítimo in March.

These showings saw Ugarte called up for the Uruguay senior squad in March 2021 aged just 19, before Sporting CP made a move for the youngster in the summer window, splashing €6.5 million and tying the Uruguayan down to a five-year deal. 

After featuring sporadically for the Sporting first-team for the first half of the 2021/22 season – picking up just 260 minutes across the opening 17 league games, Ugarte established himself as a crucial first-team component for the second half of the campaign, featuring in all of Leões’ final 16 league games as the club finished 2nd with 85 points, providing important assists in wins over B-SAD and Paços Ferreira.

Originally signed as cover for João Palhinha, now of Fulham, Ugarte’s excellent performances in the latter half of the campaign saw him entrusted as a regular under Ruben Amiron, particularly after a fine display in the 1-3 win over rivals Benfica in December with Palhinha out injured. Ugarte also added the Taça da Liga (Portuguese domestic cup) to his repertoire, coming off the bench in the final, and picked up invaluable Champions League experience – playing the full 90 in 0-0 draw with Man City at the Etihad. 

This season, after Palhinha’s departure, as well as midfielder Matheus Nunes exiting for Wolves, Ugarte has established himself as a crucial and integral member of the Sporting first-team. The midfielder has missed just two league games via suspension, as well as playing in every Champions League group stage game, additionally picking up 370 minutes in the Europa League knockout stage after the Portuguese club dropped down into the latter tournament, flourishing in a defensive midfield role.

With Sporting setting up with a back three in a 3-4-3 formation under Amiron, Ugarte has made provided defensive ruggedness and positional awareness in abundance alongside Hidemasa Morita in midfield, gaining renowned recognition and speculation linking him to some of Europe’s elite sides.

Style of Play

Standing at 6’0, Ugarte is mobile enough to cover huge areas of the pitch and contribute both on-and-off the ball in all areas of the pitch, excelling in both his passing statistics as well as defensive output within both the Sporting squad and wider European scene. The midfielder can be compared to Chelsea man Mateo Kovacic in his agility and press resistance, although has a aggressive bite to his game that has triggered interest from the likes of Liverpool, who see the Uruguayan as a rounded midfield profile to inject into their squad.

Purely defensively, in terms of winning the ball back and stamping out opposition moves, Ugarte’s talents are clear to see. This season, the midfielder ranks highest in the Sporting squad for both interceptions per 90 (1.9) and tackles per 90 with 3.8 – his interceptions per 90 is eighth highest in the entire league, whereas his tackles 90 ranks Ugarte first by 0.5. 

These figures would rank the midfielder second highest in the Chelsea squad for interceptions per 90 by just 0.1 (second to Wesley Fofana) and highest for tackles per 90 by 1.0 (1.5 more than Kante). Ugarte also made the most tackles in the 22/23 Champions League as of April with 29 (4.8 per 90, 0.9 more than second placed Marco Verratti), and also the most tackles in the Europa League knockout stage this season with 22. 

In fact, when combining tackles and interceptions, Ugarte ranks highest this season for all players with over 900 minutes across Europe’s ‘top seven’ leagues with 6.84 per 90, as well as ranking highest in the Primeira Liga last season for interceptions per 90, ball recoveries per 90 and duels won per 90. 

These elite figures would add the defensive attributes Chelsea have been seeking since Nemanja Matic left in 2017 and Kante’s availability declined since 2019 – able to operate in a midfield two or three (primarily functioning in a 4-5-1 at Famalicão and a midfield two at Sporting), Ugarte would provide much needed versatility in midfield – sniffing out opposition attacks and winning the ball back in high volumes, allowing the likes of Enzo, Mykhailo Mudryk, Raheem Sterling and others to truly blossom in attacking zones.

When viewing his heat-map for the Primeira Liga campaign this season, Ugarte’s mobility a la Kante is plain to see, ranking in the top eight per cent for passes blocked per 90 across midfielders in Europe’s ‘top five’ leagues this season with 1.35, as well as in the top one percent for both tackles in the central third (2.31) and attacking third (0.9) per 90.

In addition to putting up world-class defensive numbers solely in terms of intercepting the ball and tackling opponents, Ugarte is also assured, confident and forward-thinking with the ball at his feet. His 46.5 accurate passes per 90 would rank the midfielder seventh in the Chelsea squad, as well as completing 2.2 accurate ‘long balls’ per 90, again ranking seventh in the Chelsea team, and ahead of Mateo Kovacic in both metrics.

In fact, Ugarte’s 91.6 percent pass completion rate ranks in the top one per cent for European midfielders, registering at an almost identical level to Thiago Silva, and bettering Enzo Fernandez by two percent. 

Ugarte particularly excels in the central third of the pitch with the ball at his feet, linking play between defence and attack – he completes an extraordinary 95.7 percent of passes in the middle of the park, completing on average 26.3 per 90 in that zone, ranking the Uruguayan in the top five percent for European midfielders for that statistic.

Ugarte’s performance in the 0-3 away win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the Champions League group stage clash in September is perhaps the best example of the midfielder’s immense talents, evidencing constant energy and an unrivalled work ethic, running the midfield show and kickstarting all Sporting attacks. 

In 90 minutes, the midfielder ranked highest on the pitch for duels won (17), possession won (14), tackles made (10) and take ons completed (100 percent), his heat map speaking for itself.

Ugarte also bossed the midfield in Sunday’s night’s 2-2 home draw with Benfica – completing 93 percent of his attempted passes, five successful dribbles and 14 ground duels won (both the most on the pitch), as well as completing six of seven attempted accurate ‘long balls’ in 90 minutes, winning the Man of the Match accolade.

The area he loves to operate in can be seen in the graphic below (number 15); shielding the back three and allowing the fullbacks, attacking trio and Morita to launch attacks in transitional phases.

After Sporting’s 1-1 Europa League draw with FC Midtjylland, Ugarte was singled out by Record for his ‘tireless’ performance, adding he ‘looks like he’s made of steel’, the midfielder drawing comparisons to the likes of Joshua Kimmich, Pedri, Ismael Bennacer and Fede Valverde for his consistently excellent displays both within Portugal and on the European stage. 

With a £52 million release clause inserted in his contract, Ugarte has caught the eye of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in particular who are set to embark on a similar midfield overhaul  – his agent saying in May: “There’s a lot of talk, but I’m still not sure about the club. There are many offers on the table… It’s almost certain that he won’t stay, it’s sure he’ll leave.”

A potential Chelsea midfield next season of Enzo Fernandez, Manuel Ugarte and the likes of Mason Mount and Kante rotating dependant on their respective situations is a hugely exciting prospect on paper.

If the Blues can add Ugarte and an additional midfield profile to the squad next season, as well as bolstering in attack and in goal, with Levi Colwill, Malo Gusto and Christopher Nkunku also entering the fray, they are surely well-placed to target a top-four finish and domestic success under Pochettino.