Few predicted Thiago Silva’s first season in English football would go quite so well. A free transfer and a smart bit of business, sure, but more a wise dressing room head to nurture Chelsea’s young talent off the pitch than a lynchpin at the heart of the meanest defence in Europe; a key to Champions League glory.
"I hope I can do the same thing that [Paulo] Maldini did at Milan, playing until he was 40 or 41 years old," Silva said after captaining Brazil in their 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over Chile, his 42nd game of the season for club and country.
Any belief that Chelsea’s Champions League win would provide the perfect wind-down opportunity for a player that had made no secret of his desperation to win Europe’s showcase club competition has been utterly dispelled this season. He’s a centre-back oozing the experience of every moment of his two decades of professional football, playing with the vitality of someone with no more than half of that toil in his 37-year-old legs. Thiago Silva has never been better; playing proof that age is but a number at the very pinnacle of sport.
Maldini was 38 when he captained AC Milan to his fifth Champions League trophy, and Chelsea should look no further than their aged defensive Rolls Royce should the armband become available next season.
Reports suggest that despite Chelsea triggering a one-year extension for Cesar Azpilicueta, the club legend and captain could still be off to Barcelona this summer, bringing to an end a spectacular decade at Stamford Bridge, in which he’s won every trophy available.
His would be incredibly tough boots to fill; Silva himself has described the Spaniard as a “spectacular” captain. Few would argue, firstly because Azpilicueta’s positive influence on this young Chelsea side has been plainly obvious – his antics in the Club World Cup to shield penalty-taker Kai Havertz from the gamesmanship of the Palmeiras players is the most conspicuous example in recent times – but also because Silva’s leadership skills would see him placed in a similar pantheon of modern football commanders. He knows a great captain when he sees one.
Nothing clarifies Silva’s quality quite like his absence, that’s consistently made hearts grow fonder. Though it was Neymar’s shirt that was paraded on the pitch as though he had died a martyr ahead of the 2014 World Cup semi-final, it was the lack of Silva that was more costly to Brazil in their 7-1 mauling at the hands of Germany.
Having led Paris Saint-Germain to the Champions League final in 2020, on the back of a seventh Ligue 1 title in his eight years at the Paris des Princes, the Qatari-backed behemoths ceded the league to Lille last season and crashed out of the Champions League this term, with a performance lacking leadership, to say the least.
PSG’s loss has been Chelsea and Thomas Tuchel’s gain. The Blues have faltered in the league this season due to a combination of injury (the absence of Reece James and Ben Chilwell has cost them dear) and unwavering Liverpool and Manchester City brilliance, but could easily have won the League Cup, and have as good a chance as any of winning the FA Cup or Champions League. Perhaps a better chance than most – Tuchel has created a team with the confidence to win any game of knockout football, with Silva vital to their success.
Chelsea have lost just two of 25 knockout games in normal time since Tuchel’s been at the helm: the 1-0 Champions League defeat to Porto, which proved immaterial as they went through anyway, and the FA Cup final defeat to Leicester. In the 15 of those games Silva has played, Chelsea have conceded just five goals. Silva would run goalkeeper Edouard Mendy close in a defensive surety key cog contest.
The Blues will be counting their lucky stars they secured a season extension for Silva before the UK government’s sanctions on Roman Abramovich, as centre-back stars could potentially be few and far between at Stamford Bridge come the summer, with Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen tipped to join Azpilicueta in leaving the club.
What Chelsea need in what will be an uncertain period of transition under new owners, is a steady hand on the tiller. Tuchel has proven himself more than capable of steering the ship with his comments in the wake of Abramovich’s sanctions and with the way he’s led the team to continue to produce unabated performances and results on the pitch. He’s been the ideal man for Chelsea in a crisis.
But every great captain needs a great first mate, or rather every great manager needs a great captain. Tuchel has one in Azpilicueta, and another in Silva – the man for more seasons at Chelsea.