Enzo Fernandez hasn’t always lived to up his billing since his £105million move to Chelsea in January 2023 – but it’s hard to deny that the midfielder can manipulate a football like a Marrakech snake whisperer.
Fernandez came to prominence during the 2022 World Cup, coming into Argentina’s starting line-up after their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia and becoming an integral part of their eventual success.
Strong, committed and liable to thread the ball through the eye of a needle like a world champion knitter, the youngster was quickly added to the shopping lists of Europe’s major clubs.
Todd Boehly was smitten. Looking for young talent to build a new Chelsea, Boehly splashed out a British record fee to lure the 22-year-old from Benfica. Chelsea believed they’d found their new leader, a poster boy for the second era of success.
Clearly, those hopes haven’t yet materialised; Fernandez has often looked baffled as the clusterf*ck that was Chelsea throughout 2023 unfolded around him.
Moments of quality were rarer than a sincere Boris Johnson apology. The addition of Moises Caicedo did little to unlock his attacking ability. Both expensive signings were outshone by Conor Gallagher, a Labrador cosplaying as a Premier League footballer.
But, as Chelsea’s form tentatively improves, Fernandez is running out of excuses. Mauricio Pochettino started him against Preston in the FA Cup Third Round, viewing the match as an opportunity to play his star midfielder into form.
And the World Cup winner delivered a moment of life-affirming quality against his Championship opponents, one that should have been followed by the gateway to heaven appearing above Stamford Bridge.
As Chelsea toiled against a well-drilled Preston backline, Fernandez received possession and assessed his options while juggling the ball between his left and right feet.
Finding that Preston were treating him with the wary respect one usually reserves for the family wolf, Chelsea’s deep-lying playmaker treated the ball to an elevated flight from his boot to Cole Palmer’s.
Instead of turning Fernandez’s moment of divine inspiration into an assist to get the stats worshippers hot underneath the collar, Palmer conspired to screw the shot wide of Freddie Woodman’s post.
No matter. Just as life is about the journey rather than the destination, football connoisseurs can appreciate Fernandez’s gentle brushstroke without it resulting in a goal.
Enzo deserves better than this. pic.twitter.com/yGDgJ6yPZ2
— 𝐈𝐛𝐳𝐲 (@IbzySpeaks) January 6, 2024
“I’ve learned something at every stage of my career,” Fernandez said in an interview with The Guardian in February 2023.
“But you’d have to say River was the club where I really learned my stuff. They really developed me as a person, on and off the field. River were the ones who opened the door to Europe for me. Then, to win the World Cup with that amazing group of players, it’s a dream isn’t it?
“It’s so hard to win the World Cup. But we had players with ability and a really strong mentality. You never lose that desire to learn.
“That’s what’s always signified my style, my play and my training – wanting to improve, wanting to be better as a footballer and as a man.”
Fernandez is a keen student of the game, having grown up watching the Premier League every Sunday back in Buenos Aries.
“I always used to get up early,” he said. “I know the times – Sunday mornings we used to tune in for the Premier League. Four hours difference in the winter, three hours in the summer.
“We’d watch teams like Chelsea, Manchester United and I was aware of the Argentinians playing over here – [Sergio] Kun Aguero, [Carlos] Tevez, [Gonzalo] Higuain.
“I’m the youngest, my brothers and sisters had their own houses, so it would be me and my dad in bed with mate – the herbal tea – watching TV.”
As Chelsea progressed to the Fourth Round, making it three wins in a row since their Christmas Eve reverse at Wolves, there’s a sense that Mauricio Pochettino’s side will only keep getting better.
This would benefit Fernandez most of all, an artist who has spent the last year wondering how he was supposed to make a gourmet feast out of broken eggs and rotten vegetables.
His time will surely come – nobody that can treat a football as he did against Preston will remain a permanent disappointment.
By Michael Lee