We bid farewell to Antonio Rudiger as he departs Stamford Bridge with his Chelsea contract expiring, bringing to a close his five trophy-filled years with the club.
The German defender has left the Blues to join Real Madrid, having played a huge role in our successes in recent seasons. Rudiger lifted the FA Cup, Champions League, Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup with Chelsea, playing a crucial role in all those triumphs at the heart of our defence.
The 29-year-old was also an important figure in the dressing room with his leadership and passion, while his dedication and desire to win never faltered, even when it became clear he would be leaving the club this summer. Rudiger’s disappointment was obvious when defeats to Real Madrid in the Champions League and to Liverpool in the Carabao Cup and FA Cup finals denied him the chance to say goodbye with one more piece of silverware.
Rudiger arrived in west London to join the then Premier League champions from Roma in 2017, making his Chelsea debut as a substitute in that August’s Community Shield against Arsenal. That season Rudiger was a regular on the left side of a back three under Antonio Conte, where his pace and determination to win possession with every challenge made him an important part of the system, able to keep up with wingers as well as matching centre-forwards physically, while covering his fellow defenders when needed.
His huge leap also made him an asset in the air at both ends of the pitch. He scored his first Chelsea goal in a Carabao Cup win over Everton, and earned us victory with his maiden Premier League strike against Swansea City. He closed out his debut season with the Blues on a high, as he was named Man of the Match for an increasingly familiar all-action performance when we beat Manchester United 1-0 in the FA Cup final.
The German international continued to feature regularly following the switch to a back four when Maurizio Sarri replaced Conte as Chelsea head coach for 2018/19, starting 44 games in all competitions that season, despite his campaign being ended early by a knee injury.
Although that meant Rudiger missed both legs of our Europa League semi-final and the final itself, he still contributed to that success through his four starts in the competition, and he was there in Baku watching enthusiastically from the sidelines, pulling on a Chelsea shirt and hopping around on his crutches to celebrate as ecstatically as anyone as we lifted the trophy.
After a couple of frustrating false starts, Rudiger eventually returned from that troublesome injury in December 2019, by which time Frank Lampard was in the dugout. He forced his way back into the team and marked his 100th Chelsea appearance by scoring two headers to earn us an important point against our rivals for a top-four spot Leicester City, celebrated as always in passionate, but sometimes bizarre, fashion.
He kept his place in the side when football resumed following the three-month suspension of sport in 2020. Now aged 27, it was clear he was maturing as a player. The larger-than-life explosions of emotion remained, but now seemed more focused, as he cajoled and urged his team-mates on while shouting instructions, made all the more evident by the absence of supporters inside stadiums.
His chances became more limited in 2020/21 until Thomas Tuchel arrived. In the early days of playing for his fellow German, it became apparent just how much Rudiger had developed as a player during his time with the Blues. He was now not only a leader of the team on and off the pitch, but had also evolved into a complete defender, as comfortable on the ball as when winning it from an opponent.
Rudiger was instrumental as we only conceded twice in Tuchel’s first 14 games as head coach. His only goal of the season came at a crucial moment and sparked another one of those explosions of passion which endeared Toni to the Chelsea supporters. In the first match with fans back at the Bridge in over a year, he opened the scoring in a crucial 2-1 home win over Leicester, rushing towards the touchline to celebrate wildly with our supporters.
It was in our triumphant Champions League campaign that he produced some of his most memorable moments, though, including his assist for Christian Pulisic’s away goal at Real Madrid in the semi-finals, and that last-ditch tackle to deny Phil Foden as we beat Manchester City in the final in Porto.
Those contributions were in addition to the running antagonism between himself and Atletico Madrid striker Luis Suarez during our last-16 tie, showing Rudiger was also versed in football’s dark arts and not one to shy away from confrontation when the situation demanded.
Rudiger continued to play a major role for Tuchel in his last season, meaning the sight of him shepherding a through-ball out of play with his distinctive high-kneed running style remained a frequent sight for the Blues right until the end. He notably played every minute of the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup as we lifted both trophies, and was named Man of the Match in the win over Palmeiras in the final in Abu Dhabi.
2021/22 was also Rudiger’s highest-scoring season at Chelsea, netting five in total. Three of them were headers from set-pieces, but the other two demonstrated the more rounded player he had become since joining us. His barnstorming runs upfield were already a familiar sight to Blues supporters by this point, using his long stride to eat up the yards.
Those determined runs forward often culminated in cries of ‘shoot’ from the crowd, and Rudiger tended to indulge them at least once per game, despite being advised not to by his coaches as his powerful efforts from distance rarely found the target. That made it all the sweeter when his persistence paid off in spectacular style, with his long-range effort against Brentford in the Premier League in early April by far the pick of Rudiger’s goals. It was voted as the Premier League’s Goal of the Month.
Rudiger made 54 appearances in all competitions in his final campaign, all from the start, more than any other Chelsea player. He departs with 203 appearances and 12 goals to his name, in that time establishing himself as one of the most passionate characters to represent the club in recent memory.
Chelsea Football Club thanks Toni for his contribution to our success over the last five years and wishes him well in his future career.