Allow me to start this post by sharing a little bit about myself. Growing up I had a dream, a vision. Not to become a doctor, or a top class lawyer, or even the president of this or any other country. I felt my dream was bigger than this, my dream was to become a world-class footballer, more specifically, a world-class playmaker. With mental images of my bedroom wall posters of the likes of Ronaldinho, Juan Roman Riquelme, Ricardo Kaka and Jay Jay Okocha flowing through my head, I dribbled from end to end of our street, taking shots at the neighbour’s trash cans along the way. The master plan was set: Declare myself an honorary Brazilian (Because genetically it made sense); play for the local football club; get scouted by a major club; become their record transfer; and then move to Europe and become a superstar, whose name would be chanted by thousands while people’s daughters stalked me on Facebook. At the first stage of my plan, I was met by the realisation that I was not the only boy with this dream, in fact, there were more boys who had this dream than those who didn’t, and when my ‘Joga Bonito’ dribbling skills and accurate shooting didn’t make the team, I took a different look at those players who did.
Which brings me here, to today. One of the big European clubs whose jersey I had dreamed of wearing was Chelsea Football Club, a club that, despite not being renowned for their development of youth or running an Ajax Amsterdam or La Masia-esque footballing academy, felt like the right place for a young boy to grow. This feeling could only have been strengthened by the successes of their youth teams, which have continued to stock up on trophies, while breeding talent in multiple positions.
The likes of Josh McEachran, Lucas Piazon, Thomas Kalas, and more recently Nathan Ake and Dominic Solanke, have over the years experienced the joy of progress in the form of a call up to the first team, a chance most youth players spend years daydreaming about. But, like with most cases, holding down a place in the first team at a club like Chelsea FC is a task that eludes many, and the aforementioned dream, the vision, becomes blurry and stale. Chelsea’s solution to this has year after year been a string of loan spells. While this may be effective in getting the loanee’s a chance for regular football, a chance they more often than not relish, it also provides a chance to show the club what could be happening if they invested in an ounce of faith.
The failure of the club to recognise just how talented their youngsters are often leads to a frustrated teen becoming a bitter 20-year-old who finds himself having to choose between playing for a big club and… well… playing. At Chelsea, this seems to be a particularly regular occurrence. A few good case studies would be the curious case of Romelu Lukaku, who, at 18, was dubbed “The new Drogba”, and few who saw him dominate during his time at Anderlecht could resist the comparison. Chelsea pounced on the lad, in an 18 million pound move, as a replacement for Drogba, but was but was eventually replaced by a 36-year-old Drogba years later. Josh McEachran, who Chelsea fans adored dearly during his early appearances, was loaned out, and then loaned out again, and then loaned out again, leaving fans to wonder if the talented lad would ever return to be the darling of Stamford Bridge. Patrick Van Aanholt, seen as a long-term replacement for Ashley Cole, was loaned out until his frustrations led him to cut ties with the club. Ryan Bertrand, also once seen as a long-term replacement for AC3, now founds himself as a 24-year-old loanee, with little suggestion he will wear the blue jersey ever again. The likes of Marko Van Ginkel, Oriol Romeu, Bertrand Traore and even Marko Marin, have led me to question whether Chelsea signs young talents as a means for building a team for the future or as a means for building their stock through loan spells until their value is high enough for them to be considered a profitable option. It also raises the question around loan spells: Does the club want the loanees to succeed so that he may return to slot into the first team, or so that the highest bidders can bid even higher?
The club currently has more than 25 players out on loan, and with the likes of Andre Schurlle, a world cup winner, and Mohamed Salah struggling for first team football, one can be forgiven for believing the latter over the former in the question posed. The loan list includes the likes of Victor Moses, Patrick Bamford, who has attracted a fair amount of interest in recent times, and Gael Kakuta, a player the club was criticised and even punished over the manner in which they signed him. Which in itself raises another question, why go through all that and then not play the lad or groom him to be a fully fledged member of the Chelsea FC first team. In the case of Salah, too, who was called upon for military service in his native Egypt, a motion Chelsea fought, presumably because Salah was a crucial member of their squad. In an interview following Egypt’s defeat in a qualifier for the 2015 Afcon tournament, Egyptian management blamed Chelsea because their best player was starved of regular football at club level and so was incapable of carrying the team, as he had been able to do.
Then you look at the loanee list again, and see a Bertrand Traore, Kenneth Omeruo and a Christian Atsu, players who are now established members of their respective national teams yet seem to be just a tad bit shy of having a 0% chance of playing regularly for Chelsea. The likes of Victor Moses and Ryan Bertrand, with all due respect, would struggle to break into the current first team, and with age constantly becoming a factor, they ought to be let go so that they may establish themselves elsewhere. While the loan system allows for more game time, it presents a feeling of inadequacy within players, a sense of “not there yet”, and if you feel like you are “not there yet” at age 24, then Houston, we have a problem.
The fact that a Nemanja Matic had to be loaned, then sold and matured in Portugal and then come back to get regular football serves as a compliment to the lad, but that, coupled with the lack of Chelsea academy graduated in the first team, also exposes a weakness on the part of one of Europe’s top club’s to manage and grow their own talent. While the current squad boasts a string of 23, 25, 27 year olds, the future and attractiveness of the club rests on how many McEachrans, Bamfords, Solankes and Isiah Browns get promoted and form part of the top class of the team. While we acknowledge that the club has seen trophy successes aplenty, we must also ask the question “at what cost?” and acknowledge the young boys who too had a dream, a vision growing up, but were starved of the chances they needed to shine at the highest level.
I’m no expert in management, and maybe that’s a good thing, because I think as much as depth in a squad is critical to success, the current lack of rotation at Chelsea means that those who are called upon from the bench are levels below the starters, and they become relegated to shadows of the talents we know them to be. This is why the concept of having a squad list that comprises a set of established players along with their would-be successors would not only ensure that the young lads grow and learn quicker, but it also benefits the continuity of the club. I may be losing the plot here, but here’s an example:
Chelsea’s current preferred 11 reads: in a 4-2-3-1 formation
Ivanovic (30); Cahill (29); Terry (34); Azpilicueta (25)
Fabregas (27); Matic (26)
Willian (26); Oscar (23); Hazard (24)
Diego Costa (26)
Jose Mourinho has always preferred a 22 man squad, with 2 players in each position, so, although it would be a gamble, this list of youngsters, all either on loan, part of the first team or play in the junior teams, could form the other 11 of that first team: also in a 4-2-3-1
Matej Delac (22)
Kenneth Omeruo (21); Kurt Zouma (20); Nathaniel Chalobah (21); Nathan Ake (20)
Marco Van Ginkel (22); Josh McEachran (21)
Isiah Brown (18); Thorgan Hazard (21) Lucas Piazon (21)
Patrick Bamford (21)
Can we agree that if a master tactician like Jose Mourinho can manage to mix and match with a squad like this he will have a young squad of established players grooming their worthy successors, who would be more content with a spot on the bench than a Petr Cech or an Andre Schurrle would, and would also show more hunger and intensity to repay the ounce of faith placed in them by the manager when they are brought on. Again, it may just be a case of me being overly adventurous from my position as the couch coach, but I think my point is that there could be further emphasis on developing the young Chelsea lads, making world-class players instead of spending 25 million pounds on a player the club could have grown into a world-class player if only they viewed him as a player and not just an investment.