I just couldn’t get Chelsea off my mind this past weekend. And it started well before they squeezed three points off Tottenham in that hard-fought Premier League clash at Wembley on Sunday. That performance – and Antonio Conte’s intriguing 3-6-1-diamond formation – was something to behold, even if they ultimately required a huge dollop of Hugo Lloris’ magnanimity to secure the win.
My Chelsea musings started with the early game on Saturday, as Manchester United took on Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. The Swans striker, Tammy Abraham, quickly caught the eye – alongside Jordan Ayew – as the home team looked to trouble Jose Mourinho’s Red machine. Abraham is, of course, on loan from Chelsea, where chances for young players are notoriously hard to come by. He spent the previous season tearing up Championship defences and racking up 23 goals for Bristol City in the process. His reward is another spell out on loan.
The theme would continue all weekend: Rueben Loftus-Cheek, on loan at Crystal Palace, featured against Liverpool at Anfield, carving out one gilt-edged chance – blown by Christian Benteke. For the home side, Dominic Solanke, recently signed from Chelsea (after refusing a new contract), made a promising first appearance at Anfield, only a fine save from Wayne Hennessy denying him a debut goal. Elsewhere, Nathaniel Chalobah started for Watford as they secured a first win of the season at Bournemouth. Having arrived from Chelsea this summer, Chalobah would end the week with his name in Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad, his first call up at full international level. Playing on the opposite side at Bournemouth was another Chelsea alumnus, Nathan Ake, the promising Dutch defender, who left Stamford Bridge this summer after five years of loan moves.
Abraham, Loftus-Cheek, Solanke, Chalobah. These kids clearly represent the cream of the crop of young English talent. Chelsea’s string of successes at youth level attests to this, as does the fact that three of them contributed to England’s successes this summer, in both the U20 World Cup and the Uefa U21 Euros. Yet, in a season in which Chelsea need a squad big enough to cope with the rigours of four competitions – and Conte’s frustrations over the relative lack of arrivals is well reported – not one of them has a place in the Chelsea squad.
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Admittedly, some of that isn’t down to the club – Solanke refused to stay on – but I just couldn’t help wondering: could Chelsea not have found room for these players in their squad this season? Are the Stamford Bridge club not missing a trick with these obviously talented kids? How much longer will the likes of Loftus-Cheek and Abraham be content with annual loan moves before going the way of Solanke, Chalobah or Bertrand Traore (recently departed for Lyons) and seek opportunity elsewhere?
But then came Sunday at Wembley. Yes, young Andreas Christensen, out on loan in Germany since the beginning of time, filled in admirably at centre back for the suspended Gary Cahill, showing that there well could be life at the Bridge after a lifetime of loan spells. But, for the most part, it was clear to see why Conte would be wary of plugging any of those young players into the well-drilled unit that kept a rampant Spurs attack at bay for nigh on 90 minutes.
Chelsea’s midfield was quite impressive at Wembley – at least from a defensive standpoint. David Luiz, at the base of what seemed a central midfield diamond, was simply excellent, and the pair of Ngolo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko brought relentless industry and application as the Blues denied Dele Alli and Christian Erikssen any space to operate. For all their promise, the likes of Chalobah and Loftus-Cheek are simply not at that level yet.
Of course, one could argue that they could yet get there; that they just need the opportunity to gain the experience and develop into what Conte considers good enough for the pressures of Chelsea’s ambitions. Yet, the need to win – and to win now – as Conte pointedly stated a few weeks ago, means that a club with deep pockets simply cannot afford to wait to find out. Or, more aptly, they can afford not wait. For a club at which money is no object, it’s obviously a safer bet to bring in a proven Kante or Rudiger, than to bet on a Chalobah or Ake someday developing into top quality.
If nothing else, it’s an approach that has served Chelsea well in recent years. Money well spent has delivered two titles in three years – although all those expensive egos may have contributed to that aberrant “Mourinho season” – and they’ve reaped huge financial rewards from sales of the departed. Think £60 million for Oscar, £20 million for Ake.
As for those talented youngsters, moving on could well prove the best bet for their fledgling careers.