Here, @JoeTweeds looks at Mourinho’s recent comments about establishing a homegrown blue core and how that might (or should) become a reality sooner than we imagine.
Patience is certainly not a virtue amongst modern Chelsea fans. The instant dismissal of André Schürrle, the overbearing weight of expectation placed upon a team in transition and the questioning of almost every decision seem to be the prevalent themes of 2013/14. José Mourinho is unquestionably a superb coach and manager, but even he will need time to shape this team into something capable of consistently winning league titles. Even more if he is to rebuild with a core “made in Chelsea.”
This attitude of immediacy presents an interesting dichotomy between those demanding instant success and wanting us to increasingly give chances to young players. There will naturally be teething issues throwing in young players at the deep end. Likewise, the task of bringing through academy graduates is made all the more difficult when buying established players in their role. Chelsea fans seemingly want everything at the risk of nothing – football does not work like that.
Our striking issues are well documented, but it is in midfield where I feel we lack the quality to dominate. Recent newspaper stories linking us with a move for Paul Pogba (if you subscribe to the no smoke without fire rule) signal the intent to strength this area in January. Marco van Ginkel’s injury probably lends some credence to this and our Belgian connection will see some interest in Axel Witsel surface.
Considering all the noise around the “play the youth, but we need to win now and we’ll give you 5 games to prove yourself” brigade, is the answer to our midfield quandary closer to home? I should qualify that I subscribe to a stream of thought that thinks players will naturally play better in a more high quality environment. Josh McEachran has always looked decent in a Chelsea shirt, but struggles when away from the club.
Ross Barkley performed poorly on loan at Leeds and is now shining at Everton with a World Cup spot likely. Andros Townsend similarly looked okay on loan and has now become a far better player at Tottenham. What point is there in having one of the most successful academies in the world (based on age group performances, not necessarily on first team graduates) if we do not occasionally use them?
While the topic of loaning players is quite sensitive amongst Chelsea fans (insert something about Lukaku), strangely it is not the only way to push your way into the first team. Loans can have an adverse effect; see Kakuta/McEachran/Bruma et al., who fared similar to Barkley. The difference is that Everton still persisted with the player after a disappointing spell: Chelsea washes their hands of them.
A highly unlikely alternative is to actually place trust in one academy player, circumventing the intransient loan cycle. The prototypical Mourinho player – athletic, powerful, technical and intelligent – is currently ticked by at least one academy player. Standing 6’3″ and in every inch a stylistic replica of Michael Ballack, Ruben Loftus-Cheek should be looking to make his mark on the first team shortly.
Are we seriously going to invest £40m in Paul Pogba when we arguably have someone who could develop into something greater? Pogba famously quipped that he decided to leave United when despite him being the only recognised midfielder available he still started on the bench. While we are not quite at those depths, a change of pace and a glimmer of hope for the academy might well be the shot in the arm we need.
Ruben’s performance against Manchester City, albeit in a friendly, was beyond the realms of mere promise. Winning several physical duels with Yaya Touré, resulting in the Ivorian becoming clearly frustrated and kicking him off the park, RLC certainly held his own. He glided past high calibre players, played incisive passes and tackled everything that came his way; certainly the outstanding midfielder on the pitch.
His technical ability on the ball is certainly better than any current Chelsea player. Possessing the strength, athletic quality and end product to cruise around midfield he does strike as the embodiment of the modern midfielder. There are strong signs of him becoming the powerful box-to-box presence that we have lacked since the departure of Ballack and the physical decline of Essien.
Speaking with @chelseayouth about RLC he said that “he’s impacting most games” and that he “dominates physically, running the show and looks intent on making the next step.” When looking at how he has fared against adults he pointed out that “it was noticeable in pre-season against a load of non-league teams – yes, they are poorer in quality but they are adult males playing against teenagers – that he was miles ahead of them.”
Loftus-Cheek’s biggest advantage, however, is that he is not all power and physique, but a fantastic technician. A Chelsea player since he was 8 years old he has been coached in a way that has focused purely on his technical game and positional intelligence. The fact he resembles the archetypal modern central midfielder physically only accentuates his superior ability on the ball.
While we persist with the double pivot in midfield there will always be an imbalance with the current options. Playing Mikel and Ramires loses technical quality going forward; Mikel and Lampard lose athletic quality defensively and Ramires and Lampard lose positional quality in terms of screening the back four effectively. Van Ginkel may well provide a well-rounded option eventually but injury has curtailed what would have been a season of learning for him.
What Loftus-Cheek brings to the equation is a comfort and education in every facet of midfield play. The “6-8-10″ rotation of Chelsea’s youth sides has been crucial in this development. Players are encouraged to play the 6 (holding), 8 (box-to-box) and 10 (playmaker) role in different games. This is noticeable when watching the fluidity of the U21 midfield play and the contrasting roles they will operate in on a week-by-week basis.
This education means RLC is not only well versed in the defensive aspects of the ball, but he is comfortable enough to transition play through all phases of midfield. His performance against Manchester City was an illustration of what a modern central midfielder should be doing. He broke play up, carried the ball through midfield, used possession wisely and dictated the game. Consistently excellent at U21 level and a dominant figure in his age group internationally, maybe we have finally found a direct to squad academy player.
Who knows, we might save ourselves a few quid?