It is difficult to believe that Nathaniel Chalobah is still only 21 years old. After all, he has not been at Chelsea for the better part of four years. Was it really that long ago Chalobah stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Paul Pogba in the FA Youth Cup Final? Much like the ascent of Pogba, could the arrival of Antonio Conte be the catalyst for Chalobah’s mercurial potential to be realised?
Chalobah is arguably Chelsea’s most talented Academy prospect and yet has suffered greatly from Chelsea’s erratic loan policy. Since August 2012 he has played for 6 different clubs; those six spells have amounted to 7,099 competitive minutes. Pogba, by comparison, has played 14,188 minutes in the same time. After a hugely successful spell with Watford as a 17 year old, which almost culminated in their promotion, Chalobah’s career did not go in the direction many would have hoped.
On loan to Nottingham Forest he played just 595 minutes in four months. In almost 5 months he played 65 minutes for Burnley. There were better times at Middlesbrough (1,281 minutes) and Reading (1,676 minutes). Sadly these often came in an attempt to salvage the Forest and Burnley fiascos. We sent him to work with a manager at Forest whose entire tactical repertoire involved bypassing his midfield with long balls. Then to Burnley where despite impressing (as Burnley fans told me frequently) he was overlooked for two watercarriers – but that’s Sean Dyche for you.
I could elaborate on Chalobah’s loan spells, but plainly things have not gone how he or the club would have hoped. Despite a highly fragmented development path, this past season in Naples might actually be the making of him. Playing just 231 minutes looks pretty bad in isolation, but it was the work going on in the background that may have made it worthwhile. He threw himself into the culture, the language and the lifestyle; we have seen him mature exponentially.
In a peculiar way all the “failed” loans and setbacks have galvanised Chalobah. Despite a lack of minutes over the 2015/16 season he looked sensational in Toulon. Gareth Southgate openly lent on him as the foundation of his diamond midfield and as a mature figure within the squad. The talent has never been in question with Nate: being able to do the nice things comes naturally. It was the other side of his game that truly impressed.
Here was an aggressive, steely and imposing midfielder – strong in the tackle, confident in possession, athletic and leading by example. This type of mentality and toughness are things that we have not associated with him in the past. In fact, it is the type of indignant arrogance that you would attribute to the likes of Michael Ballack, Frank Lampard et al. People often worry that our Academy players do not quite have that intangible Chelsea-ness. In Toulon Nathan looked and played like a Chelsea player. In fact, I would go as far to say that his competitive desire reminded me of a young Michael Essien – such has been the improvement in that facet of his game (and I do not make the comparison to my favourite ever Chelsea player lightly).
There were whispers emanating from Napoli that they were so impressed with Chalobah they saw him as a potential key piece in their 2016/17 season. Would it be surprising if Napoli believed they had stumbled across a gem and tried to keep his price down by not playing him? It is quite an Italian thing to do. In the very small sample of games I was able to watch and/or find data on he always looked comfortable; his performances for England suggested he had made significant strides forward.
So what of his future? Does another loan beckon? Or does Antonio Conte see enough potential in Chalobah to keep him around the squad. Sir Trevor Brooking did speak about Chalobah’s relationship with Chelsea and that “there comes a point where you need games and stability, not just to be farmed out”. At this point in his career he is surely capable of replacing John Obi Mikel? Could he be much worse than Nemanja Matić has been for the past 18-months? Does Conte look at this completely focused and dynamic version of Chalobah as a talented lump of clay he can mould into a top midfield talent?
Where does he fit in? Versatility is undoubtedly the key here, but my preference is to see him solidify himself in central midfield as a number 6. The Toulon tournament website described Chalobah as “reigning supreme in midfield” when they included him in their team of the tournament. His blend of traits are something that would cost an awful lot of money to buy if you were looking for a comparable overseas talent.
Looking at the qualities Conte prefers in his midfielders Chalobah ticks almost every box: ability to intercept and break-up play; powerful and athletic; technical and aggressive. He has a decent football IQ and an ability to act as a reference point in midfield. These are certainly areas that will only improve further under the stewardship of Conte. He comes back to Cobham looking about 5kg-7kg heavier than when he left and at 6’1” is physically ready for Premier League football.
He must impress in pre-season if he has hopes of staying and playing. There is still so much potential within him, you would hope that Conte is the coach who can extract it. His ability to quickly instigate attacks by carrying the ball or passing between the lines is something that sets him apart. Something we saw in Toulon was the crispness of his distribution. He may never be Andrea Pirlo, but he is incisive enough to not have to play sideways and backwards every time he touches the ball.
Chelsea have lacked bite in midfield for a long time. Even when Nemanja Matić was enjoying his purple patch, we lacked aggression in that area. What we are seeing with Chalobah is his willingness to compete physically. If the ball is there to be won, it will be won. Multiple examples across the Toulon tournament showed Chalobah clattering through people (fairly) to win possession before using it effectively. Conte likes fighters and a battle hardened youngster is likely to be someone he keeps an eye on.
Chalobah is far from the finished article, I think he would be the first to admit that. Still the potential and possibilities with him are endless. We cast our eyes to those youngsters who have had opportunities to play regularly abroad and put them on some sort of pedestal. These are the same £40m rated youngsters who have been comfortably dealt with at Academy level by Chelsea for years. We saw a glimpse of the player Nate is becoming over the course of the Toulon tournament – that player is someone worth persisting with.
Struggling to sign Radja Nainggolan (Arturo Vidal-lite) might well be the thing that tips the scales in Chalobah’s favour. I like the Belgian and think he would do well under Conte, but I am inclined to see what Chalobah could do with the opportunity. He is the forgotten man of the #LoanArmy, as brighter and shinier things appear, his four year stint away removing him from focus.
My hope is that someone at the club realises that Chalobah is an incredibly fine footballer who is desperate to play for the club. More than that, he is both physically and technically ready. Yes, there are areas to improve upon. This is the case with any young player. But the upside with Chalobah is too great to ignore. That edge that he lacked is now present. His ability on the ball has never been in doubt. Give him the opportunity to work with one of the best coaches in world football, a coach who specialises in developing midfielders.
It feels like a gigantic puzzle is slowly coming together before your eyes when it comes to Chalobah. He has every piece required to become a huge asset if given the chance. This cocktail of disappointment and challenges has only served to create a young player with the grit and desire to want to make it. I make no bones about wanting to see every talented Academy player given an opportunity to play. Particularly when they have developed like he has. That Italian he has picked up surely will not hurt…