With Josh McEachran signing a new long-term contract on Friday, now's as good a time as any to discuss his future with the club. It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Josh's, and have been ever since I first saw him play - he's one of those incredibly special players who can take total and utter control of a game, pinging majestic passes all across the field as well as being able to play the ball quickly and safely under pressure. But no matter what his raw qualities are, McEachran is by no means a sure thing. He has the potential to be an England star for years to come, but there's absolutely no guarantee that he'll get there. Chelsea need to put him in a position to succeed. Here's how.
Find A Position
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who supports Manchester United earlier today. We were talking about the future of the England team, and he mentioned that he was unconvinced by many of the squad's most heralded prospects - including McEachran. I immediately leaped to our boy's defence, demanding to know just why my friend thought so little of the midfielder, and he cited a pair of youth cup games against United where McEachran was effectively anonymous.
Without getting into a discussion about small sample sizes, I think he had a point. McEachran wasn't really spectacular in any of his youth matches, and he was certainly nowhere near where we'd expect a first-team Chelsea player to be while on the same pitch as the schoolboys. The reason, as far as I can tell, is that with the youth team McEachran is asked to play as a number ten.
This doesn't suit him. He's quick enough to avoid tackles, but he can't dodge all of them, and he's got such a light frame that it's relatively easy to bully him off the ball. He was eaten up by Ryan Tunnicliffe, which meant he had no time to engineer any plays for the Blues. It's hard to be the team's main passer when a defensive midfielder comes to eat you alive every few minutes.
It'd be nice if McEachran added enough muscle to be able to see off the tackles he'd be sure to see as a number ten, but the easier solution is to pull him deeper into the midfield - the position the Italians like to call the regista. He loses some assists here, but his short passing is more useful and, crucially, he'd see a lot more time on the ball without being blown up. The greater time and space a midfielder sees is the reason so many were pushing to try a midfield diamond with McEachran at the base (something I think was a little misguided due to his lack of defensive quality).
The team needs to commit to playing Josh deeper or somehow ensure he has the strength he needs to play near the action. He's got the ability to do either, but right now his physique will limit him if Chelsea do decide to play him in the hole.
Don't Block Him
With Andrea Pirlo starting to lose some of his magic, the best regista that comes to mind is one Luka Modric, a Tottenham Hotspurs midfielder that you may have heard of. Like McEachran, he's a wonderful passer of the ball with the sort of physical ability that could see him out-muscled by a four-year-old. Unlike McEachran, Modric is a surprisingly good defender.
Modric, of course, is a player Chelsea have been extremely closely linked to all summer, and that would normally be a pretty good thing, as he's one of the very best players in the Premier League. However, if you look at the crystal ball of Josh McEachran's future, you can pretty easily come out with a player who's essentially Luka Modric's gangly clone. That only happens, however, if a) Josh gets lucky, gets playing time and puts the work in and b) he's not blocked by a superstar playing in his position.
If Chelsea want the post out of McEachran, they cannot commit long-term to a Modric deal. It'd be like signing a pair of world-class defenders to play in front of a young John Terry. Sure, someday Terry would have ended up better than whoever was in front of him, but he only got there because he was able to play at all. A Modric deal runs the risk of completely blocking off McEachran's development.
A loan deal is possible, of course, but that's only a short term solution, and if all goes well McEachran should be knocking on the door for a starting eleven spot at some point in 2012. If Modric is on the team, that's something like four years with both under contract. Chelsea are also a little stuck with the Michael Essien injury situation. With the midfield depth the way it is now, sending a first-teamer out on loan would be rather risky, even if hes one who doesn't get to play very often.
Teach Him How To Defend
About a week ago, I drew up a diagram of how Modric might fit into the team, and came to the conclusion that a 4-2-3-1 was probably the best bet. That applies to fitting a McEachran in, too (except it comes far, far cheaper). Ideally, you'd field your regista alongside either a defensively-minded or a box-to-box player, who'd be expected to do the majority of the defensive duties. However, you still need your passing midfielder to do some defending in that sort of setup. and right now, you probably can't rely on McEachran to do it.
His positioning isn't right. His tackling technique isn't good. As mentioned above, he's not particularly strong. Having grown up as an advanced playmaker, it's hardly a surprise that McEachran's not a great defender, but if he wants to make the team on a regular basis that's what he needs to work on the most. Fortunately, he's improving fast in that regard. If Chelsea do commit to teaching Josh how to defend properly, I have no doubt he can get there.
All in all, I'm very confident that McEachran will end up anchoring this team for several years, but that's only because I have faith in the Chelsea management to do the right thing with him. The key for Josh, I think, is to avoid buying Modric. I know that hurts us in the short term, but that money could be going to more sensible places - and failing to replace an old player while blocking your brightest prospect strikes me as a bit of a waste. That's not to say I'm totally against signing Modric - he's a hell of a player, after all - I just don't think that it would be very good for McEachran, and that would be sad.
Anyway, what are y'all's thoughts on our #46?