In yesterday's loan roundup, there was an interesting comment asking my thoughts on Josh McEachran and his development. The comment directed us to a forum discussing his play at Middlesbrough, and I was just amazed at some of the laughable comment I was reading. There were some questioning his attitude, effort, and work ethic, and all I could do was shake my head in amazement at their ridiculousness.
Instead of addressing this in the comments, I decided i should probably take my time and really address the issue. Ever since Carlo Ancelotti gave the young midfielder his debut, expectation has been sky high. Unfortunately for Josh, those were expectations he was never likely to meet at an early age, and it was a bit silly of us as a fanbase to place them on him at all.
Let's look closely at Josh, and try to find out why we even talk about him as a prospect in the first place. Physically speaking, he's not overly impressive. He's about average height, but he looks like he's built out of damp toothpicks. He doesn't appear to be particularly fast, not overly explosive, doesn't seem to cover a ton of ground, and is likely to be beaten in the air by six out of the seven dwarfs*. Just looking at his physical tools, I doubt any of us would ever believe he has the ability to be a Premier League player (much less a Chelsea regular).
*Sleepy is just lazy, and probably wouldn't even jump
Despite that fact, McEachran is still viewed by Chelsea fans as an extremely interesting prospect. While the consistency can be lacking, he shows regular flashes of absolutely world class technical ability. He reads the pitch, and can occasionally place ridiculous passes that established Premier League regulars wouldn't even attempt. He rarely makes rash decisions with the ball at his feet, which is more than I can say for many current Chelsea first team players.
There are players in Chelsea's ranks that have absolutely world class physical gifts, and it's easy for the fans to get excited by the flashes that they show us. How hard is it to look at Romelu Lukaku or a youngster like Alex Kiwomya and think how ridiculous they could become if they ever learn the subtleties of the game? It's easy to forget their faults, as they are young and physically gifted, and young players still have to learn the game.
Players like McEachran usually get a bit of a raw deal in this regard. Josh came to the attention of Chelsea fans due to his highly advanced technical ability, which stood out compared to others of his age. He's certainly not the first to do so (think Gael Kakuta), and he'll definitely not be the last.
There are loads of technically gifted players out there though, and there's one crucial component that separates the pretty god ones from the great ones. To thrive in the Premier League without much in the way of physical gifts, a player like McEachran needs to be able to make impeccable decisions despite the high tempo of the game. Where a freak like Ramires might be able to outrun a bad decision to make something brilliant happen, Josh needs to be thinking a step ahead in order to succeed.
What McEachran is gaining at Middlesbrough is probably the most valuable thing he could be getting at the moment...time on the pitch and touches of the ball. It doesn't matter where on the pitch he is deployed, as frankly, the more new situations he's faced with, the more he's going to learn. That will make him a better player, and it's why he's not here at the moment.
Players like Josh should not be looked at in the same way as we view gifted athletes like Theo Walcott. Guys like Walcott will often burst onto the scene at a younger age, but once their physical tools start to leave them, they'll have to adapt their game to continue their careers beyond 30.
Less physically gifted players are different. Look at a guy like Andrea Pirlo, who didn't reach 40 appearances in a season until the 8th of his career. Closer to home, look at Tom Cleverley of Manchester United, who turned 23 just before the start of the season and only had 90 total first team appearances to that point (75 of which were on loan). These types of players may catch our eye early on, but they often seem to take much longer to fulfill our lofty expectations. Their skillsets tend to age much more gracefully though, and they are often able to play at a high level well into their thirties.
Talents like McEachran are often the most frustrating ones to watch grow, as their lack of elite physical gifts mean they just don't have as much room room for youthful errors as others. Having an abundance of this type of prospect should not be viewed as a negative though, but instead should be looked on as an overwhelming success by the academy. The coaching staff can't teach Romelu Lukaku to be a Krakenlike as he is, as that Krakenness comes mostly from excellent genetics.
The coaching staff can teach a kid like McEachran to play the game, and the abundance of players like Michael Mancienne, Sam Hutchinson, Ryan Bertrand, Fabio Borini, Scott Sinclair, and Jack Cork that have been excelling despite a lack of elite physical gifts speaks volumes about the work currently being done at Cobham. These players may or may not ever go on to be world class, but all have now developed to the point as players that it's easy to see them making a career as Premier League regulars.
With Josh and others like him, have patience. He's shown loads of technical ability at a young age, but to truly harness that he's going to need more experience. It's not going to be something that happens overnight, he'll continue to get better the longer he's playing the game. Just enjoy the fact that Chelsea is now producing talented kids like him, as that is a vast improvement over the recent past.