In a season devoid of European football, and having sustained a shock defeat to struggling West Ham in the EFL Cup (which I still think is a silly name), opportunities for those players, young or old, on the periphery of the very much settled and successful starting eleven have been severely restricted. One, more than welcome exception to that has been young Nathaniel Chalobah.
Despite all the splendour and success that Chelsea have attained since the late ‘90s, one achievement has eluded the club: developing first-team players from within the youth setup. Rather notoriously, John Terry remains the last academy graduate who has successfully integrated himself into the first-team. A whole host of players have attempted to end this undesired record without success — Ryan Bertrand probably came closest — but now, a new and strong contender has emerged. His name is Nathaniel Chalobah, and he’s been with Chelsea since age 10.
Large parts of Chalobah’s career have mirrored the stereotypical Chelsea prodigy. Preordained for greatness, name cast in the same breath as West London icons, yet discarded across the country and the rest of Europe on loan before being sold at a profit.
By the age of 21, Chalobah had already amassed considerable experience, most notably in the Championship. Loan spells at Watford, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading, as well as at the illustrious Napoli of Serie A had provided him with invaluable experiences, and even when he wasn’t playing a lot, he seemed to be developing consistently. On the international stage, Chalobah’s experience has been equally impressive, having earned 32 caps for England’s under-21 team.
Despite that, before the summer of 2016, it appeared that Chalobah’s opportunities to make it at Chelsea had passed, just as they had for most other youngsters and loanees before him. Enter Antonio Conte.
When handed opportunities to impress by the new Chelsea head coach during our pre-season tour, Chalobah’s response was empathic. Like fellow oft-discarded spare part Victor Moses, he seized upon the opportunities with style and purpose, and, most crucially, was consequently integrated into the first-team. Chalobah’s terrific solo effort against Wolfsberger was a stunning indicator of his skill, and his defensive concentration was especially impressive.
Conte has recently spoken of his surprise at the underutilization of talented players like Moses, and perhaps he felt similarly in the case of Chalobah as well. Regardless, Conte identified the talent he had at his disposal over the summer and, accordingly, has utilized them efficiently.
While being renowned for his defensive contributions — his aerial prowess is a particular strength — Chalobah has shown plenty of ability from an attacking perspective as well throughout young career, including several amazing goals (ex.: 1, 2, 3), as well as moments of brilliance like his assist to Moses in Chelsea’s 3-0 demolition of reigning Champions Leicester City.
While Chalobah is a fair bit away from being considered a prominent first-team player, there are plenty of good initial signs and causes for optimism. It would appear that Conte is nurturing the youngster’s talents for the advancement of the team.
The statistics do not reflect Chalobah’s significance to the team. He’s made just five substitute appearances in the Premier League (all since the switch to the 3-4-3), accounting for a total of 57 minutes, but a majority of those minutes have come in crucial game situations, with Chalobah first off the bench in most of those games. Whenever the Blues have needed to close out a game, strengthen the midfield, or inject an extra bit of stability into the proceedings, like this weekend against Manchester City, Conte has called upon the 21-year-old.
Chelsea’s surprise exit from the EFL Cup has taken away obvious minutes from the likes of Chalobah — he had amassed over 100 minutes in the games against Leicester City and West Ham — but a lengthy run in the FA Cup, starting next month, could make up for those.
While there is every reason to indulge in the excitement of Conte rewarding Chalobah, a True Blue since age 10, with his first Chelsea opportunities we must remain realistic in our ambitions. But if Chalobah does continue to receive these opportunities, there is very little reason to think he won’t be an excellent player for us for a long time, and finally end our wretched record for promoting our own youth.