For the first time in thirteen seasons Chelsea will enter the new season devoid of Champions League participation, and quite likely without the prospect of any European football at all. Poised to enter another phase of transition — with the possibility of an exodus on the horizon — is this the appropriate time to promote from within?
The concept of utilizing the club's youth is popular amongst supporters. Rather notoriously, John Terry remains the last academy product to successfully attain a place in the first-team squad. Likewise, Thibaut Courtois has been the only one to have triumphantly conquered Chelsea's loan cycle. Exploiting the talent already available to us at this most convenient and rational time could also save the club considerable amounts of money.
Here are three prime candidates.
Since Roman Abramovich's arrival Chelsea have spent a substantial total of £96.5M on nine full-backs, the average cost each being £10.72M. Over the previous two seasons alone the Pensioners have spent £15.8M on Filipe Luis, and most recently £14M on Abdul Baba Rahman (the figure could rise to £22M with add-ons). Handing Nathan Ake the opportunity could prevent another expensive purchase.
Nathan Ake is a versatile Dutchman who flaunts fantastic defensive capabilities; his ability to block and intercept are noticeable features of his game. Having flirted on the periphery of Chelsea's first-team for several seasons, the 21-year-old was handed his opportunity to succeed at the highest level when Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores signed the youngster on a season-long loan. His impact at Vicarage Road has been unequivocally positive.
The Dutchman has made 20 appearances in the Premier League this season, and his statistics are certainly promising. Ake has registered 47 tackles — success rate of 48% — whilst also making 64 interceptions, 90 clearances and 7 blocks. Flores has opted to predominantly deploy Ake in the left-back position, and his input to the Hornets has only been marginally less than Chelsea's starting left-back, Azpilicueta. Cesar Azplicueta has completed 20 more tackles than Ake; he has also completed 70 interceptions, 95 clearances and 9 blocks. Crucially through the entirety of this unbelievable campaign, neither player has made an error that has led to a goal [ed. note: at least according to Opta].
Despite the fact that Azpilicueta's statistics are superior in every aspect highlighted, the Spaniard has made nine more league appearances than Ake. Whilst Chelsea's depleted defensive unit have endured a decline from the triumphant heights of the 2014/15 season, the Blues' defensive quality is far better than that of Watford. Taking these factors into consideration only makes Ake's efforts more impressive.
Abdul Baba Rahman has failed to familiarise himself with the blistering tempo of the Premier League - this perhaps has been due to his infrequent involvement. Accordingly, Nathan Ake could be a suitable candidate to provide further protection in the full-back positions, whilst perhaps even obtaining the left-back position. This would most likely occur if Azpilicueta would return to his favoured right-flank.
Without excessively speculating what the future holds for Ake, it is significant to acknowledge his fine contribution to Watford, an achievement that is also being noted by the wider Premier League community. The Daily Express report that Liverpool are interested in acquiring the services of Ake, an indication that rival clubs are beginning to register his value.
Chelsea has an exceedingly fine player in the form of Nathan Ake - a player who will continue to develop and prosper with further first-team involvement. Selling him would be a fatally bad decision.
Another individual who has thrived on loan this season is Andreas Christensen. The Danish international has made 29 appearances for Borussia Monchengladbach, attaining invaluable European experience — he's featured in the Champions League on five occasions. His league statistics have been especially splendid. Christensen has completed 21 tackles, exhibiting a 54% success rate. In addition, he's registered a respectable tally of 60 interceptions, 88 clearances and 15 blocks.
In a season in which Chelsea have conceded 41 goals - on average conceding 1.37 goals per game - the need for a defender is perhaps at its greatest, especially if Chelsea do not renew Terry's contract and if Kurt Zouma's injury is exacerbated.
Christensen's glittering displays have warranted acclaim in the national press, with some media outlets reporting that Chelsea are actively seeking to terminate the loan agreement. Indeed, his composure and discipline are key elements of his game, and his performances have been rewarded with a full international debut last week.
Considering that the average age of Chelsea's centre backs (Branislav Ivanovic included) is 29.5, there is an evident requirement for a youthful centre-back, and whilst Matt Miazga is patiently waiting for his first-team opportunity, perhaps Christensen is the appropriate candidate to fill the void. The Dane's time in Germany has testified to his capabilities to perform, and perform consistently well in one of Europe's most prestigious divisions.
Lastly, Juan Cuadrado, a dynamic winger who failed to register meaningful impact upon his arrival at Stamford Bridge, despite the large transfer fee and extensive media coverage. After six months, he was sent back to Italy on loan.
Cuadrado's time at Juventus, where he's featured on a consistent basis, represents a vast improvement. In 22 league appearances, Cuadrado has scored three goals whilst assisting five. His involvement in Juventus' attack has been palpable, the Colombian has completed 600 passes, flaunting a completion record of 86% — 50% of these passes have been forward passes, a clear indication of his desire to drive his team forward.
His most valuable attribute is his versatility: the 27-year-old is able to be deployed anywhere along the right-flank. He has an exemplary ability to dribble, and a superb ability to shoot from distance.
In a season, where the Champions of England have been collectively woeful — especially in relation to the distinction of their previous campaign — Chelsea's wingers have been no exception to the team's decline. This is perhaps best epitomised by Eden Hazard's tangible deterioration.
If Cuadrado is granted an opportunity to frequently feature in Chelsea's first-team then perhaps Chelsea supporters will be able to witness the flair and creativity that was extensively displayed during the 2014 World Cup.
There are many more players who could potentially be in contention for a return to first-team involvement in the royal blue of Chelsea and the crucial thing is to recognise and contemplate the options available to the club. One thing that is been envisaged for the forthcoming season, especially after the recent underwhelming transfer negotiations, is a frantic summer window adorned with several new signings.
Whilst acknowledging the need for reinforcements, perhaps it would be wise for the Board to adjudge the situation in accordance to their rationale and logic (if they possess any) as opposed to impulsive instinct. The need for investment is one that is recognised immediately, yet the fact that Chelsea will not be participating in European Football could be a visible hindrance whilst attempting to lure the most prestigious talents. Therefore, it would be sensible to promote from within the ranks where perfectly competent players are already available for free. Surely the loan system represents a view to develop players, rather than being solely focused on generating profit?