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Keep, Sell, Loan: Nathaniel Chalobah’s 2016-17 season-in-review

Chelsea v Brentford - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Appearances (starts + substitute appearances):

Premier League - 1 + 9 (159 minutes)

FA Cup - 3 (270 minutes)

EFL Cup - 1 + 1 (103 minutes)

The story so far:

Nathaniel Chalobah’s first involvement with the Chelsea first-team came when he was all of 15 years old: he was named to the bench and assigned a squad number of 62 (!) in a League Cup game against Newcastle, that also saw involvement from older prospects such as Patrick van Aanholt, Jeffrey Bruma and Josh McEachran with Jacob Mellis and Billy Clifford also on the bench. I doubt that even Chalobah himself would’ve imagined that it would take another six years to make his Chelsea debut though...

Chalobah’s first season out on loan was a breakout success. Under the stewardship of former Chelsea great Gianfranco Zola at Watford, Chalobah was a mainstay throughout the season for the Hornets, who made it all the way to the promotion play-off finals that year. He also scored this goal.

Upon returning to Chelsea, he signed a new contract and expressed his desire to remain at Chelsea his whole career, while Jose Mourinho claimed he was one more loan away from the first team. Surely then, Chalobah was all set to be the next flag-bearer for academy prospects at Chelsea after John Terry? The next six months at Nottingham Forest were a disaster. His fitness levels and overall play dipped upon his arrival at Forest; he was sent off in just his third game and upon his return from suspension, was hauled off at half-time after an anonymous display. Making just 12 appearances in the first half of the season, he was recalled from his loan spell and sent to another Championship side, Middlesbrough instead in January. Chalobah did play a lot more at Middlesbrough, making 15 starts, but things had clearly not gone according to plan as far as his Chelsea prospects were concerned and he was loaned out yet again in the 2014/15 season, this time to Burnley in the Premier League.

Watford v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

The loan move to Burnley was and is a low point in Chalobah’s career; he made only 4 appearances for the side, all of them coming from the bench, amassing a grand total of 65 minutes of playing time in the Premier League. Manager Sean Dyche claimed that Chalobah was working hard behind the scenes but by his own assessment he hadn’t developed as much as he would’ve liked and wasn’t ready for the unforgiving nature of the Premier League. Playing time at this point was essential, which Chalobah got at Reading in the second half of the season. Unsurprisingly, he did well but still failed to work his way into Jose Mourinho’s plans.

Reading v AFC Bournemouth - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Reading expressed interest in taking Chalobah back on loan in the summer, but it was evident that he needed to test himself at a higher level. A higher level move did follow, but one that surprised everyone: Chalobah found himself heading to Napoli for a season-long loan. It was a move that seemed like too much, too soon for Chalobah, especially given the nature of Italian teams when dealing with loanees. Things played out exactly as one might’ve expected them to, as Chalobah played no more than 29 minutes in the Serie A, spread over 5 substitute appearances. The only starts he got were in dead-rubber games in the Europa League against Club Brugge and Legia Warsaw, against whom he also scored an excellent goal. That said, the Napoli loan could be considered as a key learning experience for the long-time England youth international, who had to adapt to a completely different country, language, surroundings and style of football. In fact, Napoli were keen to buy him at the end of the season but finally, Chalobah’s moment had arrived at Chelsea.

SSC Napoli v Legia Warszawa - UEFA Europa League Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Antonio Conte kept Chalobah involved throughout pre-season, where he impressed time and time again, and eventually Conte confirmed during a press conference that the Chalobah would be part of the first-team for the 2016/17 season.

Chalobah has come a long way this season, from being considered as a risky substitution to make in the closely-contested League Cup tie against Bristol Rovers to a trustworthy option off the bench in Premier League games that needed closing down. He didn't get an abundance of playing time but has been very much involved and part of the squad that ultimately went on to win the League title. This season has surely been a step in the right direction for Chalobah, although what comes next is just as important.

Chelsea v Middlesbrough - Premier League Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

The Football:

Chalobah has operated at center-back in the past at youth and international level, but most of his appearances in the senior game have come in midfield. He made practically all of his appearances at Watford as part of a two-man midfield pivot, often the more attack-minded of the pair. Here is a detailed all-touches video of one of his games at Watford.

He comfortably keeps the ball ticking in midfield, while also carrying the ball into more attacking areas. Standout qualities of his that are apparent from the above video itself are his composure and ability on the ball, along with the ability to pick out a pass. He’s also not afraid to have a go from distance, something which our midfielders lack, bar Matic at times. While he played in a 4-4-2 formation at Nottingham Forest, he moved back to his old Watford role at Middlesbrough and Reading. Although he didn’t play much at Napoli, this compilation of his actions with the Italian club also reinforces the same.

At Chelsea, he has been used in place of Nemanja Matic whenever he has started, pairing in midfield with either N’Golo Kante or Cesc Fabregas. One could argue that Chalobah is not far, if at all behind Matic in terms of ability on the ball, but he is certainly the less physical of the two, which is where he must improve. He can win a tackle but needs to step up the ball-winning/defensive aspect of his game in general, especially to survive in a league like the Premier League. Another aspect that can be found lacking is his ability to exert influence on the game at will, although that is something that can only be developed with game time.


Indeed, Chelsea will compete in the Champions League next season and must improve squad depth, hence the rumours and links to the likes of Tiemoue Bakayoko and Corentin Tolisso. I’d have Chalobah remain at Chelsea provided there are no more than five midfielders in total. Should we, say, sign both Tolisso and Bakayoko and there are no departures from among the midfield ranks, then it would be in Nathaniel’s best interests to leave the club, as nothing will serve him better than playing time. Playing time and opportunities is how players of the same age that are being linked with multi-million pound transfers like Bakayoko and Tolisso have come to be, and there’s no reason Chalobah cannot follow the suit. That being said, if a new midfielder is signed and one of Matic or Fabregas leaves the club, I would want to keep Chalobah around and give him actual chances to prove himself.

Chalobah is now 22 and can no longer afford to spend a whole season on the bench or in the stands. Thus, realistically, the club should be clear as to what role they have in mind for him and whether they see him as part of the Chelsea’s future. If Conte does not have a greater role in store for Chalobah down the line, he should probably be sold in order to truly flourish (with a buy-back clause). Nevertheless, my verdict is keep (and hope that the number of midfielders at the club is reasonable).


What would you do with Nathaniel Chalobah next season?

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