Nathaniel Chalobah captured the mood. Manoeuvring the ball out of his feet on the edge of the box, he powered a violent drive towards Asmir Begovic’s goal. It missed. It arrowed high and wide, collided with a hoarding stapled to the top of the stand and returned to the field with a metallic clunk and an ironic cheer.
That was Bournemouth against Watford.
At first glance, it was also emblematic of Chalobah’s own performance. In the minutes prior, he had wasted the game’s two best opportunities: first, stepping over pass which found him unmarked in the middle of the box and, moments later, squandering a one-on-one chance when in alone on Begovic.
Under normal circumstances, Chalobah’s impotence in front of goal would have become the story – Marco Silva would admit as much post-game – but the ease with which Watford eventually pulled themselves across the line allowed for reflection. As the second-half developed, the takeaway detail became the ease with which Watford were playing through the Bournemouth midfield and, while the spurned chances were ugly, Chalobah became the most vivid symbol of that dominance.
It was a good performance, but also a surprising one. Chalobah began his youth career as a centre-half and has crept up the field as he’s got older. Still, many of his natural defensive habits have made the journey with him and, to this day, he’s considered more of a shielding player than an expressive one. Not unreasonably so, either, because he’s a fine one-on-one tackler, composed on the ball in the way that many modern holding players are, and his passing range is hardly flamboyant. But at Dean Court he stretched the boundaries of those assumptions: an equal presence in both halves of the pitch, he was prominent when Watford collapsed behind the ball, but also an attacking beneficiary when they began to become more ambitious.
The past has occasionally provided similar evidence. In his brief substitute appearances for Chelsea, he would periodically produce a flick or a pass which hinted at further dimensions. It was treated with caution, though, because Antonio Conte never trusted him when a game was in doubt and so never saddled him with any real defensive responsibility. In contrast, Saturday felt like a truer indicator: Chalobah’s performance was decorated with all sorts of detail. He passed well over short and medium range, releasing it early and simply when necessary but using it to explore space when not. Two pirouetting pieces of skill early in the second-half, both of which victimised Harry Arter, also added a layer of flamboyance. Most tellingly, though, his positioning was excellent. Like his teammates, he suffered early from Heurelho Gomes’s roulette distribution, having to scurry back behind the ball after a series of muffed clearances, but the panic would eventually melt away. His level of involvement was testament to just how often he found himself in the right place at the right time and when Watford did eventually take the lead through Richarlison, it had been Chalobah who had led the counter-attack.
Even the glaring chance he missed was really, when viewed from a different perspective, a measure of his tactical comprehension. After all, it was his own well-timed press to dispossess Steve Cook at the base of the home defence which put him through on goal. It may not have been difficult to identify imperfections on Saturday, he certainly wasn’t flawless, but he produced enough to challenge the misconceptions which grew around him during his suspended animation at Stamford Bridge.
He has always been talked of in disparaging terms, almost as a charity case. When Ray Wilkins spoke out on his behalf after the signing of Tiemoue Bakayako, the public responded with great mirth. Unfair, but not surprising; after all, one of the most errant assumptions regarding young players is that it’s possible to predict how they’ll be nourished by the professional game – that their academy career somehow fixes their long-term trajectory. But that’s never been true. Some shrink from the senior game, unable to adapt to the accelerated speed or withstand the physical demands, while others are multiplied by the exposure. For that kind of player – which Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane are all examples of – the higher standard encourages them to grow towards the sun. Rather than being overwrought by inferiority, that kind of footballer develops at a rate nobody anticipated and becomes something previously considered unrealistic. To a particular type of personality, pressure is essentially fertiliser.
Of course, most don’t experience exponential growth and, in Nathaniel Chalobah’s case, he isn’t really new to the professional game. But even if a dramatic surge is unlikely, this new permanency is intriguing. He’s a full-time Watford player now, truly a part of squad rather than just a loanee or an appendage, and he’s working with a manager who evidently prioritises his personal evolution. Chalobah is not going to become Sergio Busquets, but even within two Premier League games he can already be said to have become a slightly better player. It shows in the shades of his game: a slightly firmer pass here, a more decisive movement there. It’s nothing particularly dramatic at this point, but it marks the beginning of something.
Perhaps it will prove only a mild improvement – refinement rather than revolution – but seeing Chalobah poke through the topsoil at Bournemouth was a reminder that this is a scarce luxury. Rarely do English players get a sustained opportunity in the Premier League at an age when they’re still pliable. It becomes a fascinating week-to-week event during which they have room to make mistakes, to learn, and then to adapt and grow. A runner lost in one game becomes a forward contained in another. A one-on-one chance squandered on Saturday might, perhaps, inform more composure in the future. It’s all hypothetical, but still constitutes something novel. This is an era of ready-made signings and off-the-peg solutions, so the opportunity to pay attention to something which isn’t pre-determined or finite is relatively precious.
In the true, non amateur scouting sense, Nathaniel Chalobah is one to watch. Thought it would be hyperbole to claim him capable of becoming anything he wants to be, it’s more than likely that he’ll break beyond the constraints of his imagined potential.
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