Nathaniel Chalobah’s transfer to Watford is that rare thing in football: a deal which suits all parties.
Chalobah, presumably disheartened by Tiemoue Bakayoko’s arrival at Stamford Bridge, took his career into his own hands. At 22 he needs to play and, having been a known prospect for what seems like an eternity, evidently realises that potential needs to be multiplied before it drains away.
So everybody wins: Watford strengthen their midfield for next-to-nothing, Chalobah will now get the playing minutes he needs, and Chelsea no longer have to pretend that they see him as part of their future. To receive just £5m for a Premier League-ready player who has spent twelve years within the club’s academy structure hints at mismanagement, but nobody at Cobham will be going hungry anytime soon; Chelsea depend on their buy, loan, and flip philosophy for revenue far more than they do their youth system.
Over the summer, Chalobah travelled to Poland with Aidy Boothroyd’s u21 side. Playing as the deepest man in a diamond midfield, he was tasked with screening the defence and moving possession into more advanced positions. His tournament was ultimately ended by a groin strain, but not before showing – again – that he really is a player of some potential.
He has the height and physique of a destructive ball-winner, making him as effective in the air as he is as a one-on-one tackler, but he’s also equipped with finesse that isn’t often seen in a player of his size. He may not be a modern day Fernando Redondo and isn’t likely to roulette his way gracefully through the middle of the field, but he’s certainly more than a blunt stopper.
Still, while it’s right to recognise the skill he plays with and the value he already brings to a side, it would be disingenuous to pretend that his game isn’t undermined by imperfections. In some players, ability on the ball can be a curse. Rather than simply doing the job they’ve been put on the field to perform, they’re sometimes tempted to express themselves unnecessarily. Chalobah can be guilty of that. Instead of retrieving the ball and then simply pushing it into an area from where an attack can safely begin, he’s prone to taking opponents on in his own half. It often looks impressive and, in reality, rarely does it put his own side at risk, but that’s not really the point: when a player graduates from age-group football into the senior game, it’s more important for him to be a component in a side than an individual who stands out.
Defensively, Marco Silva might also have to tolerate a learning curve. Chalobah is impulsive and athletic and, occasionally, that can create difficulties. His performances in Poland were generally reliable, but he still exhibited a tendency to overcommit in pursuit of the ball. When those risks paid off it looked effective, but when they didn’t it resulted in big pockets of space developing in front of the England defence and Chalobah having to chase back into position.
But there lies the value of the experience which he has so far been denied. If Chalobah’s current limitations were physical rather than mental, simply playing a lot of Premier League games would be of little use. In his case, though, it’s only traits and habits which need correcting – and his move into Watford’s midfield should provide that education. He’s a bright person, notably intelligent when interviewed, and that implies the capacity to respond constructively to the learn-and-adapt phase into which he’s heading.
Chelsea supporters can rest easy. It’s highly unlikely that their club’s decision to sanction this sale will ever look like a serious miscalculation. However, should Chalobah become a first-team regular at Watford, his rate of improvement should be dramatic enough for him to graduate into the senior England squad. Gareth Southgate reportedly thinks highly of him and, of course, coached him during the previous u21 cycle. More pertinently, Chalobah’s profile is unlike that of any other domestic defensive midfielder; he’s different – not necessarily better, destined for greatness, or key to the country’s fate at future tournaments, but still intriguingly unique. Finesse and physicality is a seductive combination and, if he avoids injury and keeps his place, it’s a near certainty that he’ll be given an opportunity between now and the next World Cup.
Watford have something. What Chalobah makes of his career from this point onwards will depend on all sorts of variables, but Marco Silva is by all accounts an outstanding coach and one with a proven knack for infusing young players with tactical understanding and self-belief. It’s exactly what this situation calls for; rather than being an afterthought at a superclub, Chalobah will now become his manager’s day-to-day focus – on the training pitch, in the post-game analysis sessions, and in every other way that he’s needed for the past year.
Finally, after all this time, he’ll be growing in fertile ground.
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