Young British players aren’t owed an opportunity in Premier League first-elevens. Seeing them given chances makes the country feel better about its national team’s future and gives supporters the chance to praise their club’s self-sufficiency, but there’s no imperative to favour one player over another just because he’s spent longer within an organisation.
Perhaps there should be? Maybe the game would benefit from adopting rules which clear the pathways between junior and senior football. Maybe. But that’s really a different issue: as things stand, beyond making a monetary saving there’s no clear advantage in deferring to youth. In fact, at bigger clubs with limitless transfer budgets, it can almost equate to an act of self harm; a show of patience while everybody else is rapidly improving by gorging themselves in the transfer market.
Last week, Ray Wilkins took a great deal of flak for suggesting that Chelsea’s likely signing of Tiemoue Bakayoko was short-sighted and that it would come at the cost of Nathaniel Chalobah’s development.
As is normal in these situations, the public rounded on Wilkins: he was certainly guilty of underselling Bakayoko, who is a terrific, well-rounded player, and of claiming that Chalobah “deserves” a chance in Antonio Conte’s side. It’s semantics. Chalobah isn’t owed an opportunity, but he is worth giving one to: if that’s what the former coach meant, then he has a very fair point.
Chalobah really could be an exceptional player. To watch him now is to see a defensive-midfielder with imperfections. He does sometimes hold onto the ball longer than he should and, because he’s confident in his technique, he’s also occasionally tempted into trying to beat players in areas of the field where risks shouldn’t be taken. Without possession, he can sometimes be guilty of over-committing himself high up the pitch and allowing his defenders to become exposed.
But note the description: these are imperfections rather than permanent flaws. Symptoms of inexperience.
Chalobah is currently at the European Championship with the England u21 side. Speaking before the game with the Poland last week, he was asked about his future and conceded that, yes, it’s important for him to become a regular Premier League starter, whether that’s with Chelsea or away from the club on loan.
This, then, is not really a conversation debating Chalobah’s worth against Bakayoko’s, but a separate discussion which wonders whether Chelsea should prioritise the former’s development on account of what he might one day become. It’s worth remembering also that, coincidentally, Bakayoko’s own development curve has been extremely sharp. Those who follow French football will tell you that he’s been a mighty prospect for some time, but nobody was discussing him as a must-have item twelve months ago; he started just 14 Ligue 1 games in 2015/16, compared with 25 last season and a complete Champions League campaign. He’s an extremely gifted player but, like all others, his rise has depended on consistent selection.
Ironically, that’s the kind of rapid development which Ray Wilkins might have cited to strengthen his argument for Chalobah. He may be the kind of ex-professional prone to going to bat for young Englismen, but – in this instance – his basis for doing so wasn’t wrong. He has firsthand knowledge of Chalobah, will have watched him train and play on many different occasions, and also knows that regular involvement can provoke rapid, exponential improvement.
As it did for Raheem Sterling, for Harry Kane, and even, to a lesser extent, as it did for Arsenal’s Rob Holding, who went from an afterthought to looking at home in a FA Cup final in a number of weeks.
It doesn’t offer a guarantee, because a player’s adjustment to first-team life, to his teammates, and to a particular set of tactics can never be precisely anticipated, but in some cases it’s obviously worth finding out how his potential might flower. Even, as it might be in this case, if it’s just for the sake of knowing, if and when that player does move, what it is exactly that the club are selling.
Chalobah is in that category. He’s not definitely a future star of the game, but – equally – nobody can say for certain that he won’t become one. He needs to be refined, of course, and he will need to be granted the latitude to make mistakes and be educated by them, but he has the formative attributes to be a difference-maker at the top of the division. At the least, it’s mildly ridiculous for a player who has taken part in just 14 Premier League games to have his assumed limitations stamped on his forehead.
Before committing to another round of exorbitant spending and guaranteeing another vast contract, Chelsea might want to explore that theory and see what they have. Chalobah is a good player. Maybe not one who will inevitably pierce the stratosphere, but a midfielder who should at least be stirring some curiosity at Stamford Bridge.