Since Jose Mourinho’s departure in 2008, Chelsea have endured many turbulent, yet trophy-laden seasons in England’s top flight. In between juggling managers, many fledgling stars have been shipped out on loan year after year. With Mourinho’s return to the Bridge, will the ignored youngsters be afforded the game time to blossom, or will they be overlooked in another chaotic term?
Something that is unquestionable is the talent of the loanees, particularly the Belgian trio of Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, who have spent years away with clubs across Europe. The most expensive of the trio for the Blues to acquire was 6 foot 3 inch striker Romelu Lukaku, who spent last season at West Bromwich Albion, a rampaging forward who achieved 38 appearances for the Prem’s over-achievers last season. He scored 17 goals, two more than Chelsea’s leading Premier League scorer in 2012/13, and averaged a goal every 123 minutes in the league, only bettered by Dutch marksman Robin Van Persie, remarkable statistics for a 20 year old.
Lukaku has stunned fans at The Hawthorns with his thunderous athleticism, aerial dominance and intelligent link-up play. However, he is not a typical target man; on the contrary, he has more to his game than his dominant physique, the Antwerp-born attacker has composure belying his age and a focused attitude: striving to improve every day. Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn between Lukaku and his Ivorian predecessor Didier Drogba, associations amplified by the special one’s return to Chelsea.
Another young Belgian determined to earn a first-team place with his parent club is former Genk stopper Thibaut Courtois, a towering ‘keeper with surprising reflexes and agility. Courtois, who was recently named in MARCA’s team of the season, has been a constant presence for Los RojiBlancos, appearing 74 times in two seasons. Moreover, the commanding 21 year old has the best save success rate in La Liga, an impressive statistic considering the high calibre of his divisional rivals, yet, his most outstanding accomplishment is breaking a club record for clean sheets in a single campaign (23). His inspiring performances have led to popular media labelling the dependable Belgian as the next Edwin Van Der Saar.
The final starlet in the trio is Bremen’s fans favourite, Kevin De Bruyne, a player so popular in Northern Germany, supporters have created videos of gratification, thanking the midfielder for his efforts and describing him as ‘klassenerhalt’, a term referring to De Bruyne’s invaluable influence in maintaining Werder Bremen’s status as a Bundesliga outfit. The tributary videos are not undeserved, though; the dynamic playmaker racked up more appearances than any other player for his team last term, while crafting the more goals than any other Bremen player and scoring ten.
De Bruyne, another former Genk player, has been a vital component of Thomas Rogne’s side, his versatility and adept use of both feet allow him to play anywhere in midfield, attributes Chelsea have been desperate all season. Enthusiastic and an accomplished finisher, De Bruyne has been tipped to succeed Blues legend Frank Lampard; not as flattering as you may initially have thought considering De Bruyne was recently named in ‘New Signings of the Season’ for WhoScored.com (in Europe’s top five leagues) with an average match rating of 7.58.
Despite the talent of the returning prospects, including the likes of Josh McEachran, Nathaniel Chalobah, Tomas Kalas and Lucas Piazon, Mourinho may not opt to blood the youngsters in favour of instant success. At the mercy of the impatient oligarch Roman Abramovich, the Special One will be under intense pressure to bring trophies to the Bridge this season, therefore, he may select more developed and mature players of the ilk of Demba Ba, Petr Cech and Frank Lampard. In addition, Mourinho can have an almost intolerant approach to accommodating for players who are not good enough for the first team; examples include Jack Cork, now a regular for Southampton, and Scott Sinclair, who recently made a switch to Manchester City.
Coupled with Mourinho’s intolerance, he is not a very sustainable manager: on average he spends 2.75 years at each club. This suggests that Mourinho does not need to introduce new, younger players into each club he manages, as it is likely he will not be at the helm of that club in three years. Additionally, Mourinho has made previous mistakes in management at Chelsea, in his initial spell he allowed combative Frenchman Lassana Diarra to leave Chelsea.
Diarra was showing promise but departed for a mere £5.5 million to Portsmouth, before securing a move to Spanish giants Real Madrid, for whom he made 87 appearances. Indication of Diarra’s quality is apparent in his accumulation of silverware throughout his career, winning the FA Cup twice, the league cup, La Liga, the Copa Del Rey and the Supercopa de Espana. Furthermore, Mourinho oversaw the transfer of creative Moroccan Mbark Boussafa in 2004, who is now plying his trade with nouveau riche Russian outfit Anzhi. Boussafa, winner of Belgian footballer of the year, Belgian young footballer of the year and Belgian golden shoe, is another hot prospect undetected by Mourinho. It is not only in sales that Mourinho has shown an inability to judge player potential, he has also purchased players, with the intention for them to blossom into first team regulars, who demonstrate his poor judge of player potential.
One such player is Ivorian Salomon Kalou, who was signed in 2006 for approximately £9 million. Kalou appeared a staggering 156 times in the royal blue of Chelsea over 6 years at the club, scoring a meagre 36 goals in that time: an unimpressive return considering he was usually employed in advanced roles, often as a striker. The statistics prove that Kalou had the opportunities in the first team under Mourinho and his successors, although he failed to display the ability that persuaded Mourinho to acquire him originally.
On the other hand, there are suggestions that Mourinho prefers youthful players; in his former management of Chelsea, his squads’ average age was approximately 24 years old. Plus, in his first year at both Los Blancos and Inter Milan, the average age of the players leaving the club was greater than the average age of the arrivals (excluding loan departures), confirmation of the fact Mourinho is keen to create a squad of youth, enthusiasm and energy. This preference towards younger players hints at the retention of last term’s loanees as he crafts a younger squad.
Also, Mourinho has denied any rumour that any member of his squad will not be given an opportunity, stating: “I need to work with the players and not commit injustice”, before adding, “I need to give them a chance, be fair with them. After that we will have time to make decisions”. Moreover Abramovich has been vocal in his desire to support Mourinho in his youth policy: “We want to go in this direction, the one or two we may buy are complements because the structure and philosophy is this one.” This strategy, supported by both Chelsea’s manager and owner, is further suggestion that Mourinho will keep hold of the likes of Courtois, Lukaku and De Bruyne.
Regardless of Mourinho’s apparent preference towards younger players, he may be forced to include the fledgling Blues because of the need for strength in depth, particularly if this season will be similar to last, with a gruelling 69 game schedule. Additionally, Mourinho may be reluctant to distribute players to potential rivals, be it divisional or in European competitions, as Courtois was for Atletico in the European Super Cup. He may also be keen to increase the number of options upfront as the only recognised strikers in the club are Torres and Ba, an issue that forced Benitez to utilize hazards guile and finishing ability as a striker. A problem that may worsen because Mourinho appears eager to offload Fernando Torres, a forward he has branded as “so-so” before admitting he could expect more.
Although Mourinho may need as many players as possible, the transfer rumour mill implies that the Special One is keen to obtain players rather than utilise the returning loanees. Mourinho is currently targeting players in a variety of positions; Lukaku’s place in the team is in doubt as Mourinho is allegedly interested in buying Edinson Cavani, Edin Dzeko and the aptly named Brazilian forward Hulk. Moreover, De Bruyne’s role is also uncertain with Chelsea recently securing the signing of Andre Schurrle, while they have displayed a curiosity in Van Ginkel of Vitesse and Wesley Sneijder.
In regards to Courtois’ function for the Pensioners, it is difficult to anticipate Petr Cech being displaced by the Belgian as he was such a vital player in Mourinho’s initial occupation. In conclusion, it appears unlikely that Mourinho will retain the returning loanees for next season, considering his transfer targets and inability to judge player potential. Signs were promising for the fledgling Blues, yet it is likely that comments made to the press were made with the purposes of improving squad morale, with little truth in the words. All the players mentioned in the article are eager to get valuable game time ahead of the World Cup in Brazil next year, game time Mourinho may not be able to provide for the youngsters; additional suggestion that the returning loanees staying is unfeasible.
Moreover, Thibaut Courtois has already signed for Atletico Madrid on loan for another season, after expressing his desire to stay in Madrid. In my opinion, Chelsea would be foolish to allow players of such skill and talent to leave, but it is looking increasingly likely that it will be the case; Abramovich’s financial muscles are being flexed across the globe, overshadowing the sheer potential much closer to home.
As Mourinho once remarked, “Young players are a little bit like melons. Only when you open and taste the melon are you 100%” and it appears he is reluctant to taste any of the fruit hanging from Chelsea’s branches.