Why Ake, Christensen and co could force Conte to trust Chelsea youth
Holly Thackeray | May 2, 2016
Antonio Conte faces a peculiar squad situation at Stamford Bridge, when the current Italy boss arrives tasked with taking Chelsea back to the top of the Premier League after his Azzurri adventures end following Euro 2016.
Saying the Blues have had a bad season would be an understatement, as the top flight champions – now stationed in 10th – prepare to surrender their coveted English crown over to Leicester City after a desperate and dismal title defence which sees them presently 30 points off the surprise leaders.
Could Chelsea’s small squad have contributed to this? The capital club count 33 among their contingent, but in reality a huge chunk of the team are fringe players with the majority of game time centered around the more familiar names.
A staggering 31 players have been loaned out from west London – enough for a separate side in itself. Chelsea’s willingness to ship off some of their best and brightest is well-documented and maligned, but a handful have made a splash while farmed out this term.
Could Conte, who will have a rather extensive rebuilding job on his hands with key players out of form, finally be the man to cushion his squad with these highly-touted Chelsea prospects?
It’s unlikely among any of the current youth or loan crop that the Blues (5/1 to win the Premier League next season) risk losing a talent with the game-changing abilities of famous former transfer misjudgements like Romelu Lukaku or Kevin De Bruyne.
Certainly, only a sprinkling at this stage look in contention for squad places; but it is that Chelsea require. Roman Abramovich should allow Conte to splash the cash on some big names to pad out the starting XI, but to bring depth to the Bridge without forking out a fortune, they may finally have to look within.
Defence, usually a staunch Chelsea strong point, has been an uncharacteristic weak leak this campaign with John Terry, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic ageing, while Kurt Zouma is sidelined for the foreseeable and Baba Rahman has been inconsistent as he adapts to Premier League life.
Thankfully, this is one area where the Blues boast potential in abundance, and Conte could call on a fair few to reinforce what is expected to be a tactically flexible rearguard.
Ake excelling, could Christensen come home?
Nathan Ake is one name that immediately springs to mind, after the 21-year-old nailed down a regular starting spot at Watford, which is no easy thing to do considering their Premier League new boy status, trigger-happy Italian ownership and the swathe of fresh first-teamers.
Yet, dependable Dutchman Ake has made an impact, becoming a crucial cog with 22 outings across all competitions, and looks a lot more stable at left back than new Blues recruit Rahman, having helped the Hornets to securing safety early and to an FA Cup semi with his eye-catching appearances.
It seems a travesty that the adaptable defender, who could be of interest to Conte due to his versatility to man the left back berth as well as defensive midfield or centre half, has only found regular football this term.
Finally developing after a debut aged 17, the best thing for Ake, who said himself: “I thought it would be a good year if I managed to get 15 starts… I don’t know where I will be next season”, may be to stay put at Vicarage Road.
Yet, being consistently shipped off can be unsettling and from the parent club perspective they could save a tidy sum by investing more in Ake.
While there is also another prospect garnering attention, but this time in the Bundesliga, where Denmark-capped defender Andreas Christensen is pulling up trees for Borussia Monchengladbach – could a return be on the cards?
Suitors circling for star centre half
The commanding young Danish centre back has pulled on the senior Chelsea shirt just three times, but has made the spot at the heart of Monchengladbach’s backline his own with 27 appearances in all competitions, including starring in the Champions League against giants of the game Juventus and Sevilla.
Yet an immediate return to the Blues’ rearguard looks unlikely given that the German side have an agreement to keep him in their clutches until 2017. Should Conte splurge on younger legs at centre back instead of recalling the Scandinavian enforcer, noted for his silky skills in possession, composure and calm, it would be a mighty shame.
In injured Zouma, the west London outfit have a potential fixture for the future with all the physical prowess needed to dominate, and already on their books could be his perfect ball-playing partner.
Even captain Terry stated of the youngster’s promise to surpass him: “I’ve always told [him] that he should chase me and knock me off the team. He should be hungry to take my place… I am sure that he will be a top footballer.”
But, will that be at the Bridge with another year away amid rumours Bayern Munich and Barcelona are eyeing the 20-year-old? Christensen himself told press: “It’s hard to say because if I go back and don’t get the opportunity, this [Monchengladbach] might be the opportunity.
“When I go back to Chelsea I still have three eyars, so it’s really up to them. I’m happy in both places.”
Backline and beyond
The Blues have much more than just Ake and Christensen up their sleeve, however. Anyone remember Czech defender Tomas Kalas? The now 22-year-old once put in a memorably astute defensive performance for Jose Mourinho against Liverpool at Anfield, as the title slipped out of the Reds’ hands in 2014. Then he disappeared into the ether or, rather, Riverside Stadium.
Now to be found in his second spell with Middlesbrough, fighting for the Championship title and Premier League promotion, Kalas could be utilised by the Blues a back-up to both right back and centre half.
On Teesside it hasn’t always been smooth sailing but both of Kalas’ stints have been a success, and another season with Boro should promotion be sealed might be on the cards. Yet, with Conte coming in it could also be the ideal chance for Chelsea to finally give their guy a chance.
The bigwigs at the Bridge may have drafted in USA international Matt Miazga but defence still looks short, while money could instead be spent on adding sparkle to a sometimes stuttering attack.
There are even more rearguard resources than that, however, as Chelsea also own another centre back with Boro connections in Nigeria star Kenneth Omeruo. Having appeared a top prospect for the Blues while battling on the Riverside, the young-gun made a puzzling move to Turkish team Kasimpasa – a loan but with an option to buy.
A regular for the mid-table team, Omeruo could well stay put, but should bizarre Senegalese signing Papy Djilobodji return to Stamford Bridge instead, it would certainly seem like squad place waste. Though perhaps the emergence of 18-year-old English centre back Jake Clarke-Salter could go some way towards the Blues’ rearguard rationale.
It’s not just in defence where Conte can take a look at a conveyor belt of talent, taking his pick before they are presented to a feeder club, with plenty of young blood in midfield dynamo Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Brazilian whizz Kenedy and flexible forward Bertrand Traore all jostling for a little first-team attention.
While, further highly-touted on-loan attackers Isaiah Brown (Vitesse Arnhem), Charly Musonda (Real Betis), Dominic Solanke (Vitesse) and Patrick Bamford (Norwich City) could also return to the fold though none have seemed to seize their chances, at least numbers-wise, as the defensive prospects have done.
So, should Conte see a chance to invest further up the pitch, these proteges at the back could certainly help save pennies.