One title race hadn’t even come to its conclusion before the managers of elite clubs were ruling themselves out of the next one. And not merely Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, saying it would be “miraculous” if Manchester United were in contention.
Maurizio Sarri said Chelsea’s two-window transfer ban, which was upheld last week, would probably end their chances.
An alternative theory would probably be that removing Eden Hazard from a team which finished 26 and 25 points behind the top two, and is managed by Sarri himself, should keep Chelsea out of the title race regardless of recruitment. Next season’s aim should be the same as this season’s: Champions League qualification.
In his defence, Sarri – who said Chelsea only had to buy one or two players – wasn’t advocating chequebook management. In Christian Pulisic he has one guaranteed arrival anyway, with Chelsea having future-proofed their squad for Hazard’s eventual departure in January by arranging the American’s arrival.
Closer to home
But Chelsea should see the ban not as a punishment but as an opportunity. It represents a chance to finally utilise the Premier League’s most productive football factory for something other than business reasons.
Too many Chelsea youth products in the past have ended up lost in the loan system, their potential stymied by the lack of a proper pathway. Too many have faced roadblocks in the shape of senior signings when short-termism has prevailed. If a ban prevents them from buying another Danny Drinkwater, it serves a benefit.
Especially when they at least have six homegrown players, plus the imported Pulisic, aged 21 or under, who merit a go. It’s unrealistic to expect all to prosper in the long term, but nor is it fanciful to imagine that four could. It would be a dereliction of duty if Chelsea don’t experiment with each.
Callum Hudson-Odoi’s case is clearest, his talent the most luminous, and the hierarchy – if not Sarri – were sufficiently convinced of his quality to repel Bayern Munich’s January interest. Hazard’s probable exit, coupled with Willian and Pedro’s age, creates a vacuum he and Pulisic could fill.
An inability to buy could work in favour of the other five. The departure of a marginalised Gary Cahill opens up a vacancy as the fourth centre-back. It could be filled by Fikayo Tomori, so impressive at Derby that he was named their player of the year, or the versatile Ethan Ampadu (Kurt Zouma, from Chelsea’s legion of loanees, is a more experienced alternative but probably doesn’t want to be a backup).
Ampadu could double up as an option at the base of the midfield; less a regista than Jorginho but, with Cesc Fabregas gone and Chelsea possibly prohibited from buying Mateo Kovacic, Sarri may have to abandon his preference to stockpile deep-lying playmakers.
Albeit at a lower level, Mason Mount’s return of 10 goals and five assists stands in contrast to Kovacic’s none and two respectively. Given the productivity Chelsea require from their two No.8s, the 20-year-old’s efforts for Derby were auspicious; it was a sign of his influence that they took an extra 0.44 points per game when he played.
Reece James was a revelation at Wigan, shaping up to join England’s generation of precocious right-backs, looking like Cesar Azpilicueta’s potential long-term replacement and, in the immediacy, a more dynamic deputy than Davide Zappacosta. James’s development has both surprised Chelsea and been overseen by them.
Other clubs are impressed how assiduous Paulo Ferreira, Eddie Newton, Chelsea’s loan coordinators are. Their attention to detail with their charges is remarkable. They are kept busy by the sheer numbers of them.
Tammy Abraham may be the most prominent. A few months ago, it would have been heresy to suggest the forward Aston Villa borrowed from Chelsea could be better than the one that the Blues loaned from Milan. But not now. If a punishment prevents them from signing Gonzalo Higuain, Abraham could offer the promise of a quicker attack.
So could Michy Batshuayi, and one possibility is that Chelsea turn to the pool of players they already own. In that sense, no one is better equipped to survive a ban.
What you’ve got
But surviving and emerging stronger are different matters, and Chelsea have an alternative to recalling expensive misfits. Tomori, Ampadu, Mount, James and Abraham need not be an infamous five whose ability was only seen elsewhere.
If bringing through young players is a combination of long-term planning and luck, timing, talent and temperament, then things could finally fall into place for Chelsea’s next generation.
Without recourse to retail therapy, otherwise-overlooked figures can find themselves and blossom. Just look at the Champions League finalists: Tottenham’s transfer ban was of the self-imposed, entirely unintentional kind, but they turned a problem into an opportunity. For Chelsea, rivals must be role models.
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