Chelsea have young, homegrown players in key roles, in some cases replacing much older, longer-serving veterans. However, the team still need depth of experience and options throughout the squad.
Earlier this week, a content provider apparently worth a paywall broke the shattering news that Chelsea had rejected Atletico Madrid’s summer pursuit of Marcos Alonso. How this was news is quite beyond us, as we wrote in late June about Atletico’s interest in Alonso and Alonso’s continuance with the club in these post-transfer window days tells us everything we need to know about the Blues’ action on Atletico’s pursuit. Perhaps the real scoop was the explanation for retaining Alonso: the club were under a transfer ban and only had one other left back in the squad.
Stop. The. Presses.
The day after this journalisming, Cesar Azpilicueta joined Willian in the little-too-late-or-way-too-early transfer rumour mill. Since the rumour merchants are the same proclaiming Azpilicueta’s career is on death row pending Reece James’ return to fitness, rumours of a return to La Liga are an easy sell.
Part of the fan interest in each of these non-stories is down to how Cesar Azpilicueta has assumed Marcos Alonso’s role as club scapegoat. Something about Spanish fullbacks makes Chelsea fans (correction: “fans”) pin all the blame on them for things that happen across the pitch. Since Alonso has not played enough this season to resume his place as the source of all things that have ever gone wrong ever, Azpilicueta fills the void.
But even if James does knock Azpilicueta out of the best XI and Emerson consigns Alonso to late substitutions and domestic cup duty, that in no way means Chelsea should sell either of them.
If the Blues were to sell Cesar Azpilicueta or Marcos Alonso, they would be only one deep at each full-back position. That is exactly where the club were when they bought Emerson, Davide Zappacosta and Alonso himself.
For the last few seasons Chelsea have lacked basic numerical depth in certain key positions. Reece James’ return – regardless of what it means for Cesar Azpilicueta – will mean the Blues finally have at least one backup option at each position without having to creatively repurpose a player (e.g., Ross Barkley or Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a false- or actual nine). The Blues may not be able to replace the quality and unique characteristics of certain players (e.g., N’Golo Kante) one-for-one, but they can at least slot in another player and adapt their tactics to cover as best they can for his absence.
The wave of youth players entering the club now and topping off their development on loan are pushing the conversation towards an unfamiliar pole: all youth, all the time. Chatter about transfer targets for next summer, always a moronic topic in September, seem to have set the age ceiling at 25.
The influx of youth does not reduce the need for experience, leadership and depth on the bench. No matter how many precocious 23-year olds the club can promote from within or poach from without, Frank Lampard will still need players in their late 20s and early 30s. If he already has those players in the squad, there is no reason to sell them simply to turn to the transfer market for others.
As we have discussed before, the new approach to youth will require a new approach to the transfer market. Chelsea’s homegrown players will not all be potential superstars like Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James or Mason Mount. Nor do they need to be.
The club will still need to hit the transfer market to buy the world-class players necessary for Premier League titles and deep runs – and ultimately a win – in the Champions League. The most economical and practical use for Cobham-trained players are to fill in those gaps. They can be placeholders and depth until they either make the role their own or are sold.
Come next summer, the most important thing Billy Gilmour can do is prevent Chelsea from buying another Danny Drinkwater so they can focus their time and money on finding the next N’Golo Kante.
Chelsea need Cesar Azpilicueta as much as they need Reece James, regardless of which is starting in January. Likewise, they cannot afford to lose Marcos Alonso when the only other left-back is Emerson, and any other left-back who comes in will have to be more than just not Alonso.
The club are changing their approach to player development and acquisition, but that does not change the fundamental needs of the team. Chelsea are doing things differently, but not originally, and certainly not in some brave new world where every man is a wheel reinventing trailblazer. What makes a good team this season and the next is the same as last season and the one before that, and Chelsea already have many players productively playing their parts, which includes fighting for their place.
Like so much else in football these days, there’s nothing new – only those things you never bothered yourself to learn before.