Following the career of a young prospect is an interesting proposition; one that can often be formulaic, predictable, and full of hyperbole.
It doesn’t take much for a kid to explode onto the scene with a dazzling display of exuberance – perhaps on a big stage like the FA Youth Cup – and find himself the subject of a great deal of hype and consternation in the hours and days thereafter. Since he’s good, he’ll continue to catch the eye, especially if his club is successful on the pitch too, and as he makes his way through the age groups, the calls for him to get a first team opportunity become louder and more pronounced.
Those opportunities don’t tend to come when the supporters want them to though, and in England, the chances of them materialising are even scarcer. The player might find it hard to understand, and a combination of a series of loans combined with (or in some cases not) some stagnation in their progress leads to attentions being turned towards the next 16 year-old prodigy.
To some degree, Islam Feruz fits this particular bill. Now halfway towards his nineteenth birthday, the Scottish hot-shot netted at a rate better than one in two in his first two seasons at Chelsea following his move from Celtic, and was front and centre as the Blues first won the Youth Cup before last season finishing runners-up in both that and the NextGen Series.
He joined Jose Mourinho’s first team group on their pre-season tour of Asia and made a couple of appearances alongside many more illustrious names. Everything appeared set for another eye-catching year and, with the three strikers retained by the Portuguese for the campaign failing to convince many early in the picture, minds may have wandered towards the notion of Feruz being involved here and there.
That didn’t happen, and the longer the season has gone on, a curious concern regarding his progress has emanated from various quarters amongst those who invest time in watching the younger generations at Stamford Bridge. It’s been suggested that he’s not quite hitting the same highs; that his goalscoring return hasn’t been as impressive (it’s dropped below one in two) and that the likes of Isaiah Brown, a summer arrival from West Bromwich Albion roughly eighteen months Feruz’s junior, have moved ahead of him in the pecking order.
Yet a closer study of his performances since August reveal an altogether different picture. A strong case can be made for the idea that he’s playing as well as he ever has for the club, working harder for the team and rounding his game towards the level required to become a contributor at the very top level. His lack of involvement in the Youth Cup (younger players like Dominic Solanke have been given their own moments in the spotlight) and the relative lack of coverage of the UEFA Youth League thus far haven’t afforded him the same stage on which to show what he’s now doing, but between now and May that should change, and Feruz’s stock should be back on the rise.
His nine goals so far this season are indeed as few as he’s managed at the same stage in either of his first two seasons, but having fully graduated to Under-21 level, he no longer gets to play against younger, often inferior opponents, where almost half of his goals up to the end of 2012-13 came. He’s now going up against bigger, stronger, more capable defences – which at various times this season has included club first teamers Wes Brown, Modibo Diakité, Paul Dummett and George Elokobi – and has had to adapt accordingly.
The quality of his finishing has never been in doubt and it’s been backed up by sumptuous efforts against Southampton, Steaua Bucharest and Wolves, but perhaps more impressive is the way in which he’s taken to refining his play off the ball and the work he puts in for the team.
His work rate on the pitch was rarely in doubt, but he’s taken things to another level this season by becoming more intelligent with how he moves around, how he closes down, how he links the play with the midfield and how he makes life hard for defenders. Part of the development process at Chelsea is studying video footage of senior players both within the club and elsewhere and looking at ways they can learn from the masters, and it stands to reason that with Samuel Eto’o around, Feruz is learning from one of the very best.
It’s not something which is immediately evident when watching him or recalling some of his matches, but a few craftily thrown-together clips helps fill the void to a degree:
They may not amount to your typical sparkling highlights video, but it helps to demonstrate the sort of work he’s been putting in on and off the ball to bring his game closer to the level required to continue moving on up.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed earlier, with manager Dermot Drummy weighing in after some of his better days:
“Islam Feruz is worth a mention as well. He has worked tirelessly and even though he’s gone through a period of not scoring goals he does a lot of work for the team off the ball and midfield players have scored a lot of goals thanks to his link-up play.”
“’Islam Feruz playing against Wes Brown is great for him and we performed admirably. [He] worked industriously to earn his goal.”
A new contract is reportedly on the way, and that in itself is also in recognition of a concerted effort to become a professional. He’s had his share of unfortunate headlines and negative press, and of course people are wary of them resurfacing, but it’s to his great credit that they are currently in his rear view mirror and becoming a distant memory.
As we reach the business end of a season which has flown by, expect Feruz to keep on keeping on and finish strong. The stage is certainly set for him to not only remind everybody of what he does well, but also show them what he can also bring to the party not just now, but for years to come.