With the 2013-14 season now pretty much over, it’s time to take a look back over a record-breaking campaign on the loan front. Today, we look at the Chelsea’s prospects in The Netherlands.
|Cristian Cuevas||Vitesse/FC Eindhoven||15||1||0|
|Stipe Perica||NAC Breda||26||6||1|
|Patrick van Aanholt||Vitesse||34||5||3|
It was a season of what could have been in Arnhem. Top of the Eredivisie at Christmas, Vitesse contrived to win just four of their final sixteen matches and slid all the way down the table to the extent that they were forced into a series of playoffs to even take part in the Europa League. A humiliation at the hands of Groningen duly ensured they didn’t even get past the first hurdle and signalled an even bigger inquest than was already underway.
Things had been so promising at the outset of the season. New manager Peter Bosz arrived from Heracles with an impressive reputation for getting his team to outperform their typical standing and of developing previously unremarkable talent like Marko Vejinovic into very capable Eredivisie players; the Serbian amongst his first signings at the Gelredome.
Full-back Kelvin Leerdam joined having agreed a deal in the previous January – a subject that would later become a bone of contention as allegations of undue Chelsea influence over the club emerged from the camp of deposed club owner Merab Jordania – but otherwise the cash-strapped Gelderlanders were once again in need of assistance from London in strengthening their squad. They were allowed to retain the services of Patrick van Aanholt and Gael Kakuta after the left-footed duo impressed in previous stays, but Tomas Kalas departed after two excellent years on loan.
Brazilian forward Lucas Piazon was sent to the Netherlands to garner more professional experience whilst Ghanaian winger Christian Atsu was immediately stationed there after being signed from FC Porto. Sam Hutchinson and Cristian Cuevas made it six assignments to the geel en zwart but neither would ultimately impact upon the team with Hutchinson there to partake in an extended rehabilitation programme and Cuevas to integrate himself into Europe after leaving Chile as a fresh-faced eighteen year-old.
Early-season Europa League hiccups prevented them from even reaching the group stages but once their full squad was assembled, Vitesse began to soar. Piazon notched his first goals in a comfortable home win over Zwolle and would go on to be considered the league’s standout player of the period until the winter break. Eleven goals and nearly as many assists rivalled the production of previous elite Eredivisie products and he was integral to wins away to Ajax and PSV, the latter a 6-2 drubbing that saw him and Van Aanholt run riot.
Van Aanholt himself went from strength to strength in those months, rampaging his way through teams from left back and weighing in with a few goals whilst finally making his full international debut in the same week as he became a father for the first time. Both he and Piazon scored away to Bosz’s former club in the final game of the first half of the season to secure a 2-2 draw that earned the Arnhem outfit a share of the ‘winter champions’ title.
From there, the story turns sour. Kakuta, Cuevas and Hutchinson found new homes in January – moves that barely affected the squad in actuality – and they even picked up a new loanee in the highly-rated Burkinabe Bertrand Traore as well as two new signings of their own, but the warning signs were there as they resumed with a scrappy win at Zwolle that featured a 90th-minute Van Aanholt goal as well as Atsu’s first from open play (having already scored a penalty).
They struggled to match the intensity of their opponents that night; a theme that would persist for the next four months. Three more victories against RKC Waalwijk, Roda and NAC Breda all came on consecutive match days at the end of February and they even held Ajax and Feyenoord to draws, but no wins in their final nine games would be their ultimate downfall.
Atsu was the outstanding player of the Arnhem spring, proving himself adept in a number of attacking roles and providing end product with both goals and assists. Traore too stood out at times with three goals and a maturity in playing as a centre-forward, but Piazon’s form fell off a cliff (no goals, no assists in 2014) and Van Aanholt lost his starting place to Rochdi Achenteh for the best part of a month.
It can be argued that they peaked far beyond realistic expectations early on and their standard was never attainable over 34 games, but considering they found themselves neck and neck with Ajax despite playing just eight of their first eighteen games at home, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect them to forge a strong title challenge.
Cynics may be inclined to agree with Jordania’s outrageous and unfounded claims of intrusion from ‘London’; that Vitesse were told they would not be allowed to qualify for UEFA competition as issues over ownership could develop, but even the most superficial investigation into the club’s structure would reveal that a rather pathetic argument. Instead, their collapse can be deconstructed in a relatively logical manner.
Piazon lost a few of his compatriots during the winter break with Jonathan Reis, Alex and Anderson all leaving the playing squad and physio Eduardo Santos jetting off to Russia, and suddenly finding himself alone it’s not unreasonable to believe his form was affected for the worse. Van Aanholt’s game still lacks something defensively and in a struggling team (and with an out-of-sorts Piazon ahead of him on the pitch) his flaws are more easily exposed, and whilst Atsu and Traore had more plusses than minuses, they couldn’t compensate for the inconsistencies elsewhere, especially at the back.
Piazon wasn’t even retained for the European playoff against Groningen, instead being allowed to leave ahead of Brazil’s participation in the Toulon Tournament, and they were given a hiding by the Green and White Army, crashing 5-1 on aggregate to leave them with no continental football next season.
Over in Breda, giant Croatian forward Perica joined NAC after being signed from NK Zadar in August, eschewing a path to Vitesse because of the favourable language connection with manager Nebosja Gudelj and his assistant Marino Pusic. Utilised as a super-sub for almost every match, he proved effective enough to provide half a dozen goals, many of which earned important points.
Cuevas dropped down into the second tier after escaping Arnhem and tried to help FC Eindhoven in their bid for promotion. He was a regular feature at left-back and scored his first goal in senior European football but had a tough learning curve at times and both his and Eindhoven’s season ended in playoff despair.
Most of the Vitesse crew have already offered some insight into their plans for next season. Atsu would be happy to return to the scene despite also holding interest in undertaking a tougher challenge elsewhere, having expressed concern about fitting into a new club with a different style of football to that which suits him. The argument against a second year in Arnhem is that he’s pretty much done what he can there and runs the risk of standing still by not testing himself.
Piazon’s post-Christmas blues indicate he still requires some seasoning before he can begin contemplating cracking the first team squad in London and has to put together a complete season in 14-15. Arnhem would’ve been fine for him but his goodbyes following a premature departure in the final week of action suggest he’ll be playing elsewhere, perhaps in Italy or Spain. An English move would be well-received were it to guarantee him regular football.
Van Aanholt will join Mourinho’s group for pre-season – although his exact involvement will depend on whether he goes to Brazil with the Netherlands having been named in their preliminary World Cup squad – in a bid to ‘save’ his Chelsea career. He turns 24 in August and although he qualifies as home-grown would need to be registered in the Premier League squad. Anything short of that and he’ll likely seek pastures new on a permanent basis.
Traore is therefore the most likely of the quartet to spend another season in black and yellow. He came along well in his five months there and earned the trust of Bosz the longer things went on. His versatility and performances at centre forward help his chances no end and as he still lacks a UK work permit, a familiar loan home is better than a risk taken elsewhere.
Perica’s name has been linked with a second year in Breda, where he would hopefully become a regular starter, but with Chelsea brass believed to be quite enamoured with his potential, don’t rule his name out of a jaunt over to Vitesse.
Cuevas may follow in the footsteps of Ulises Dávila with a year in Europe under his belt and his South American roots lend themselves well to a spell with a Spanish team.
The futures of Kakuta and Hutchinson will be covered in more detail in the Italian and English reviews as they finished up there but neither can really hold out much hope for a long-term future back in SW6.