As part of our review of the 2016-17 Chelsea Loan Report season, we’re focusing on ten of the 44 players who embarked upon temporary moves away from Stamford Bridge. The ten players have been selected as being amongst the most interesting of the group; be it for their proximity to the first-team squad under Antonio Conte, for the league they’re playing in, the progress they’ve made at a tender age, or simply because their situation warrants closer inspection, we’ll take a look at the year just gone, review the footage in depth, and take a moment to ponder what the future holds.
Today’s focus is on Charly Musonda.
– 8 appearances, 0 goals for Real Betis
What does he do well?
At his best, Charly is a mesmerising attacking force in the mould of Eden Hazard; his balance and skill whilst dribbling at high speed is elite and he’s capable of taking a defence apart almost single-handedly. You can line him up wide – which Betis did frequently – or more centrally, and he’s just as comfortable, and he also saw time in Chelsea’s development ranks as a central midfielder to develop his game further. He is the club’s most technically proficient young prospect now and perhaps ever.
Across his two spells on the green side of Seville he racked up some eye-catching attacking numbers which were, again, very comparable to Hazard’s statistical output in areas like chance creation and dribble success rates. He did that in a side struggling at the wrong end of La Liga, with a young and highly inconsistent team, and operating under three different managers in the space of twelve months. It’s an inescapable fact that Betis were a better team with him than without him; they only won five matches after his departure in mid-December and two of those came against teams eventually finishing in the bottom four.
He plays with an innate confidence and belief in what he can do, rarely shying away from his inclination to take on opponents, and always looks to make something happen in attack. The way he handled himself playing away to Barcelona in the Nou Camp was a particular highlight; he felt at home on that stage and was keen to make an impression. He doesn’t hide, he works hard on the defensive side of the game, and wants to be the player the rest of his team relies upon. This is all very important for a player who has very little left to learn technically and will determine quite how far he goes in his career.
Where does he have room for improvement?
Why did such a naturally gifted player struggle to find regular playing time at a struggling Spanish top flight club then? The easy answer is to deflect the blame onto manager Gustavo Poyet, who took a pragmatic approach to keeping Betis up before losing his job, and was keen to field as many experienced players as possible. Dani Ceballos, an equally precocious teenage technician, also struggled to get onto the pitch under the Uruguayan, only thriving later in the season under new manager Víctor Sánchez (who was then dismissed anyway).
That isn’t to say that Musonda can’t be frustrating though. He’s definitely guilty of holding onto possession for far too long on occasion, and wants to do everything himself, resulting in frequently handing the ball back to the opposition. It’s something that should improve with time and experience, but when there are points at stake, it’s a source of exasperation to supporters and managers alike.
He’s also been questioned for his slight build and complete lack of physical presence. Although he measures up pretty similarly to Hazard overall as they’re both 173cm tall and only a handful of kilograms different in weight, he doesn’t play with anywhere near the same robustness about him, instead seeking to rely solely on guile and evasiveness. He makes up for some of that with a commitment to the cause and at least attempting to make a nuisance of himself but, with aspirations of playing in the Premier League, he needs to get stronger. This is a fact not lost on Antonio Conte, who mentioned it back in January after the decision was made to keep him at Cobham for the second half of the campaign.
How does he fit into this Chelsea team?
Without the physical profile to operate as a central midfielder in England, Musonda will only be considered as an attacking option at this stage, as one of the two flanking forwards in the 3-4-3 formation or anywhere in behind the striker in other setups. He has the quality of technique to handle himself in receiving possession on the ground with passes from deeper positions in the same manner as Hazard does, he’s sharp enough to make the same movements as Pedro, and nimble enough to contest and collect second balls feeding off the lone centre-forward.
His closeness to Hazard – both figuratively on the pitch and literally off it (their families live close to each other and are good friends) – makes for an interesting proposition a few years down the line. Hazard has never entirely dismissed the suggestion of playing for Real Madrid, and has three years left on his contract, by which time he’ll be 30. Chelsea aren’t particularly renowned for their forward-planning but it would behoove them to have Musonda shadow him for the next two years, bring him along patiently, and eventually have him take over. He can be that good.
What are his prospects for 2017-18?
After returning from Betis five months early, Charly stayed at Chelsea instead of going back out on loan, training with Conte’s first team group and playing for the Development Squad until a knee injury ended his campaign in March. That exposure to the Italian’s methods and drills will have served him well and support the suggestion that he’ll be kept around in a similar capacity again next season. The very nature of Conte’s demands on the players means that repetition and the understanding of the basic principles are required before regular involvement can be possible, and Musonda therefore has a head-start on his young rivals.
That being said, if he stays, he absolutely has to feature in 15-20 meaningful matches for it to be a worthwhile venture. He turns 21 in October and can’t afford to have another season ‘learning in training’ without actually playing, not least because his contract expires in 2019 and it would leave him in a very tricky situation twelve months from now. Chelsea refuse to loan out players approaching the final year of their contracts without an extension being penned, and if they keep Charly sidelined for most of 2017-18, he won’t exactly be inclined to agree a longer stay.
If a loan is to materialise, he’ll have plenty of options, but there are pitfalls with all of them. A return to Spain would see him run the risk of encountering the same problems he did at Betis, and a Premier League move might be hard to come by with the league averaging less than one PL-to-PL deal for each team last season. Italian clubs will typically only agree to temporary deals if they have an option to buy at the end of it, and so it might be that he has to step into a so-called second-tier league in France, Portugal, Belgium or the Netherlands – or the English Championship – to get his minutes.
If he does that, he’ll still need to spend another year proving himself at a bigger club for Chelsea to sit up and take notice, so that might be a waste of time in itself anyway. In an ideal world he’ll get his chance to shine in blue this season, but nothing is ever quite that easy at Stamford Bridge.