Noun: A set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.
When discussing youth and reserve team football and player development, everything comes back to this single word. Opportunity. It might arise through merit, or it may be through fate, but without it, a player cannot prove himself worthy.
Opportunity is, at times unfortunately, at the behest of circumstance. Rarely in the upper echelons of the game is there room for a manager to blood some of his next generation whilst simultaneously chasing trophies and/or attempting to hold onto his job. It requires a patient club with a vision which goes beyond the now and into the tomorrow.
Development is far from an exact science, but even to the most experienced and well-trained eye it can be hard to gauge the level at which someone is operating whilst playing with and against inferior talent. He may not even stand out in that particular group, but begin to blossom when he gets the call. The recent case of Barcelona’s Isaac Cuenca is an oustanding example of this very phenomenon.
As is patently clear and has been for some time, all of the above is relevant to Chelsea Football Club and then some. There is undeniably good work being done by many in the academy, but you can still count those who have made the grade on one hand.
In a week where a former Blue in Scott Sinclair scored against his previous employers (despite playing rather poorly overall), it once again raises the question as to whether he was cast aside too early without having been given a chance to prove himself.
Maybe, just maybe, these boys can play a bit.
Last summer, Frank Arnesen departed Cobham after a controversial five years and headed to Hamburg, where he was swiftly followed by five of his proteges. Jeffrey Bruma only made the journey on loan, but Gokhan Tore, Slobodan Rajkovic, Michael Mancienne and Jacopo Sala left permanently and for a combined fee of little more than £2m.
At Hertha Berlin last Saturday, Italian Under-21 international Sala made his first start in senior football and ensured that all five have now started a Bundesliga match this season. The quintet combined for just two career league starts in England.
Tore leads all players in Europe in successful dribble attempts per match and has been a near ever-present in Germany, whilst emerging as a regular Turkish international to boot. Rajkovic may have struggled for a work permit in England but he and Mancienne have seen plenty of playing time in and around their injuries, whilst Sala is to be entrusted with a start against Bayern Munich this coming weekend.
Questions may be raised about the quality of the Bundesliga compared to the Premier League but they’re largely besides the point. In any event, it’s a top tier European league where the likes of Edin Dzeko, Demba Ba and Per Mertesacker played last season and many of the oustanding German national team continue to ply their trade. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough period.
Fabio Borini was another who failed to make a single league start for Chelsea but is now being picked on merit by Luis Enrique for AS Roma ahead of expensive signings such as Bojan Krkic. He has four goals in Serie A this season and was in the starting eleven against both Inter and Milan, the former at the San Siro.
The story goes on with the likes of Miroslav Stoch (scoring at a rate of one in three for Fenerbahce and approaching 30 international caps) and Sergio Tejera (a solid squad rotation option at Real Mallorca), and even outside of the top flight in some cases.
After a starring role against Newcastle in their FA Cup victory live on ESPN, Liam Bridcutt was described by The Daily Telegraph as “surely the finest holding midfielder in the football league”. Amongst those who would rival him for such a crown is Jack Cork, currently having an exceptional season for promotion-chasing Southampton.
Both are accomplished in the sort of football Andre Villas-Boas wishes his team to play regardless of the level at which they’re currently playing. Indeed, Bridcutt was the subject of interest from Norwich and Swansea in the transfer window which has just closed.
Again though, neither played a single minute in Chelsea blue despite being at the club since their primary school days until their early twenties. Instead, Oriol Romeu has been the preferred choice, but he spent his entire pre-Chelsea career playing outside of the top flight as well, simply arriving with more professional experience.
It doesn’t matter so much if these players are good enough to start for Chelsea right now. What matters is that having been given the chance to play regularly, they’re proving themselves capable footballers for good clubs at good standards of football. That much at least would render them rotation options at the very least back at Stamford Bridge.
Villas-Boas has been tasked with overhauling an ageing squad short on unpredictability and dynamism. It’s no easy task, and one which is immediately greeted with a flurry of high-profile, expensive names from overseas.
Indulge this author in a pipe dream for a moment though, and consider the likes of Ryan Bertrand, Nathaniel Chalobah, Milan Lalkovic, Todd Kane and others becoming a part of that overhaul.
Does Raul Meireles offer much that Bridcutt or Cork couldn’t? Would Todd Kane be any more inconsistent than the vastly more experienced Jose Bosingwa? Would Fabio Borini offer the instinctiveness in front of goal than £50m of Fernando Torres currently lacks so badly?
These are all questions we can prognosticate over until we’re blue in the face, but will never have an answer for until opportunities are granted.
Maybe, just maybe, these boys can play a bit?