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 Mario Pašalić.
– 27 appearances, 5 goals for Milan
What does he do well?
Pašalić is a highly-intriguing prospect simply because, by the age of 22, he’s already played for Monaco and AC Milan as well as spending a full season in the Spanish top flight at Elche. That’s a career resumé that few other Chelsea prospects can match up to and, yet, the Croatian is rarely spoken of in the same breath as those of whom much is expected.
Perhaps it’s because there’s little razzmatazz in his game, little obvious reason for excitement. A goalscoring midfielder of some note at Hajduk Split, he’s grown into a dependable if slightly functional central midfielder in his travails since, but that sort of player will always find gainful employment as his career path to date demonstrates.
Two-footed and level-headed, he’s a prototypical number eight who keeps things ticking over in the middle of the park, and likes to get forward and score from the dirty and scrappy positions close in where all good goalscorers do their best work. He won’t show up in any of the more notable Serie A statistics as he played for a remarkably passive and defensive Milan side where his fellow midfielders were effectively clones, leaving no room for balance or defined responsibility, yet he could be plugged in to a Premier League side and give you 7/10 every week without fail.
Where does he have room for improvement?
If he’s to really stand a chance at Chelsea, however, he’ll need to find something he does really well and then go about delivering upon it. It’s alright to be a jack of all trades and a master of none up to a point, but players who go on to excel at the top level tend to have at least one stand-out trait in their game that makes the difference when the pressure is really on, and he’s yet to find that missing ‘X’ factor.
Early in his career it looked as if his goalscoring versatility was to be his defining hallmark. He netted with both feet, with his head, from near and from far, and reached double figures in his final campaign at Hajduk before departing. In the 90 matches he’s played since he’s scored just 15 times, and they’ve almost all been reactionary, bundled efforts from set pieces, which isn’t a bad trait to have admittedly. It’s just not something you can base a career around unless you’re really prolific at doing it.
How does he fit into this Chelsea team?
He has the tactical responsibility to join the central midfield rotation – playing in Italy will have helped his cause massively in that regard and Conte will at the very least be aware of him – and has the stamina to survive in the Premier League, but it would be as no more than a Chalobah-esque insurance option right now. He’s not dynamic enough to operate in the front three (and putting him there would negate his willingness to arrive late from deeper positions), and instead he would best project as a similar sort of player to a former Leicester team-mate of N’golo Kante.
The Frenchman combined well with Danny Drinkwater at the King Power Stadium, doing the hard running that allowed the former Manchester United youngster to drive forward, distribute effectively, and join in the attack at every opportunity. It earned him a Premier League title and an England cap; If Pašalić can aspire to reach the same heights it wouldn’t be a bad outcome at all.
(stats via Squawka)
Normalising statistics for differences in playing styles across leagues would help Pašalić’s cause a little in those comparisons, but he’s in the same ballpark as Drinkwater’s numbers from Leicester’s remarkable 2015-16 campaign; numbers he couldn’t repeat a year later, instead trailing the Croatian in four of the six areas listed. Nemanja Matic has been added to the equation to show the sort of competition Pašalić is up against and, although there’s work to be done, he’s at least in the conversation.
What are his prospects for 2017-18?
With what we know about Conte, Pašalić would appear to stand a decent chance of surprising everyone, and sticking around at the Bridge for the coming year. He’s steadily climbed the ladder, has top-four league experience in Italy, and plays a responsible and mature game. You could have said much the same about Marcos Alonso a year ago and look how that turned out for everyone.
The problem he faces though, is that his lack of a defining feature means he’s quite some way down the pecking order in a crowded midfield that will only become even more congested come the end of the transfer window, and so he will once again be forced to look elsewhere you imagine.
Milan seemed intent on re-signing him in some form, until their new Chinese money saw a radical overhaul of the first team squad in a matter of weeks, and he’ll likely be playing in different colours in 2017-18. Croatian players are highly-sought after in Italy for several reasons and Lazio, who tried to sign him when Chelsea first made their move, could be a landing spot to keep an eye on.