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 Tammy Abraham.
– 48 appearances, 26 goals for Bristol City
What does he do well?
Quite simply, Tammy Abraham guarantees you goals. Coming out of academy football last summer as one of Chelsea’s most prolific marksmen in recent memory, there was a keen interest in his services from across the football league, but a leap straight into the Championship at Bristol City was a stern test of those goalscoring credentials. Just one teenager in the previous ten years had scored ten or more goals in England’s second tier, and here was Abraham – not even 19 until October – charged with providing the firepower to steer the Robins away from a likely relegation battle.
Lee Johnson’s side did ultimately struggle, but were it not for Abraham’s remarkable 26-goal haul in all competitions, they would almost certainly have been doomed. Having netted on his debut against Wigan only to later have the strike taken away from him by the dubious goals panel, he simply went on an unprecedented tear of form. In surpassing 20 goals he achieved what no teenager had done at the equivalent standard in more than thirty years, and he did so in supreme poaching fashion.
Every single one of his goals were scored from inside the penalty area, with the significant majority having come from right in front of the target, no more than six yards out. His ‘feel’ for where the ball is going to end up belies his relative inexperience and he makes up for what he might lack in the build-up by sniffing out opportunities other players simply don’t. His shot accuracy rate of 45% fell just behind the league average of 50% for players attempting 100+ shots, but the quality of his shots was superior, ranking amongst the league leaders in Expected Goals per shot. Put simply, the positions he found himself in made him more likely than his rivals to produce the goods.
His size and physique immediately catch the eye, but will also often see him mistakenly typecast as an old-school target man centre-forward, when really his game is not suited to that. He made remarkable strides in his hold-up play during his last season in development football at Chelsea, and continued to do so at Bristol City, but really he’s a smaller striker in a big man’s body. He prefers to play off the shoulder of the last defender, beating his man for pace and anticipation, and will put the finishing touches to a move rather than be the focal point for it.
His willingness to run sets the tempo for the rest of the side in terms of pressing (regardless of the style of press you want to adopt, he’s capable), and City fans were effusive in their praise of his mentality and leadership in a struggling side with several more experienced players in it. He possesses an infectious character and is prepared to take the rest of the team on his shoulders and lead from the front.
Where does he have room for improvement?
His pure scoring antics are both a positive and a negative; for as much as the simple maths of football reflect that goals are the sport’s most important commodity, players have to increasingly offer more and more to the team if they are to thrive at the game’s highest levels. Abraham has plenty left to work on outside of the penalty area, beginning with his physical play.
For a lad measuring 6’4”, and with the broad shoulders and frame to go with it, he was disappointingly ineffective in his aerial duels last season. He won just 36% of his headed battles against Championship centre-backs – although he was amongst the most fouled players in the league – and it was notable that City would play their long balls into other players just as often as they would him, or simply pump direct balls into the channels for him to open his legs and gallop after them with that long, loping stride.
Yet as much of a criticism as that might be, it’s hardly a surprising development as he was one of just three teenagers to play more than half of the available minutes in the league last season. The upper reaches of the English game are rarely a place for a teenager to feature frequently, and the more he plays against seasoned pros, the more he’ll figure out not only how to win, but what works best for him.
His detractors will also point to a goalscoring conversion rate of just about one in three as evidence that he requires plenty of chances to score, whilst it’s an inescapable fact that unless those chances are landing in prime territory in front of the net, he might struggle to be quite as prolific.
How does he fit into this Chelsea team?
It stands to reason that if Abraham is to become a part of Conte’s first-team squad at Chelsea at any point that it will be as a prototypical number nine, regardless of formation. Diego Costa was a talismanic presence in the 2016-17 title-winning team and, whether he remains at the club or not, he has to be our point of reference for any potential suitors in taking the mantle as the Blues’ go-to guy in attack.
The comparisons are interesting; statistically, Abraham matches up quite well, but the eye test – the intangibles, immeasurable, whatever you want to call them – will favour Costa. His ability to ‘create something out of nothing’ and take the pressure off the rest of the team as a workhorse able to occupy multiple defenders whilst keeping possession is often lauded, but rarely backed up by raw data.
Whilst we have to accept that it’s very hard to compare numbers across different levels of competition, Abraham measures up favourably in a number of areas per 90 minutes. He scored more, won more aerial duels and total duels, and created just about as many chances as Costa whilst performing a similar role at City, only really lagging behind in the frequency with which he was fouled, and a slightly inferior shot accuracy percentage. Extrapolating that no further than a promising start for a player aiming to ultimately replace his more experienced contemporary, we can then ask ourselves whether Abraham fits Conte’s playing style.
As has been well-noted by Tim Palmer, one of the frequently identifiable traits of Chelsea’s approach this past season were the passes from the defensive unit into Costa to allow them to transition from back to front quickly and efficiently, with the rest of the team then tasked with collecting the ball from their focal point up front. If, as we can only expect at this stage, the fundamentals of that remain for the foreseeable future – however the team lines up – then Abraham has the tools in his arsenal to be able to handle that role, assuming he gets stronger and handles tighter marking more assiduously than he currently does.
His loan to Bristol City was regularly praised for Chelsea having identified them as a club playing with a similar style and ethos to the Blues and, whilst their fortunes eventually differed dramatically, he was nevertheless tasked with performing many of the same roles and responsibilities that Costa was, right down to how and where his chances and goals came from. With more experience and playing time, it certainly appears that there is room for Abraham within the structure of Conte’s Chelsea.
What are his prospects for 2017-18?
A Premier League loan looks a certainty at this stage, with newly-promoted Brighton and Newcastle battling it out to secure his signature. Newcastle are believed to be favourites as Michael Emenalo is a fan of former Interim Manager Rafael Benitez, now in charge on Tyneside, but the most important thing is regular playing time in a system that not only closely resembles Chelsea’s, but one that stretches and challenges Abraham to become a more rounded and dominant footballer.
Either of those teams would work in that regard. Newcastle play with a little more possession and will create more chances, but Brighton are stronger tactically and defensively and would task Abraham with being the same sort of player Costa is for Chelsea. He would also figure to play a little more often at the Amex Stadium as Benitez is prone to rotating more often whilst keeping a deeper pool of strikers than Chris Hughton does.
Chelsea haven’t had the best recent record of pushing their best and brightest prospects into Premier League loans, with forwards taking a particular bashing, as Patrick Bamford found out the hard way. Abraham goes into the 2017-18 season with as burgeoning a reputation as Nathaniel Chalobah did after a year at Watford in 2012-13, and the club must make better decisions than they did with the talented midfielder at the same juncture in his career. It took him four years to properly recover and play Premier League football as he should have in the time immediately after his stay at Vicarage Road; how they handle Abraham will be a litmus test of whether or not they’ve learned any lessons in that time.