‘We don’t need Hakimi, we have Livramento!”
If you know, you know. And, even if you don’t, you probably still know. Where there are potential new first-team signings, there are talented prospects with pathways to consider, and this summer has been no different as Chelsea’s pursuit of Inter wing-back Achraf Hakimi has cast doubt on the immediate route into Thomas Tuchel’s squad for Valentino Livramento, the current Chelsea Academy Player of the Year.
Earning that honour in itself is prestigious and potentially indicative of great things to come. His predecessors since the award was inaugurated in 2015 are Dominic Solanke, Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, Reece James, Conor Gallagher and Billy Gilmour. Five of the six are senior internationals, all have played Premier League football (five for Chelsea), and three of them got their hands on the European Cup last month (while Tomori played his part in the group stages). The odds are distinctly in Livramento’s favour of experiencing a similarly-upward trajectory in the years to come.
Whether or not he needs a loan or two before then isn’t directly what we’re here for today though, nor is it the space to prognosticate about pathways and whether Chelsea might have another Tariq Lamptey situation on their hands. It’s about the footballer the Blues have on their hands; what is he, what does he do well and not so well, and how does he fit into a Tuchel-era Chelsea that currently features wing-backs but might not in the months and years(?) to come.
It’s easy to pigeonhole players in certain positions and to generalise about their playing style. ‘Oh, he’s a wing-back, he’s obviously really athletic, gets up and down well, has quality in the final third but there are questions about his defending’. You know the drill but, at the same time, cliches become cliches for a reason – there’s an ounce of truth in there that was at some point eroded away into a blander analysis.
You could level that very description at Livramento and leave it there, as it certainly paints a picture of his game, albeit with remarkably broad strokes that don’t do nearly as much justice as we’re attempting to do here. He is a superb athlete, not just in straight-line speed and acceleration, but his capacity to perform high-intensity runs in the closing stages of matches, as was the case against Derby County earlier this season.
An early developer, he outgrew several of his contemporaries at Under-13 and Under-14 level and was subsequently pushed into higher age groups to expose him to more challenging environments and now, turning 19 this coming November, he’s a robust 185cm-ish (measurements from summer 2020) and north of 80kg and able to handle himself against grown men. He doesn’t just use that speed to travel with the ball either. Afforded the freedom to stay high and wide and to attack space from deep in equal measure, a common theme of Chelsea’s Under-18 and Development Squad matches over the last two years has been the angled pass from Lewis Bate in central midfield out to the right wing for the Livramento express:
Now it’s on him to deliver quality in attack, and he rarely lets the team down. Reece James’ crossing is often defined by the pace and curl into threatening areas in the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ between goalkeeper and defender, but Livramento’s is often more considered; lower, perfectly weighted for an onrushing team-mate or a forward dropping off into a pocket of space to take first time and get a shot at goal away with. It goes right back to how in control of his body he is at top speeds in space; he sets himself up perfectly to produce the right option at the right time in the right way.
In 46 appearances over the last two seasons, he has 21 goal contributions (4 goals and 17 assists, including penalties won (3, plus another that was missed not counted in these numbers)), but in the 2020-21 campaign alone he accounted for 16 of those (3+13) in 25 appearances, proving increasingly more productive as he stepped up the age groups and gained more experience, a statistical trend which is not exactly common in academy football, where most players suffer a drop in production after they graduate Under-18 football.
So we’re clear he’s an outstanding transitional threat, but how is he in possession? Well, he ticks a lot of boxes there too. Regular watchers will be familiar with his marauding explorations into central areas from the right wing; head up, scanning for line-breaking options, but also happy to hand over to a team-mate before scampering off into central space to provide another attacking outlet.
Because he has a broad and upright frame, he’s not exactly easy to stop when he decides to do this as well, almost becoming an auxiliary central midfielder with the technical ability to work in there too. Oh, and he can play off the left side too if you want.
Can he defend? Sure. Everything we’ve talked about already from a physical perspective gives him a chance to match up well one against one, to make strong recovery runs from advanced positions, and to hold his own in aerial duels (though they’re somewhat uncommon in academy football). At some younger age groups he was tasked with playing as a right-sided centre-back in a three, similar to the way in which Reece James has been deployed, and can do a job there too.
Intertwined with the ability to defend is the ability to play under pressure. The modern full-back slash wing-back is a routine out ball from defence to transition into midfield, so they need to have a good first touch under pressure, quick decision-making, and adopt the right body position to defend themselves against the press and be ready to react to the next phase of play, whether continuing to build the attack or to regroup and defend.
This is where the EFL Trophy fixtures are particularly instructive; senior teams are more adept at organising a press and are far more likely to punish a player for their mistakes. Against Bristol Rovers last season, coached by Ben Garner and former Chelsea Under-16 coach Jack Mesure, Livramento was encouraging in this regard, but not without mistakes, as everyone makes from time to time.
All of this is to say he’s a very promising prospect, one who could quite conceivably prove to be an asset to Chelsea’s first team right now in some situations, in just the same way as Lamptey, Gilmour, Anjorin and Callum Hudson-Odoi have been without needing to go on loan before making an impact. Nobody actually thinks he’s the finished product yet, but that doesn’t mean he and other academy youngsters can’t provide immediate help. On the flip side, a loan helps to develop his all-round game while mitigating risk to a Tuchel team that intends to challenge for titles, and theoretically brings him back in a season or two in a much stronger position to stake a claim for the first team.
Assuming the pathway exists, that is. His contract expires next summer, with clubs limited to offering a maximum of three years on their first professional deal. The power rightly lies with the player at this early stage of their career because, if they reach 19 or 20 without a clear plan for how they’re to progress at the club, it’s their right to seek their fortune elsewhere. Livramento’s talent is undeniable, and Chelsea will outline their vision for what his future looks like at Stamford Bridge. The rest, as ever, is anyone’s guess.