“The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”
Silly season is upon us and, by that, I mean the time of year when people grow sillier in the face of developments that really are quite obvious in what they mean. Chelsea are the Champions of Europe and they will therefore be shopping accordingly this summer; defending the trophy and launching a title challenge to wrestle the Premier League back after what would be a six-year absence next May demands a certain level of quality, and it sure helps when you’re one of the few clubs in the world with the means to spend after sixteen months of pandemic-affected football.
Ostensibly, there is no problem in targeting Erling Haaland, Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi, Declan Rice, or any other high-calibre player that would quite clearly strengthen Thomas Tuchel’s first-team squad. That’s how it should be, and getting lost in debates about whether signing Hakimi would cause problems for Valentino Livramento rather miss the point, but they’re not altogether inappropriate.
Livramento does need to go on loan. He might need to go on two loans depending on where he starts and how quickly his development accelerates, and that isn’t something anyone’s disputing, but the club’s actions in maintaining a pathway opened by Frank Lampard will speak loudest of all. How will Billy Gilmour and Tino Anjorin be given the chance to take the next step after breaking into the senior squad? How will they handle Conor Gallagher and Ethan Ampadu after Premier League loans this season? What will they do with Marc Guehi, the best defender outside the top flight for much of the last eighteen months? What next for Armando Broja, the top-scoring teenager in Europe’s top ten leagues last season?
Every one of those players has a different path to take but, if you’re lauding the same loan system that allowed Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori to ‘make it’ at Chelsea, you’d do well to remember that only Abraham had played any Premier League football before Lampard gave them a chance and that, by the same measure, there’s little reason not to give Guehi the same chance to earn a place in the team this pre-season.
Of course, it wasn’t the loan system alone that allowed that quartet to mature into the Champions League winners they are today; if it were, Nathaniel Chalobah, Patrick Bamford, Bertrand Traore, Nathan Aké, Lewis Baker, Jeremie Boga and whoever else would’ve made it too. Chalobah had every bit as good of a season in England’s second tier as a 17 year-old in 2013 as a 19 year-old Mount did six years later – they were both beaten playoff finalists at Wembley – but Mount had a strong ally in the Chelsea dugout when it came to transitioning back into a blue shirt, while Chalobah was greeted by the return of Jose Mourinho when it came to the following pre-season. It’s a fallacy; post hoc, ergo propter hoc. A happened then B happened, therefore A caused B.
Fine, you might say, what has Chalobah gone on to achieve since, and have Chelsea missed him? An England international with a Premier League winners’ medal from his time playing for Antonio Conte, he’s done alright for himself considering a long-term knee injury struck him down at the worst possible time in his career but, yet again, it’s the wrong question. Ask yourself where Mount might be now if he’d been sent on loan again after Derby, rather than being given the chance to play at Stamford Bridge. Those sliding doors moments make or break careers, even with the best will in the world, and it’s to their credit that Aké, Boga, Traore and Bamford have forged impressive careers for themselves at the top level since, while Chalobah will return to the PL as Watford’s captain in August still only 26 years old and with plenty still to come.
Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah are championed as the ones that got away from a Chelsea team that refused to nurture their potential while chasing trophies and, make no mistake, the club regrets what happened, no matter how much silverware they might have won since. They’ll likely end up regretting losing Tomori and likely Abraham, and if Gilmour, Anjorin, Guehi et al are marginalised by unnecessary signings, they might regret that too one day, and it’s those upcoming decisions that will inform what someone like Livramento does when it comes to contract renewal talks. You’ll still lose one or two along the way regardless, like Tariq Lamptey, because that’s how football works and it’s hard to turn down a great opportunity when juxtaposed with a fair amount of uncertainty, but it’s important to establish a clear vision for your academy to be able to regularly integrate into the team.
Yes, sign quality in the positions you need it most, and set the bar high, but don’t keep lifting the bar out of reach when the next crop are close to being able to grab it. Were it not for Lampard – who could have stuck with Luiz, Zappacosta, Pedro and Batshuayi instead – Chelsea might not have won ol’ big ears a fortnight ago, and might not have the resources to go out and get the best this summer because the squad would need improving in more positions than it does.
The promise of jam tomorrow must eventually be delivered not just today, but consistently.