Tunnel vision can bring much needed clarity. The merits of a silver lining in every cloud can be hard to sell when the opportunity cost is a bath of golden sunshine, but Chelsea’s recent transfer ban is a misfortune that must be embraced.
One might even argue that it is a good thing.
The Blues have largely pursued a policy based upon buying established players close to their prime for use in the first team, while investing in youth purely for farming. The ‘Loan Army’, a slightly humorous but ultimately pejorative term, has sprung up as an encapsulation of the sheer number of players owned by Chelsea that are out on loan at various clubs across Europe.
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Eredivisie side Vitesse Arnhem has been a major beneficiary through the years, but there are players scattered all across Europe, accumulating minutes and transfer value before striking it big and being moved on for a tidy profit.
A number of these are, unsurprisingly, young African footballers whose aspirations of playing for the club that in years bygone featured such greats as Didier Drogba, Celestine Babyaro, John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien have been in grave peril. Until now.
With a ban on new player registrations, Chelsea will be forced to look to their considerable loan contingent to supplement the squad ahead of Maurizio Sarri’s second season in charge. It also means that sanctioning outgoings will be a lot more difficult.
However, this might not be the best news for all of the London club’s African contingent. For the likes of Tammy Abraham, it offers a route to the first team, especially considering recent reports that the Blues will not be taking up the option to sign Gonzalo Higuain permanently after a disappointing loan spell.
That would leave Olivier Giroud as the only established centre-forward at the club, and this is precisely where Abraham, whose 25 league goals have powered Aston Villa to the promotion play-off final, can finally stake a claim to lead the line.
Ola Aina is another who could establish himself within the first team as a result. On loan at Torino, the Nigeria international has impressed hugely in Walter Mazzari’s system, earning plaudits in Italy, and may well have been snapped up permanently by the Granata but for the transfer ban.
Aina’s 20 starts have been split almost evenly between left and right wing-back, and his versatility could be the key to addressing Chelsea’s weakness at full-back. Cesar Azpilicueta has been one of the club’s most solid performers over the last four years, but has begun to show signs of slowing down. A move into central defence may be in the offing as a result, and the inability of Davide Zappacosta to earn Sarri’s trust could see Aina become first-choice on the right.
However, where Aina and Abraham can take solace in the current state of affairs, the same cannot be said for Kenneth Omeruo.
The 25-year-old, for so long shunted around Europe to varying degrees of involvement, has finally found his place in Spain with Leganes. Playing at the heart of a tight back three, the Nigeria international has been almost ever-present, averaging 5.8 clearances per game (sixth best in La Liga) for Mauricio Pellegrino’s side. Outside the top five, no team has a stingier defence.
For Omeruo, the prospect of a Chelsea return would be decidedly unpalatable.
For one thing, his style does not fit in perfectly with Sarri: he lacks the assurance in possession required to plug into the Italian’s grid. He is unlikely to displace either of David Luiz or Antonio Rudiger, and both Andreas Christensen and Azpilicueta would also be ahead of him in the pecking order.
Similarly ill-fitting within Sarri’s conception of Chelsea is Victor Moses.
The winger was let go for precisely that reason, and has not exactly set the world alight since joining Fenerbahce on loan, manifesting the same lack of consistency that makes him so difficult to accommodate in a top team.
A return to Chelsea – likely, as Eden Hazard seems almost certain to leave and Calum Hudson Odoi is out injured for the long term – would see him behind American winger Christian Pulisic, as well as Willian and Pedro, both of whom saw him depart.
The Loan Army’s sheer weight of numbers means that Chelsea will probably be fine in the medium to long term, but in the short term, their inability to secure incomings would certainly affect outgoings, leading to mixed results for their African stars.