We'll be taking a closer look at Chelsea's top prospects leading up to the new year, and Nathaniel Chalobah has certainly raised his stock with a tremendous first spell on loan
All this week we've been looking at Chelsea's top prospects, and today we'll be looking at a midfielder who turned 18 earlier this month. The No. 4 prospect on our list also happens to have finished at #4 in the WAGNH community rankings, he is:
Like our #5 prospect Josh McEachran, Chalobah has been at the club for quite a few years. He debuted for the U18 side at the age of 15, and made his first senior bench in September of 2010 while still a few months shy of his 16th birthday. He's been a regular in the U18 and reserve sides in each of the last two years, playing both center back and the midfield.
Chalobah went out on his first loan spell in August, heading to Championship side Watford. It was an aggressive first assignment for the 17-year old with no senior caps, and Chelsea wisely made it a 6-month loan as opposed to the season long variety.
Watford are a team that are loaded with talent, featuring quite possibly the deepest roster in the Championship. They are actually talking about cutting down the roster in January, something that you rarely hear from clubs at that level. With that in mind, most thought that Chalobah was certainly looking at a fight for minutes as he arrived at the Championship side. As it turned out, Chalobah didn't end up struggling to break into Gianfranco Zola's first team at all. He's now made 16 starts for the club and a single substitute appearance, logging almost 1400 minutes for Watford thus far in his debut season, and scoring a pair of goals.
Coming through the youth ranks, Chalobah has always been a composed player that didn't take unnecessary risks. This was largely due to learning the game playing in the center of the defense for both club and country, as well as being large and athletic enough to win any matchups without taking chances. He began to push into the midfield several seasons ago, due to the presence of so many talented prospects at centerback also needing time on the pitch. That was obviously something that Zola and Watford had noted, as he has been deployed in a central midfield role there from his first training session with the club.
That composure I mentioned has been evident all season, as Chalobah typically makes sound decisions both with the ball and without. His athleticism has also been showing, as he's mobile enough to get forward into the attack whenever the opportunity presents itself. Even having just turned 18, he's probably the most reliable midfielder in the Championship when the opposition has the ball. He's nearly always in the correct position, and he does a great job of directing traffic in the midfield to help cover for those still working their way back.
His attacking has been getting far more noticeable as this season has progressed as well. While he still hasn't become Frank Lampard in the frequency that he's making runs forward, he's becoming increasingly easier to spot in the attack as the season wears on. That may be due to comfort or specific instructions from Zola, but either way, it's extremely encouraging. Where he was a primarily a holding midfielder when he first made the move up the pitch, he's become a true box to box player this year.
Something else that has been increasingly notable in the youngster's game is his usefulness in the air. Marking Chalobah on set pieces is becoming an increasingly high priority for opposing defenses, which is nice to see given the fact that he's far from developed physically at this point. Having a midfielder that's useful in both attacking and defending set pieces is something that clubs can always benefit from.
The question of what to do with Chalobah in January is an interesting one. He still seems to be improving at Watford, and he's getting plenty of minutes there to aid in his development. In that sense, extending his loan would seem to be a no-brainer. He's been among the best midfielders in the Championship this fall, so if Chelsea really wanted to be aggressive, they could look for a Premier League club to take him on loan (or even consider a recall).
Personally, I'd be quite pleased if Chelsea were a bit aggressive with him this spring. Everything I've seen from the youngster this fall really makes me believe that he's ready for regular minutes in the Premier League. There will no doubt be PL clubs looking to strengthen on a budget come January 1st, and I'd hate to see past failures with Josh McEachran, Gael Kakuta, and Patrick van Aanholt prevent the club from pushing Chalobah. Where that trio were gifted with the ball but lacked defensive polish, Chalobah is capable enough defensively that the things keeping those three on the bench should not even warrant consideration.
I'd still be a bit surprised if the club made that sort of move without assurances of playing time. Nathaniel is easily the best product that the academy has produced in a very long time, and I'd have to think they will be extremely careful with his development to assure that there are no hiccups. There's little reason to believe he can't top this list in a year if he's not already established in our first team. If he's not already playing with Chelsea at that point, he'll almost certainly be with a Premier League side.