Breaking into a starting lineup for any professional sports team is undoubtedly a very daunting task, but it’s safe to say doing so for a mega-club like Chelsea these days is an even more difficult endeavour.
With grizzled club legends like Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard; and talents like Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and David Luiz on the Blues roster, even sniffing a spot in the starting XI is simply a dream for most of these youngsters. Trying to stay up with the first team is another thing altogether.
For new Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, it’s simply matter of now trying to use all the tools in his loaded royal blue toolbox properly, but do any of these kids really have a chance of working their way into an eventual starting spot like Cesar Azpilicueta effectively did last season at right-back?
I really think so.
Mourinho is the type of manager who could care less about what others do, what is written about in the press and what has happened in the past, and this should serve some of the younger Blues players quite well knowing “The Special One” should give them their fair chance to prove their mettle at Stamford Bridge.
Here’s a look at three players who could honestly actually end up in the Europa League champions' starting XI this season with the specific reasons why.
Finding a decent central defensive midfielder was a priority for Chelsea over this summer transfer period and the Blues seem to really have done just that with the acquisition of 20-year-old Dutchman Marco van Ginkel, who was signed to a five-year, £8 million deal from Vitesse Arnhem in Dutch Eredivisie.
Van Ginkel, who joined the Vitesse Academy at the oh-so tender age of seven in 1999, is a wonderful pickup for the Blues, as the versatile 6’1” talent can be deployed at either the holding, box-to-box or advanced positions in the midfield. With the glut of talent on the attack, though, expect him to be more of a defender this season.
With Luiz, John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, Ramires and Lampard all now on the roster, whether or not Van Ginkel actually ends up staying in West London this season is still uncertain, but the way he has looked in Chelsea’s first two games in Asia, chances are Mourinho will want him on board.
There has been much speculation about the Blues going after 29-year-old AS Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi, but, with Van Ginkel already in the fold, Oriol Romeu now out on loan with Valencia and Sky Sports claiming that Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney is now the Blues' only target, it looks like the club is set in the midfield.
So can we all stop the stories and talk of a possible De Rossi signing? The guy is phenomenal, but with Luiz to possibly be moved up to the holding spot from center-back for good, with Mikel, Essien, Lampard, Ramires and Van Ginkel, it’s safe to say Chelsea is now more than deep enough at the position and that one of these guys will most likely be headed elsewhere in the near future, quite possibly Mikel.
In his story in the Daily Mirror, Sheridan Bird described Van Ginkel as “a mouth-watering hybrid of Frank Lampard and vintage Michael Essien,” and, if that ends up being a fitting description of the Dutchman, he is definitely the archetypal Mourinho player.
Van Ginkel made 111 appearances for Vitesse from 2001 to 2013 scoring 23 goals and was named the Dutch Talent of the Year for the best Under-21 player in Holland last season after scoring 11 goals for FC Hollywood on the Rhine.
With so much midfield talent already on the roster on the attack in Mata, Hazard, Oscar, Victor Moses, Kevin De Bruyne and the newly acquired Andre Schurrle, expect Van Ginkel to primarily be used in the central midfield. However, with his speed, passing skills and ability in the air, don’t be surprised if Mourinho experiments with him some in the advanced midfield.
But expect Van Ginkel—who hardly looks old enough to even have his driver’s license—if he stays up with the big club, to be used in the central midfield where he can slowly blossom as an offensive threat and also do a lot of the often unappreciated dirty work on the pitch as Mikel has quietly done.
But where he ultimately ends up in Chelsea’s starting XI is still a question. Should Mikel leave Stamford Bridge and Luiz end up being better off, or needed, back at his right center-back spot, Van Ginkel could be the main man with Essien used as a backup.
If Ramires ends up being deployed more on the attack and the 35-year-old Lampard is used primarily as a substitute, Van Ginkel may indeed be the guy to fill Lampard’s box-to-box role.
Someday Blues fans may look back at Van Ginkel’s signing as one of the wisest and thriftiest moves the club made in years, and as good as he is, he could very well surprise us all and be starting somewhat regularly before we know it.
Mourinho quickly displayed his genius at Chelsea in his first month by refusing to part with the 22-year-old Kevin De Bruyne as part of a potential deal to get Schurrle from Bayer Leverkusen.
The young Belgian, who came to the Blues from Racing Genk, was out on loan at Werder Bremen in Germany’s Bundesliga last season where he scored 10 goals for Die Grun-Weissen; he now looks to be a big part of the Blues this season as well as far off into the future.
De Bruyne is an attacking midfielder with deft passing abilities, and although he’s definitely not yet at the Mata-Hazard level of brilliance, he is certainly as good, if not better than Oscar, Moses and Schurrle as an all-round player and talent in my book.
Dubbed "A kid, but a man on the pitch” by Mourinho, De Bruyne scored a real beauty of a goal in Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Malaysia XI in Kuala Lumpur in its preseason Asian tour on Sunday but injured his right knee and ankle landing after the shot.
There has been no word yet on the severity of the injury, but De Bruyne was very upbeat about it on Twitter and expect him to be one of the Blues' breakout stars this season.
Knee and ankle feeling ok for the moment. Always stay positive. Waiting for tomorrow. Then we will know more. Thanks for all the messages! 👍— Kevin De Bruyne (@DeBruyneKev) July 21, 2013
Like van Ginkel,the baby-faced De Bruyne also looks like he could be one of the kids still trick-or-treating at your house on Halloween, but the first time he scores a beauty or completes a perfect-touch pass for an assist on a goal against Manchester United or Manchester City, fans across the English Premier League will know that this youngster is the real deal.
By year’s end he could very well have earned his spot in Chelsea and Mourinho’s usual starting XI and very well make Oscar, Moses or Schurrle expendable. He’s that good.
With talk of Chelsea needing to sign a new striker dating all the way back to the Paleozoic Era, and stories of Wayne Rooney possibly coming to Stamford Bridge now more frequent than wildebeest in a river crossing, Mourinho might want to do himself a huge favor and notice that he already has three quality ones on his roster right now.
Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku all have many questions routinely asked about them, but the three combined for 40 goals in England’s top flight last season—with Torres’ total an anemic eight—and with a midfield that could very well combine for 60 and a defense that could add another 10, offense should not be a problem with this club.
But who should get the starting nod at the lone striker if Chelsea sticks with its familiar 4-2-3-1 tactical formation?
Lukaku. Hands down, brother.
Many cite his youth as a hurdle, but the massive (6'3", 235-pound) Belgian of Congolese descent proved he can hang with the big boys last year while on loan at West Bromwich Albion, and Lukaku has scored in each of the Blues' two games so far on their current Asian tour.
For Lukaku, having Mourinho as the club’s new manager is a true blessing as The Special One is very progressive and already decided that letting Lukaku go out on loan again would be about as wise as fishing bare-handed in the piranha-infested waters of the Amazon River.
And the 50-year-old Portuguese boss really likes what he has seen so far from Lukaku as he said in the Daily Mail.
He played the role with the right movement. We don’t want the striker just aiming between the central defenders, but making movements, sometimes between the midfield or moving wide.
They’re learning to play the way I want. Every manager has his own ideas. Lukaku had a fantastic manager last season in Steve Clarke but Steve is Steve, I am me, and West Brom is not Chelsea.
Many are quick to compare Lukaku—who at just 16 years old at Anderlecht in 2009-10 led the Belgian Pro League in scoring with 15 goals—to Blues legend Didier Drogba, but that trite and tired parroting is simply unfair to both Drogba and Lukaku, though quite flattering to the latter.
“We have to respect Didier because he is unique in Chelsea’s history, and we have to respect Lukaku,” Mourinho said in the Daily Telegraph. “The best way to do that is not compare him to a legend in Chelsea’s history. Leave Didier where he is, at the top of Chelsea’s history, and leave Lukaku to work hard. The kid is good.”
Whether or not Lukaku becomes the Blues No. 1 guy up top remains to be seen and although many can already see Rooney in a Chelsea kit and are foaming at their celery-stuffed mouths about his possible arrival, Lukaku is much bigger, much stronger and would be less likely to have the ego problems Rooney has displayed at Old Trafford.
If there is a "next big thing" in this bountiful crop of youth at Stamford Bridge and a player to lead Chelsea to a Premier League title and a nice run in the Champions League, it is Lukaku, who should fittingly be nicknamed “The Wildebeest.”
By Christmas, the above paragraph will make so much more sense; the much-maligned Torres has already had his chance as a starter, and Ba is much better suited to a reserve role with the club.
So the time is now, and the man’s name is Romelu. And Chelsea should really quit looking to big-name players like Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Hulk or Edinson Cavani to draw a massive paycheck at striker and then eventually let everyone involved down.
The team already has what it needs.
Letting a player’s contract, reputation and/or experience be the determining factor in whether he starts isn't necessarily the best prescription to ultimately fielding the best starting XI on a club, and for Chelsea, having Mourinho to toss the egos and numbers aside will be such a blessing. You perform, you’ll get your minutes.
In reality, it’s hard to peg players as “starters” with such a changing and deep roster, and with international play and a large number of games, it’s good to be able to give guys a rest and be able to plug quality players like Gary Cahill, Moses, Ramires or Ryan Bertrand into your starting lineup.
The Blues' league opener is now less than four weeks away (vs. Hull City on Aug. 17 at Stamford Bridge) and although some things are still going to transpire in the summer market, the roster as we see it now will pretty much be the one that Chelsea either lives or dies with.
With many familiar names no longer with the club after being released or sold, and guys like Mark Schwarzer, Van Ginkel, Schurrle, Lukaku and De Bruyne now joining the party, the Blues' first-team roster will definitely be much stronger than it has been over the past two years.
And with Mourinho calling the shots and providing a sense of permanence, things are now truly looking up in West London.
Follow me on Twitter: @KevinStott11
Chelsea concludes its preseason Asian tour on Thursday against the BNI All-Stars in Jakarta, Indonesia (Chelsea TV, 2:30 p.m. BST/9:30 a.m. ET/6:30 a.m. PT).