Ashley Cole’s performances in a Chelsea shirt this season—or lack of in the past few weeks—have been a topic grabbing the England defender plenty of column inches of late.
Such has been his recent form, Chelsea’s left-back has been forced to watch on from the sidelines, suffering the ignominy of losing his first-team place to Cesar Azpilicueta—a right-back.
Is it an ongoing rib injury that continues to impact his form? Or has age caught up with him? Only time will tell on both fronts, although the 32-year-old’s recent spell on the bench has served as a stark reminder that Chelsea need to find his replacement pretty quick.
It’s been seven years since Cole made the move across the capital, joining Chelsea from rivals Arsenal. Since then, he has won the Premier League, FA Cups and the one trophy that eluded him in North London—the Champions League.
He has been a pillar of Chelsea’s success in that time, a fact that has allowed the club to grow somewhat complacent in their hunt for a talented left-sided defender.
Indeed, Cole’s been that good; the Blues haven’t needed anyone else. But now they do. And looking around Europe, there aren’t many players on the market who will be able to fill the significant void Chelsea will have when the curtain eventually falls on his career.
It’s why Luke Shaw must be top of Chelsea’s shopping list in January. If not then, the summer.
Southampton’s Englishman is simply too talented for Chelsea to allow him to slip through their grasp. He boasts the ability to be their starting left-back for the next decade, and regardless of how eager the Blues are to reinforce other positions in their squad, Shaw must be a priority.
There aren’t many 17-year-olds who arrive in the Premier League and play like seasoned professionals. Shaw did just that last season, however, and this year he has continued his progress on the south coast.
Southampton awarded Shaw’s efforts with a new five-year contract in the summer, but those clubs with the means to stump a considerable transfer fee for his services will see it for what it is—an insurance policy to ensure the Saints are rewarded just as much as the player.
Shaw is putting in the kind of performances now that mean Chelsea’s rivals are going to be tracking him, producing scouting reports and arranging the necessary financial packages for when they want to make their move.
Chelsea need to make sure they are at the front of what appears to be a long queue.
January is an ideal time, too. Ashley Cole is not finished as a player—far from it. But he cannot continue to play every game for Chelsea and compete at the highest level like we have seen in the past.
With Shaw among their number, the next generation left-back will be learning from one of the best is the game, and if Chelsea manage his situation well enough—giving him enough game time at the right moments—he will be ready to take over from Cole on a permanent basis when his time at the top comes to an end.
Neil Fissler of Express reported at the weekend Chelsea are preparing a £30 million bid for Shaw. At 18, he certainly doesn’t warrant that fee just yet, but if the rumors are true, Blues fans should be relishing the prospect of him arriving in West London.
Garry Hayes is Bleacher Report's lead Chelsea correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @garryhayes