There could only be so many false dawns; eventually, someone had to make the leap. The 2017-18 season is a game-changer for Chelsea, not only because of their re-entry to the Champions League, but because of the shift in philosophy finally evident at the club.
The unwanted, lengthy stretch of time in which no Chelsea academy graduate has established himself in the senior team is well known, yet it bears repeating often. Used solely as a criticism and an indicator of how the Blues squander teenage talent all too frequently, it had become imperative the club find a solution and turn this most wicked and dastardly of corners.
And they have; this term the tide is undoubtedly changing. Unlike Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte has been far more willing to turn to youth when the fixtures pile up, and the return of European football has brought the opportunities they so badly needed.
It started with the decision to keep and play Andreas Christensen, utilising him in a five-man rotation at centre-back. He's stepped into the void several times already and has impressed, with his calmness on the ball and superb distribution big factors in his strong performances.
Against Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup third round, Christensen was joined by Charly Musonda, a fellow member of that incredible 2015 UEFA Youth League-winning squad. It was the Belgian's first start for the senior team, and he marked it with a sparkling performance and a goal before half-time. He's an effervescent and fun character, but the sheer joy on his face after firing home could have brought a smile to even the most battle-hardened fan.
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What a way to mark your full Chelsea debut...🔥 https://t.co/ReNgWQAlny2017-9-21 16:09:49
Everyone inside Stamford Bridge that night witnessed his quality, and the fact he scored ensured his performance was elevated, taken in by a wider audience. That Chelsea celebrated it with a custom video is evidence of their feeling toward what felt like a watershed moment for both player and club.
Starting in a nominal right-wing role in Conte's classic 3-4-3, he completed an all-Belgian front three, playing opposite Eden Hazard and off Michy Batshuayi. Within 30 seconds of the first whistle, he'd already drifted infield looking for the ball, and that served as a marker for what was to come: He dropped in off the front line constantly, helped dictate play from deeper areas and jinked past markers with ease.
This sort of thing is easy for Musonda; his game is incredibly well-rounded for one so young. For spells at youth level he played as a No. 8—in fact, he dictated an entire FA Youth Cup final against Manchester City in 2015 from this position alongside Charlie Colkett.
He's comfortable in deeper, central areas; when he drops to collect, he can turn and shrug off pressure and glide forward with ease. As he does this, you're reminded of some very good players indeed.
Still seemingly just as skinny as he was two years ago, his slight frame hasn't held him back. The agility and quickness he boasts are the keys to him slinking around challenges and creating space for himself, so to bulk up might be dangerous. In those tight spaces he's downright electric, almost impossible to stop, and at times he draws comparisons to the compatriot he played opposite against Forest. That's high, high praise!
What has boosted Musonda's stock immeasurably with Conte is his work rate; he's always put the effort in, never shirked tracking responsibilities and has risen to every challenge set. If he loses the ball, he'll sprint 20 yards and tackle; if he gets caught out of alignment, he'll tear back to fill his space. During pre-season, he collapsed after a series of intense drills—and don't for one second think Conte didn't absolutely love that.
That the Belgian has been kept at Chelsea this season indicates Conte foresees a role for him, and it's a sentiment echoed by the fans. Willian is not the most popular player with the fans right now, and there are some who hope Musonda steps from fourth to third in the attacking midfield/wing pecking order at the club.
Even if he's bottom of the pile, behind Hazard, Willian and Pedro, it puts Musonda in the same bracket as Christensen. The sheer number of fixtures Chelsea will end up playing across 2017-18 will ensure opportunities, and that gives him the chance to make his own mark. What follows could be anything: a regular role, a Champions League bow...a wild-card World Cup call-up for Belgium? (Adnan Januzaj went in 2014!)
At the least, it underlines the change of thinking at Chelsea, led by Conte. He's been careful, only promoting the special talents and picking the positions the Blues can afford to be inexperienced in (so, not striker), and it seems as though he's struck the perfect balance.
John Terry's record as the last player to successfully bridge youth and senior sides is, finally, on its last legs.