The name that not so long ago used to fill the Chelsea faithful with unadulterated joy, today makes them anxious when they contemplate on what the future holds for the young Englishman. Joshua McEachran, the 19-year old midfielder, has been at the club since he was eight years old. He’d progressed though the youth ranks at Chelsea with confidence and aplomb that belied his tender age. After playing a defining role in the FA Youth Cup win for Chelsea and under-17 European Championships for England in 2010, he was poised for greater things.
Chelsea had released quite a few veterans in order to cut wages and see the progression of youth into the first team. Josh McEachran was one of the five earmarked for a promotion to Carlo Ancelotti’s squad. Ever since people in the Chelsea setup had began to take notice in the progress of a definitive boy who played for the under-12s, Josh had predominantly played as an attacking midfielder. However, when Carlo decided to use him, it was as a deep-lying playmaker, or the regista.
The reason for this change in position was understandable. Chelsea, in the second season under Carlo, weren’t deploying a formation that required a central attacking midfielder. The 4-3-3 system is set up to operate with a solitary holding midfielder, or a player in the mold of Andrea Pirlo, behind two midfielders operating ahead of him. Moreover, Carlo knew that he’d be able to bring his primary strength to the forefront by playing him deeper.
The 17-year old McEachran was blessed with an enviable passing range, with immaculate composure on the ball and a vision to foresee the bigger picture on the football pitch. He knew where to be, he knew what to do, and he certainly knew how to do it. With one flick of his beautiful left foot, he could unlock the tightest of defenses in the youth setup.
In the 2010-11 season, he made four starts and was brought on 13 times from the bench; he featured in four different competitions in a deep-lying midfield role. By sitting deeper, just in front of the defense, he was able to see more options in front of him, with five team-mates in front of him. Furthermore, his retreated position ensured that at most only two opposition players were close to him, those being the second striker in a 4-4-1-1 formation or the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system, thereby giving him more freedom to dictate the tempo of the game.
He was the darling of Stamford Bridge, with fans cheering on his every touch. Things looked perfect; fans hoped that after another season of playing from the bench, he’d become a starter for Chelsea. A new star has been born, they said. However, in life as in football, a downturn is just around the corner, when people least expect it. Carlo Ancelotti was harshly shown the door, after Chelsea failed to beat Manchester United to the Premier League trophy, while also going down to them in the Champions League. Chelsea’s plan to let go of veterans and replace them with youth failed and it was more because of the lack of depth in the first team which led to a trophy-less season than anything else.
Andre Villas-Boas came; he was given a directive to forcefully bring about a revolution in the way the team played. How that story turned out is a matter for another day, but such was the situation the young Portuguese was in that playing an 18-year old youngster would’ve rarely crossed his mind, once the season began. This was after McEachran had impressed in the pre-season in Asia. Under Andre, Joshua started three Carling Cup matches and was substituted in each of them, in addition to two brief cameo appearances late on in the Premier League.
By then, despite the less than adequate playing time, the weakness in McEachran’s game was clear. In addition to his frail built, he was poor defensively and his defensive positional sense wasn’t anything to write home about either. Just as comfortable he was in possession, equally lost he appeared to be when the opposition had the ball.
His energy and zeal to perform saw him rob players off the ball occasionally, but mostly he failed to track the player he was supposed to mark and the fact that tackling wasn’t one of his strengths, didn’t help matters either. A deep-lying playmaker shouldn’t necessarily be a good tackler, but it’s expected of him to be positionally aware to intercept passes. Such defensive understanding of the game was what McEachran lacked.
At a tender age of 18, a player is still developing howsoever highly rated he may be, so such flaws in Josh’s game were nothing to be too worried about. With the right guidance and decent playing time, they’d have been ironed out of his game. This is when Chelsea decided to ship him to Swansea for the second half of the season, to play under former academy coach Brendon Rodgers. However, the move turned out to be a disaster.
McEachran couldn’t break into a midfield comprising of Leon Britton, Joe Allen and Gylfi Sigurdsson and after two starts and three substitute appearances, the young midfielder returned to Chelsea. In the 200-odd minutes that he was on the pitch for the Swans, he was decent but didn’t do anything substantial to displace one of the starters from the first team. In the absence of one of the starters, when Rodgers could play the Chelsea player, he chose not to.
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Now, when Chelsea decide what to do with him for the upcoming season, the Swansea loan deal should scare them. Another futile loan-spell can break the player, stymie his development and prove to be a tragedy for Chelsea. So the decision this summer can play a defining role in the future of Josh McEachran. The men in change at Chelsea can do their due diligence in finding the right club for him, and that they’d undoubtedly do. However, the eventual decision to play him will still rest with the club he goes to – and, at this stage leaving his fate in someone else’s hand can backfire. So, Chelsea should keep the young Englishman at Stamford Bridge; at least till the January transfer window. Here’s why.
At this stage, Chelsea have gone on to sign top-quality young talent in Juan Mata and Eden Hazard to play the role of central attacking midfielder, for the foreseeable future. Ergo, it can be believed that the club thinks McEachran will eventually settle into the deeper central midfield role that Carlo had envisioned for him a couple of years back. With Roberto di Matteo at the helm, it’s safe to assume that we’d see a double-pivot being deployed quite frequently next season. Out of the available options, none of Mikel, Ramires, Essien, Meireles or Romeu can offer Chelsea creativity from deep midfield; they’d take the other available position, that of either box-to-box or defensive midfielder.
Only available options for the Italian manager are Frank Lampard, who seamlessly settled into the role last season and Oscar, the 20-year old Brazilian supposedly on his way to West London. Lampard, at 34, isn’t expected to start as frequently as he has been accustomed to over the past decade. Moreover, Chelsea has to compete in as many as 7 competitions next season, so there would be plenty of opportunities to start one of Oscar or McEachran in lesser games, as they continue their development, while letting Lampard focus on the important games.
By keeping McEachran at Chelsea, the club would certainly be taking a risk similar to the case of Romelu Lukaku last season, but sending the Englishman on loan is also no lesser risk. At least at Chelsea, the player would be under the guidance of the club’s very own coaching staff, who’d have a definite incentive in ensuring his development, in ironing out the defensive flaws from his game. This is something another club wouldn’t be too worried about.
Training with technically superior players at Cobham will only help him. And, only when the coaches at Chelsea feel that Josh has defensively improved and is ready to force his way into any particular club in a competitive league, should they allow him to leave, be it in January or next summer, if at all. Moreover, with the advent of the under-21 league, whenever di Matteo decides not to use him, he can still continue to play competitive games.
Yes, the level of football in the junior league would be no match to say, playing first team football with another team in the Premier League. But this may perhaps be the best way Chelsea can ensure that he gets the attention he deserves, he requires, and still play some football, if not for the first team, then for the under-21 league. Food for thought, maybe?