Nathaniel Chalobah has shown again he is ready for regular elite football, and if Chelsea cannot give it to him he will go somewhere who will. At 22 years old, with one year left on his Chelsea deal, he is at a crossroads in his career, and a permanent departure remains the likeliest option this summer.
Chalobah has spent this month proving at the European Under-21 Championship in Poland what many have known for five years now: that he is one of the most gifted young English players of his generation. In his final appearances for England’s U21s, Chalobah was an authoritative presence in midfield. Had he been fully fit for the semi-final against Germany, and able to stay on the field, England might even have hung onto their lead.
In Poland Chalobah played four games in 11 days, far more regular football than he has been used to over the last few years. Last season at Chelsea, he made 15 appearances in total, 10 of which came from the bench. It was his best ever season at Chelsea after six consecutive loans but it was not enough for a 22-year-old now determined to be playing senior football every week.
Chalobah will be back at Cobham this week to have his groin injury assessed and to discuss whether he has any future as a Chelsea player. He has just one year left on the contract that he signed in the summer of 2013 and while Chelsea would like to tie him to a new deal, Chalobah will be very reluctant to sign anything without assurances that he will play more than he did last year.
Antonio Conte does like Chalobah and last summer he turned down loan bids from Leicester City, Sevilla and Napoli so that he could keep the youngster as part of his squad. This season Chelsea are back in the Champions League, will have more games to play and, in theory, should be able to offer Chalobah more first-team opportunities.
But Chelsea are also about to replace Nemanja Matic with Tiemoue Bakayoko, of a similar age and profile to Chalobah. Chelsea would not spend £35m on Bakayoko if he was not going to be first choice in midfield, alongside N’Golo Kante. Then there is Cesc Fabregas, too, who improved as last season went on and has his own important role to play.
If Chalobah does not feel that he will play more, then he is very unlikely to sign a new deal. And if he does not he will surely be sold. There would be little point in Chelsea loaning him out for the final year of his contract. Plenty of Premier League teams would like a player of Chalobah’s profile, who has proved himself on loan, in the Championship and abroad, as well as at all levels of international football. It would not be a surprise to see him flourish away from Stamford Bridge.
Ultimately the ball is in Chelsea’s court. If they cannot persuade Chalobah that he has a pathway to the first-team there then they will lose him.