Matic a reminder of failings at Chelsea’s football factory
Midfielder can have a big impact on final against club that may pay a price for letting him go
The scale on which Ajax produce young footballers makes the location of their academy, on the edge of an industrial estate in the south east of Amsterdam, feel just a little less incongruous.
Still, it’s almost as nothing compared to the way in which Chelsea trade in them and so the Londoners too should feel a little at home in one of the Dutch city’s main commercial quarters as they head into this evening’s Europa League final against Benfica.
There is more than a touch of irony, though, in the fact the English club, having bought two of their opponents’ best players in recent seasons, Ramires and David Luiz, must be wary tonight of one they willingly packed off in the opposite direction.
Nemanja Matic is a contender for player of the year in the Portuguese league and is reportedly a target for Manchester United who face the prospect of having to pay upwards of €30 million for the 24- year-old.
Scarcely two years ago he was valued at just €5 million when he was sold as a makeweight in the deal that brought Luiz to Stamford Bridge. He only played for Chelsea twice, coming on in a 4-0 win over Wolves and the 8-0 demolition of Wigan on the final day of the 2009/10 season when Chelsea clinched the title.
Over the summer that followed he was farmed out to Vitesse Arnhem never to return. Unwanted by one set of employers, life took a while to improve under the next but his presence in Lisbon helped soften the blow of Benfica having to sell Javi Garcia to Manchester City. Matic, a 6’ftin midfielder who is good in the air, tackles well, covers ground tirelessly and having turned defence into attack, even chips in with the odd goal.
His form this year won him a couple of player of the month awards, a dramatically improved contract that included a buy-out clause and the admiration of many, including Alan Pardew whose Newcastle side were undone by Benfica at the quarter-final stages.
“The way they kept the ball was fantastic,” he said after the leg at St James’ Park, “but Matic in particular . . . the way he has grown since he has gone away from Chelsea . . . he’s a terrific player for them.”
That won’t have come as news to anyone at Stamford Bridge whose scouting department is second to none these days but whose first team managers are consistently under too much pressure to promote anyone from the reserve or youth team ranks.
The situation borders on comical, or perhaps frightening, at this stage with some 25 players playing for other clubs in England, Europe and South America – while Roman Abramovich pays their wages. In fact, more graduates of the club’s academy play at Hamburg these days than actually feature on a regular basis for the Chelsea first team.
When Matic went to Vitesse he was accompanied by Slobodan Rajkovic, now at the Bundesliga outfit, and Croatia under-21 international goalkeeper Matej Delac who, though still a Chelsea player, has had five loans since but is back where he started at Inter Zapresic.
The latter’s prospects of making a breakthrough in West London any time soon are not great. Apart from Petr Cech, who is only 30, the club owns Thibaut Courtois, the young Belgian international at Atletico Madrid who many reckon is a better player. It goes on like that with virtually any position you care to mention.
Benfica, as it happens, actually wanted either Patrick van Aanholt or Jeffrey Bruma as part of the deal for Luiz but Chelsea said they weren’t for sale. More than two years on, they have six first-team appearances between them for the Londoners, less than their combined list of loan moves.
Van Aanholt’s latest is with Vitesse, where he went with Czech defender Tomas Kalas and Mexican midfielder Ulises Davila; Bruma is another of those at Hamburg.
The connection in northern Germany is Frank Arnesen, the 56-year-old former head of youth development who oversaw an astonishing cranking up of the club’s recruitment policy in the early years of the Abramovich regime. “Chelsea, we had fantastic talent, built up marvellous players,” he says, “but they needed to be given a chance and they never were. The pressure is so big. Managers in England are going out and buying players because . . . if they lose two or three games, they are gone.”
Despite this week’s defeat by Norwich in the FA Youth Cup final, Chelsea’s youth teams are still flying high but those who have moved beyond them are still having to establish themselves elsewhere.
Romelu Lukaku has scored twice as many league goals this year as Fernando Torres and Kevin De Bruyne has done so well for Werder Bremen that Bayer Leverkusen want him as part of any deal for Andre Schurrle.
Eden Hazard’s younger brother, Thorgan, who Chelsea plucked from Lens last summer, went out on loan to Zulte Waregem after just a couple of weeks training with Chelsea. He observed afterwards: “I knew very well that I was passing through.”
With the club said to be closing on a €63 million deal for Edison Cavani, he won’t be the last to feel that way.