What was the plan that Chelsea had for him? How was a one-month adventure to a relegation struggling team going to help a prospect’s development? It’s not ideal – the stress of listening to two different managers’ pre-match instructions in one month should not be overlooked. He can’t be Ruud Guilt if he’s sitting on the bench!

Similarly, it’s ironic that a player who was loaned out in order to get more playing time is getting fewer minutes on-loan than he did with his parent club. His boss showed a willingness to work with him in his first year at Chelsea, but due to the limited match involvement that Ampadu had in the previous season with the former manager, the decision was made to loan him out.

Ampadu may appear to have more time ahead of him, but it would be wise to remember Nathan Ake’s development path. No matter how high the potential that Ampadu shows today, Ake showed more in his early days, to a point he was compared to the great Ruud Gullit. But what happened?

There are a ton of reasons behind young footballers failing to fulfil their early potentials, but I will focus on the two factors that Chelsea overlooked on Nathan Ake, which in turn affected his development. Likewise, early symptoms of the same ailment could be seen in Ampadu’s career. Let’s analyse how it seems like Ampadu is progressing the Ake way.

Credit: Manuel

Confusing Loan Spells

Nathan Ake’s first loan move at the age of 20-year-old was to Championship side Reading in March 2015. Prior to the move, Ake started the season with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, but didn’t get match minutes. The winter window came and the club refuse to sort out his transfer. Surprisingly, a month before the end of the season Ake was loaned out to Steve Clarke’s relegation zoned Reading. It’s true he made 5 appearances for them, but what was Chelsea thinking? How was a one-month adventure to a relegation struggling team going to help a prospect’s development?

The fact that he got his first loan move at the age of 20 was detrimental to his progress. A youngster should value first-team involvement right from the age of 18, which means Ake systematically wasted 2 years (18-20) to prepare himself for professional football and rotted on the bench for over seven months until the age of 20, only for him to get sent out to a relegation struggler in the final month.

In comparison to Ethan Ampadu, at age 18 year-old he was in Maurizio Sarri’s 2018/19 season squad only to appear in zero premier league game throughout the whole season, while featuring in two cups game. Looks bad, but at least it was better than what he would be experiencing a year later at a German side competing with six other centre-backs to earn a spot in the starting XI. In fact, he made just seven club-level appearances this season.

Uncertain Positions

Credit: Manuel

The second overlooked factor that is common with both players is uncertainty in playing positions. Let’s look at some facts of Ake:

  • Ake’s naturally position at the academy was as a CB.
  • When promoted under Rafa Benitez, he was used as a DM.
  • At Reading, he was deployed as a CB by Steve Clarke.
  • At Watford, Quique Sanchez deployed him as an LB.
  • At Bournemouth, shuffled between CB and DM, but majorly CB.
  • Recalled back to Chelsea, she was deployed centre CB in Conte’s 3-man defence.

This shows that he appeared mostly as a CB, DM at two clubs and LB only at Watford. We all thought Ake to be a CB until he came out and said that he, “sees himself as a holding midfielder,” and further to declare his favourite position to be in the midfield. Same story could be told of Ampadu was naturally a CB at Exeter before being deployed both as a CB and a DM at Chelsea; he was even tried out as a right-back. The young “CB” was also trained for several weeks as a back-up regista to Jorginho when Fabregas left – that shows how much he’s been manipulated under different managers to suit their system.

A youngster battling with such conundrums as those mentioned above surely don’t allow for a higher percentage of fulfilling potential. Every position require some set of prerequisite attributes, thus complicating required attributes does a prospect zero good. Regardless of how high the importance of featuring regularly is, the truth is that is getting consistent game time will not cover up for an inconsistent role in training.

And let’s be clear about the differences between ‘complication of position’ and ‘versatility,’ as I’m not writing this to downplay the precious value of versatility in football – I know what versatility is!

Versatility is the ability to appear in multiple positions. It is a valuable trait to have and footballers with it are massively important in modern football. Aside from the financial cover they offer, versatile players can help in the tactical set-up. Such footballers as these are Azpilicueta, O’shea, Carrick, Delph etc.

But we often confuse the value of versatility with trying to be a Jack-of-all-trades. For instance, an athlete can be termed versatile when he is at least good at his natural role, while a Jack-of-all-trade appears in multiple positions but is average at them all. E.g. Azipilicueta: he grew his game as an RB, moved to LB, and then CB after honing his defensive skills to make his versatiliy a more valuable trait valuable.

To make versatility valuable one must first develop the basic skills required in his department. Again, e.g. Azpilicueta is fast, good aerially and a great tackler: these attributes are the basics needed for a defender – it is until then that his versatility is lauded and deemed invaluable. So I call valueless versatility Jack-of-all-trades. But how are all these connected to our main subject, Ampadu?

Playing time is a vital part of a young player’s developmental process, it helps them to develop the skills necessary to become a pro.

A reminder that Ampadu is one of Chelsea’s best prospects of the past decade. He came from Exeter to go on loan to Leipzig in the Bundesliga, yet has only played 7 club games. Why Leipzig? The decision made by the Chelsea board of directors to choose Leipzig can be feasibly understood as Liepzig has a great reputation in helping youths make the leap from the academy to professional football. Leipzig’s CV is stacked with notable names like Naby Keita, Timo Werner, Joshua Kimmich, Dayot Upamecano and so on.

While his lack of participation doesn’t seem like a crucial topic to many, let’s look at how poor game time can affect a youth’s development.

The development of young footballers lies in regular training and match minutes, with the latter seeming to be the most important. Youngsters tend to hone their mental skill as they grow and consistently feature in matches through self-examining and experience. Hence, reduced game time has no advantage on a developing prospect; it rather delays and impairs their development rate.

The result of research conducted on Norwegian junior players (with ages ranging from 15-20 year-olds) confirmed that young players with limited playing time are more likely to suffer from three kinds of stresses: Evaluation Stress, Performance Stress and Future Stress. The results show that players involved in few matches are affected with a higher level of stress compared to ones that participate in the most matches. Regular playing time is vital for a youngster to help them perfect the skills necessary for a career ahead of them.

But why is Ampadu not getting minutes at Leipzig? The Die Roten Bullen boss Julian Nagelsmann didn’t state any concrete reason for the situation. But from a logical viewpoint, it could be the fact that RB Leipzig has seven centre-backs at the club (including Ampadu) competing for the first-team shirt. That’s a reasonably high number of central defenders fighting for ‘just’ two spots.

Credit: Manuel

Nevertheless, the sooner for him to decide (or the sooner Chelsea makes the decision for him) on his best playing position, the better for him. The haphazard point that Nagelsmann sees him as a CB at RB Leipzig and Giggs sees him as a DM for Wales National team isn’t going to help him. Gaining knowledge through appearances is good, but contrasting knowledge from different responsibilities results to ignorance.

Chelsea, a club renowned for their great youth academy, should be aware that Ampadu is slowing becoming another Ake. The club needs to create and consistently follow a development scheme that will avoid these detrimental factors. I suggest we can photocopy the Christensen model – Christensen was brought to Chelsea the same way as Ake and Ampadu, approximately the same age (15). But the difference lies in the consistency and rhythm packaged with the knowledge that he had with Denmark and Borussia M.gladbach, both of whom were instrumental in his development. His regular involvement in matches while on-loan is also worth noting.

What should be next for Ampadu? Sadly, the Leipzig move has been disappointing, so his next move must include regular involvement and a resolved playing position. And in the end, I’m not making it look like the development system made Nathan Ake totally fail (at least we were recently linked to him), but given the potential he showed in his youth days, at this age he shouldn’t still be at Bournemouth. I keenly want to see us not making the same mistake with Ethan Ampadu. 

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