We need to talk about Kevin. Though this might not be a conversation many of us wanted or expected to be having back in August, it now faces the club as the most immediately pressing and important issue, and one which will require a big decision to be made in the coming weeks. A decision which has the potential to affect not the only this season and multiple seasons after, but the career of one the most talented young players ever to have signed for the club. Those who haven’t followed closely the career of Kevin De Bruyne to date, and who only really know him for those disappointing performances at Swindon and Sunderland in the League Cup might not have a clue what I’m writing about here. Those who kept an eye on his progress at Genk and Werder Bremen last year and saw him star time after time for the Belgian national team in their World Cup qualifiers will understand just what an incredible talent he is and how important it is the club find a way to make this current situation work.
What is the current situation? Quite simply, De Bruyne is nowhere near the first team and doesn’t look like breaking through at any point before the end of the season. With Eden Hazard and Oscar having been selected as the two key attacking players Mourinho has decided to build around, the comparative experience (in the cases of Willian and Juan Mata) and added combativeness (of Andre Schurrle) have seen the young Belgian continually overlooked for that third starting position behind the striker, in spite of his excellent pre-season, relentless match-winning form for Belgium and the fact that he is the best crosser/dead ball specialist in the team (arguably ahead of even Juan Mata).
What makes the situation exigently difficult however, rather than just plain frustrating, is that the Belgian’s drudgery this season really isn’t anybody’s fault. The club can hardly be blamed for seizing the opportunity to strengthen a side that struggled for attacking depth so dramatically last year. With the pressure for points so intense also with the Premier League this tightly contested, Mourinho’s inclination to go with the more experienced, in form internationals can’t be questioned too harshly either. The player himself must be excused from disparagement also for having not stayed on loan for another season, especially given the standard of his pre-season performances and the fact that Andre Schurrle and Willian were signed most likely after he’d agreed to stay.
If there’s one fact to consider here that can only work to the advantage of all parties involved, it is that De Bruyne is a proven, determined fighter. A couple of times during his youth career he made some tactical switches to different clubs, most notably from Gent to Racing Genk at age 14, to try and improve his career chances. This lack of loyalty along with a reputation for not being afraid to speak bluntly to his colleagues/the media, isolated the young player somewhat, but he was tough and ultimately succeeded, breaking into the Genk first team at just 17 years of age and quickly becoming a key part of the side. It’s this same impatient, immodest attitude however that it seems has quickly disillusioned the player and recently led to him requesting a permanent transfer from Chelsea this month.
What’s best for the player?
It’s clear that staying at Chelsea for the remainder of the season is not at all a feasible option. Especially in a World Cup year, and even more especially given his importance to Belgium’s chances in Brazil, he needs to play regularly throughout the second half of the season. Sadly, the only real question that remains is whether to leave Chelsea with a view to return again next July, or simply to get out as soon as possible. There’s no good reason I can see why it would necessarily be easier to get game time with Chelsea next year than right now. Since the beginning of the season he’s been faced with the question , how much of his career is he willing to potentially waste, trying to become a regular in a side so rich in young attacking talent? ‘Not a minute longer’ appears to be the answer.
What’s best for the club?
At this point, as is exactly the case with our two other young Belgians, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, we have to, in my opinion, be of the stance that what’s best for our young talent is ultimately what’s best for the club. And in the case of De Bruyne, for the good of his own career and relationship with the club, we have to let him leave in January. It’s safe to say we can easily get by to the end of the season without him. With Hazard, Mata, Oscar, Willian and Schurrle, the attacking midfield positions are adequately covered, to say the least. The options Mourinho has to switch to a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 also, I think should preclude all concerns about the squad possibly being unable to cope without De Bruyne until next year.
Assuming he does leave then, most likely to Bayer Leverkusen or Wolfsburg, what should be the long term objective regarding the player? Sell to a top Spanish or German size for an easy £20m and invest the money elsewhere, in a more urgent position. Or make more of an effort next year to give him opportunities and get him winning games for Chelsea, as everyone who knows him, knows he is capable of doing.
To phrase it mawkishly, my ‘head’ tells me the best thing to do is grant De Bruyne’s wish and sell him to Germany next month and use that money to buy a top defensive midfielder or striker. Whereas my ‘heart’ says to persevere and wait at least another year to see if anything changes, despite their being no indication that will. It’s a sad situation – one where comparison’s can be drawn to Daniel Sturridge’s position at the club last season, where despite being patently good enough, things couldn’t be worked out. And now it looks like, for the second year running in January, a top level (and potentially world-class) young talent will be leaving the club, without very much fuss at all.