Could Chelsea loanees come to the rescue in looming summer retooling?
After a campaign that has been humbling and horrifying in equal measure, there has been much talk about the inevitable chopping and changing that will take place at Chelsea this summer. The rumour mill has been in overdrive, speculating about the individuals that are destined to be shown the door as well as adding an array of names to the list of supposed transfer targets.
Antonio Conte's expected appointment as manager has led many to believe that several of the stars of Serie A will be targeted, and that might well be true. Managers moving to a new country are prone to falling back on those of whom they have greater personal knowledge, though there is also another group of players that should be under his consideration.
Whenever a new manager arrives, it offers fresh hope to those already on the club's books who have been marginalised by the previous regime. Take John Obi Mikel for example: a faithful and effective servant of the club but one that saw precious little action under Jose Mourinho. In the first half of the season, up until the end of 2015, he started just six of Chelsea's 28 games. In the 17 matches since the turn of the year, the Nigerian has started 12, coinciding with Guus Hiddink's return to the club. Unfortunately for Mikel, the imminent change in manager means that he could be back to square one at the end of the season, though it does provide others with a chance to stake a greater claim in the first-team squad.
With a few problems areas to address, there will surely be changes made in personnel, but some of those slots could be filled by players already at the club. The full-back situation has been an issue all season, some might say even longer. While Branislav Ivanovic might have shone as a right-back last season, he has not maintained that level. It's also far from ideal to have a right-footed player in Cesar Azpilicueta playing as a left-back, despite his undoubted quality.
One answer to that problem might be to turn to Nathan Ake as an option at left-back.
The Dutch youngster has enjoyed an excellent season at Watford, where he forced his way into the team after being kept on the sidelines earlier in the campaign. Although his physique would not initially appear suited to full-back, his pace, mobility and strength have proved to be an asset to manager Quique Sanchez Flores while also offering a genuine attacking threat. Ake might have been nurtured as a defensive midfielder and shone in that position in various development squads, but it seems his immediate future lies in the back four.
Andreas Christensen is another defender to have caught the eye this season on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach. While a look at the stats might show that their defence has let in 44 goals in the Bundesliga, more than all but three clubs, what they don't reveal is that the attacking philosophy adopted by manager Andre Schubert has often left the defence exposed. The young Dane has borne the extra responsibility with relish and has impressed throughout.
Christensen has also gained valuable experience of European football having played in the Champions League this season. While his team might not have qualified for the knockout stages, Christensen performed admirably and will be a far better player after pitting his wits against the likes of Manchester City, Juventus and Sevilla. With John Terry's future up in the air and Gary Cahill having seen his form dip, there is a need for up to two new central defenders to be added to the squad. That he also has an eye for goal should also count in his favour.
Another loanee that has been drawing praise from their new club's fans has been Juan Cuadrado. The Colombian was ushered out of Stamford Bridge by Mourinho last summer following an underwhelming first few months at Chelsea. Picked up by Juventus, he has seen his form return to the level that saw the Blues pay Fiorentina £23.3 million for his services in January 2015.
His classy finish in the recent 4-2 Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich must surely have made the Chelsea hierarchy sit up and take notice. Although Serie A appears to be his natural footballing habitat and Italy being his preferred country, reports have suggested that Conte is keen to bring him back to London.
While Cuadrado's slight physique has suggested he might be a little lightweight for the Premier League, his ability to defend and attack with equal energy has won him the hearts of the Juventus fans. His injury-time winner as the Bianconeri beat Torino 2-1 in the Turin derby in October did not go unnoticed, either.
Beyond Cuadrado, Christensen and Ake, there are several more candidates that merit reappraisal by the new manager. Dominic Solanke has been finding the net at Vitesse Arnhem, with Lewis Baker and Izzy Brown both regularly featuring for the Eredivisie club. The lesser-spotted Papy Djilobodji, who mustered a single minute of playing time after he joined Chelsea last summer, has been earning positive reviews for his displays at Werder Bremen -- at least until he received a two-game ban for making a throat-cutting gesture toward an opposing player.
There are so many Chelsea players on loan that it would take all day to detail them all, but the fact remains that Conte, or whoever the new manager is, will have plenty of player analysis to undertake. Outside of the senior squad, there are more than 40 professionals on Chelsea's books. Surely at least one of them must be good enough to make an impact on the first team next season.