Chelsea's Andreas Christensen: I always believed I could show my worth
LONDON -- Andreas Christensen is, in the words of Antonio Conte, the "best surprise" of Chelsea's season.
The 21-year-old Dane has forced his way into a Premier League title-winning defence with nerveless consistency, displacing David Luiz from Conte's starting XI and effortlessly shouldering the expectations of a club that has spent 20 years searching for the home-grown successor to John Terry.
Speaking to ESPN FC ahead of the launch of Chelsea's "Say No To Antisemitism" campaign -- backed by owner Roman Abramovich -- on Wednesday, Christensen reflected on his journey from Brondby to Stamford Bridge via Borussia Monchengladbach, as well as the influence of Terry and his father Sten on his rapid development.
Q. You joined Chelsea from Brondby at the age of 16 and also spent two years on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach. Do you feel like a Chelsea product?
A. I had just turned 16, just finished school when I came. Brondby have a lot to do with it but Chelsea is the main reason why I'm playing in the first-team now. I do feel like I owe this club a lot and I do feel like I'm a product of Chelsea.
Q. This club has been desperate to see an academy player break through. How much do you feel those expectations?
A. When I went away for two years I could hear there was some pressure to come back and deliver and try to get into the team. So you do feel that. But I put pressure on myself. I always believed I could come back and show my worth and hopefully break into the team.
Q. You've spoken recently about the mental challenge of playing for a club like Chelsea. Do you think that's why academy players have found it so hard?
A. Yeah maybe. Some senior players find it difficult as well. In preseason we get our bodies ready, but it's the mental side. It's so tough to keep performing and be mentally ready. Like this week, we have one recovery day and one session to prepare for a game and then you play again. The programme makes it a lot harder than it actually should be.
Q. Where does your cool temperament come from?
A. My dad's temperament is quite strong so I'm probably more like my Mum, more laidback. My dad was a goalkeeper, he was a little bit crazy. I always knew his history, and I know when they had me he had to stop [playing], he didn't have time. I grew up with him as a coach.
He started up the team [in Lillerod, Christensen's home town]. It was like a local club. We didn't have a team for my age so he set it up. The boys in the area loved playing football, just for fun. He started the team and I got to play with boys who were one year older than me. I've grown up with that all the way to U17.
Q. Did you ever see your dad play?
A. No, never. He stopped when I was born. I think he was pretty good. When Peter Schmeichel went to Man United [in 1991], Brondby bought my dad. Big shoes to fill! He always played in the best league in Denmark, so I guess he wasn't that bad.
Q. How did you make the decision to leave Denmark?
A. I visited Aston Villa, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. The first one was Villa. I had been playing in a little cup in Denmark. I was a striker at the time and they saw me. I wasn't that tall at the time; I was more of a quick striker, going behind. I went [to England] quite a lot, actually, about five times. Then I got a phone call and Chelsea wanted me over. I came here and got a bad injury and Chelsea offered to help me [recover].
Q. So you decided on Chelsea...
A. The first time I came it was Frank Arnesen, another Dane. I think I played an U15 game the first time. It was his last year [as Chelsea technical director]. I was told a little bit about the club. When I had to take the decision I called Michael Emenalo and said I wanted to sign for Chelsea. He was really happy. [Arnesen] always helped me. It makes the decision easier to have people who have played football and been in the same situation and actually know something about it.
Q. What was John Terry's influence on you back then?
A. You can feel that he has your best intentions at heart. He gives you confidence, makes you feel more comfortable. He always said if there's a question ask. He'd say after training, if you want to stay out for 20 minutes we can do that. Long passes, or crosses and headers, anything, really. If I wanted to stay out he'd do it. Just him showing his interest gave me more confidence.
Q. You made a bold decision to go to Gladbach on loan in 2015, but it turned out to be the making of you.
A. One day we went over early in the morning, watched a game, saw how the club worked, saw all the facilities and met Max [Eberl, Gladbach sporting director]. We flew back in the evening so it was just a quick visit, but everything we saw was good -- big stadium, big crowd, fantastic atmosphere. There was a Swedish guy and a Norwegian guy [in the squad] who spoke my language, which made it a little easier. It wasn't too far from Denmark. I had German [lessons] in school, so I couldn't speak it but I could understand the basics. It was just a great fit, and it's a big part of why I'm here now.
Q. How good an education was Bundesliga football?
A. I heard a few scare stories that you do a lot of running without the ball in Germany. I was lucky that wasn't the case in Gladbach. We used the ball a lot and they wanted to play football. I think that helped me a lot. You get put in difficult situations in Germany -- every team likes to press high and you can even end up staying one vs one the whole game, so you have to think a lot and prepare yourself.
Q. Antonio Conte has worked with great defenders. How has he improved you?
A. Just working as a team, he gives you a lot. Sometimes we split up and it's just the back five, sometimes it's the whole team. He gives you [the ability] to be aware of what he wants you to do, and if you do that you'll look good. The way we play is helping you a lot. You always think, 'What can I do to help the team?' Working on the pitch here, we go into small details. We watch video and [he'll say], 'You have to be there, not there'. It's just these small pointers every day.
Q. Everyone needs a rest at this time of the season, but are you worried that missing a game gives others a chance to impress?
A. I don't think anyone wants to be rested. We always want to play the games. Sometimes you feel exhausted but you want to play. It's my first year [without a rest] -- even when I was in the academy we had the winter break, so this time it's been tough. I'm used to having those two weeks off where you can just put everything to one side and relax and do whatever you want to do. It's tough but it is how it is.
Q. What can Chelsea realistically achieve this season?
A. The mentality here is whatever [competition] you're still in, you can win. Even though we're going to face some difficult opponents, whether it's a cup game or Champions League, we think we can win. That's how we're going to go into every game, so I don't think anything changes how people feel and what they want to achieve.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.