Edit: The article was written in the context of the build-up for Chelsea’s game against Nottingham Forest, but a section has been added to take into account Musonda’s performance.
Tonight’s Carabao Cup game against Nottingham Forest may be the anticipated first start of the season for Eden Hazard, but if the stars align, maybe another young Belgian will make a name for himself. This has been a journey five years in the making.
A package deal
In 2012, amongst some barging from swarming clubs, the Musonda family descended on London with their bags prepped for a long stay abroad.
They were a family of footballing pedigree.
The father, Charles Musonda, played internationally as a midfielder for Zambia; famously competing in Seoul, South Korea, during 1988 for the summer Olympics and became one of their stars. At club level, he wasn’t that prolific outside of Belgium, with appearance-less spells at Sacramento Scorpions and Energie Cottbus following a prolific career at Anderlecht. When he hung up his boots, he returned to Anderlecht as a youth coach and kit manager for the first team.
It seemed clear that his four children had caught the footballing gene and were now following his well trodden path. Tika (18) and Lamisha (21) were already looking exciting at Anderlecht, with the latter making it to Belgium U-21 level, but it was clear that their younger brother, Charly Jr, would have the potential to eclipse them. The young forward, while thin and small, idolised Cristiano Ronaldo and his ability to burn defenders at will brought some comparisons to him.
Like the Da Silva brothers and the Hazards, all siblings were a package deal and if Charly had to go to Chelsea, his brothers were coming in tow with him. And so they came together.
In a trend of Belgians passing through the Chelsea door—Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and his brother Thorgan, Romelu Lukaku, and Thibaut Courtois—the news of this signing passed by pretty quietly. However, now, the Musonda surname could be ready to make its first bang.
A long wait
It took five years and a brief stay in the southern coast of Spain with Real Betis before Charly made his breakthrough, but it is clear that Chelsea have rated him highly enough to keep him around the squad. While fellow youth stars Jeremie Boga, Nathan Baker, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have joined the loan army, Musonda has stayed put. In fact, when Real Betis came calling for a permanent move after being thoroughly impressed by his performances on loan, they were quickly shut down by Chelsea.
Betis’ sporting director, Miguel Torrecilla, said, “He is a player for a top team and Chelsea will protect his talent.” Adding, “An option to buy him could be too expensive for us and will be impossible to pay it. These clubs buy and invest in talented players.”
A peppering of appearances for Chelsea’s first team have recently arrived during their pre-season tour, and a brief cameo during a loss to Arsenal in the Community Shield has been the only thing Conte has afforded to the young player, but more appearances are soon to come; starting tonight.
His tactical flexibility is a selling point, with Charly able to play across the attacking positions as a winger on either side, a “10” and a striker but Conte has hinted at his potential for a wingback role as well. But his best performances have come from the wings and that is where he is expected to play.
The only drawback now is whether he has the physical capability to keep up with the big boys. Charly possesses lightning fast pace, but his physical stature still depicts a boy that could be picked up with one hand. In Chelsea’s press conference for the game against Nottingham Forest, Charly’s physicality became a talking point from the Italian, saying, “He is a bit thin, but now he is working a lot to improve his strength and be prepared for the big impacts in this league. I trust Charly.”
Letting it slip
His appearance hasn’t been a secret, with former Captain, John Terry, commenting on social media regarding Charly’s potential start. Even the young winger failed to put rumours to rest by thanking everyone in the club for taking him to this point in his career in the build up to the game.
From 5 years to 24 hours… @ChelseaFc #Unleash ?? " Thanks to everyone at the academy, who had a part in the developing me, from the head of youth, all the coaches I've had, and medical department, to achieve one of my biggest dreams wouldn't be possible without you, I've been lucky to have had such training but more importantly, a better education to be here, thank you!"
One of many?
But is this just another token gesture by Chelsea’s board, like in the past? Over the years, Chelsea have fielded Josh McEachran (Brentford), Dominic Solanke (Liverpool), Bertrand Traore (Lyon), Tomas Kalas and Lucas Piazon (both on loan at Fulham), and all of them have failed to break into the first team squad afterwards—with most moved on to other pastures. Will Charly be another Gael Kakuta?
It has been a heavy weight above the club’s heads and a long-standing joke; that the last player to break through the youth barrier was John Terry. Sacrificing youth success for trophy hauls may be better in the short term, but when at youth level, your teams win with ease and your youth players are considered some of the best in the country, what is the end goal for them?
Charly Musonda may be the player to break the youth duck, but then again, if the club is unwilling to change to accommodate the promising players in its midst, no amount of investment in development will be worth the effort. We will see starting tonight if they have changed their ways.
Musonda started the game on Wednesday night alongside his Belgian compatriots Hazard and Batshuayi in an attacking “3”. The tricky winger played a free role across the pitch, but also dropped deeper during periods of the match, sometimes picking up the ball at the fullback position.
For a debut, the young Belgian looked very comfortable on the ball and took on defenders with confidence.
As if on cue, he even scored. Rifling in a squirming low shot from the inside-right hand side of the box, and securing his team a comfortable 3-0 lead against the Championship side close to the 40th minute.
Antonio Conte made a few comments for his young debutants in his post match interview, and tried to play down Charly Musonda’s performance, but also talked about his encouraging display on the pitch.
Conte said, “He could have scored the second goal [of the game], but I think Charly is working very well, is working a lot – not also in the tactical aspect, but also in the physical aspect because for him it is very important to improve, to be ready to make a big impact in this league.”
Alongside appearances for the other young guns in the cup game—Ethan Ampadu, Dujon Sterling, Jake Clarke-Salter and Andreas Christensen—it seems that Chelsea have plenty of options to choose from with regards to expanding their squad depth, and it seems encouraging that so many youth players were handed their chance in the early rounds of the competition. With one eye looking at the next round against Everton, will Antonio Conte be tempted to put his faith back into these players or consider providing more cameos in low stakes games?
Past history leaves some doubts, but there must be some hope amongst the stands that at least one of these players will make it from this current crop.