When FIFA announced last year they were set to introduce limits on the number of players teams could send out on loan, unsurprisingly many people’s first thoughts turned to Chelsea.
At the time, the Blues had a remarkable 28 players at other clubs, though this was by no means a recent trend; in 2018-19, that figure was 41.
The ‘hoarding’ of talent might be a solid ploy when looking to stunt the growth of a rival team or generate long-term revenue on Football Manager, but in the real world it was a practice that had long attracted criticism.
While by no means the only club in the world to have lots of young players out on loan, Chelsea have – rightly or wrongly – arguably been the most synonymous with it.
Some feel this has directly contributed to the club’s struggles in developing homegrown talent because they have so many players, whereas others point out it offers more players the chance to play first-team football at a higher level than the Under-23s.
Putting aside some of the moral issues, Mason Mount falls into the latter category and proves there is a route to the first team through the fog of war for Chelsea’s loan army.
By his own admission Mount needed an extra kick when he was in Chelsea’s Under-23s as an 18-year-old, and that led to his temporary switch to the Eredivisie with Vitesse, where he won the club’s Player of the Year award.
But it’s unlikely even he realised how important his next move would be as he linked up with Chelsea great Frank Lampard.
In at the deep end
Mount made 44 appearances across all competitions for Derby County in 2018-19 as they missed out on promotion in the play-off final, but regardless of that ultimate disappointment it proved a massive year for both he and Lampard.
With Maurizio Sarri departing Stamford Bridge to join Juventus following Europa League success, Lampard was brought back to the club as head coach. Given his status and the trust he placed in young players – and, more pertinently, young players owned by Chelsea – at Derby, Lampard was seen as the ideal candidate to guide the team through a transfer embargo by bringing through homegrown talent.
Whether or not Lampard was a success as Chelsea coach is a discussion for another time, but his faith in Mount was unquestionable, chucking him straight into the team on the first day of the 2019-20 season.
The Blues suffered a rather harsh 4-0 defeat at Manchester United, but Mount didn’t look out of his depth in the Premier League.
He clearly earnt the trust of his manager, with Lampard using the midfielder in 37 league matches over the course of the season, more than any other player. Across all competitions, the young Englishman made a whopping 53 appearances, missing just two games all year.
Mount finished his debut season with 12 goal involvements (seven scored, five set up), a figure bettered by only Tammy Abraham (18), Willian (16) and Christian Pulisic (13) in the Chelsea squad.
But that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. To say he was consistent throughout the season would be a lie, as after the turn of the year there was a growing sense of frustration regarding his form. Between the start of November and the final day of the season, his three assists amounted to a couple of corner deliveries for Antonio Rudiger to head home, and a free-kick against Arsenal that Bernd Leno made a mess of. Mount’s one open-play assist of 2019-20 came on the final day of the season against Wolves.
Some felt Mount was being overworked by Lampard, others put his issues down to being used in a variety of roles.
The ‘teacher’s pet’ tag began to raise its head, with Lampard’s almost incessant use of Mount leading to suggestions of preferential treatment.
Getting past this was going to be Mount’s Everest.
A star of his own merit
When Thomas Tuchel was hired as Lampard’s replacement in January, there wouldn’t have been too many particularly worried for Mount’s future given he had been a fixture in the team, his 2,130 minutes played across all competitions the most of anyone in the Blues’ squad.
But when Mount was dropped for the German’s first game in charge, Tuchel’s decision certainly made people sit up and take note.
While he explained it away as opting to go with experience, dropping Mount suggested he had to earn his place again.
And it would be fair to say he’s risen to the challenge.
“I understood and wanted to get back into the team, so that motivation and that fire that I have inside me came out,” Mount said at a news conference last month. “I really tried to push to get back into the team. It’s been brilliant.”
Since then, he’s become more productive almost across the board in the final third under Tuchel than he had been for Lampard in 2020-21.
Seemingly one of the main contributing factors is his role. While Lampard used Mount in numerous positions, Tuchel has largely deployed him further up the pitch in an attempt to get him closer to the opposition’s penalty area.
Touch maps show a significant change between the two coaches’ usage of the 21-year-old. While Mount’s touches per 90 are almost identical under the two managers, Lampard deployed Mount deeper than his German successor, while Tuchel has shown a clear desire to get him on the ball in more advanced areas.
So much of the positive work that Mount does with the ball is not captured in goals and assists, the baseline figures that many would deem the primary indicator of an attacking midfielder’s contribution. His link play and overall involvement in Chelsea’s attack can be highlighted by sequences framework.
In the 14 games since Tuchel’s arrival, only Bruno Fernandes (91) has been involved in more open play sequences (or ‘passages of play’) that have resulted in a shot than Mount’s 86. This figure translates to 7.6 sequences per 90 minutes, which is a big increase on the 5.6 per 90 he was involved in during Lampard’s 18 top-flight games this term.
Not only is Mount involved more heavily in Chelsea’s attacking play under Tuchel, but his involvement is generating better quality chances. The expected goals value from these sequences has increased from 0.43 per 90 minutes under Lampard to 0.7 under Tuchel. Simply put, Chelsea are creating greater quality chances with Mount further up the pitch.
Similarly, the England international’s six goal-ending sequences in the same period are more than any of his team-mates have contributed to.
Even though he’s still without a single open-play assist in 2020-21, it’s clear to see that Mount’s strong associative talents and ability to play tidily in busier areas of the pitch make him a real asset to Tuchel, who has acted quickly to shift him into a position that seemingly suits him better. He’s also proving more decisive, with four of his six Premier League goals coming since January 25 – that’s more than any of his team-mates in that period.
In general, though, scoring has been a bit of an issue for Chelsea. The likes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz haven’t properly hit their stride yet, and this has undoubtedly impacted Mount’s baseline assist numbers, as his expected assists total from open play is 4.1. With more clinical finishing he wouldn’t still be sat on zero.
Mount’s form lately suggests that once Chelsea begin to click in front of goal, he’ll be key to much of their build-up if he’s not the one finishing the chances.
Another string to Mount’s bow is that he is a genuine set-piece specialist. His corner deliveries are consistently dangerous, and he’s created more chances from set plays (38) in 2020-21 than any other player. That’s six more than James Ward-Prowse and 16 more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, both of whom have received acclaim for their set-piece prowess over the years.
When thinking of players you might consider to be particularly good at dead-ball situations, Mount may not be the first that comes to mind among non-Chelsea fans, but maybe he should be.
An unsung hero
Mount’s improvements certainly don’t begin and end with his creativity in the final third, however. Tuchel’s preference to play him more centrally is also leading to greater off-the-ball productivity.
He’s always been a hard worker and certainly couldn’t be accused of neglecting the less glamorous side of the game, yet his role for Tuchel seems to be harnessing his attitude and tirelessness even more effectively.
Mount is averaging 2.2 attempted tackles per 90 minutes under Tuchel, up from 1.7 across Lampard’s time at the club. While he may be winning tackles at an almost identical rate (0.95 per 90 mins, up from 0.93), the increase in challenge attempts suggests Mount’s work rate makes him a good fit for Tuchel’s intense pressing system.
Since the German’s first game in charge, Chelsea have the lowest PPDA (9.2) in the Premier League, proof that they press higher than anyone else. PPDA is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third. A lower figure indicates a higher level of pressing.
Mount leads Tuchel’s press from the front. The midfielder has won possession in the final third 17 times in 19 games for Tuchel. Over the same period, İlkay Gundogan (20), Mohamed Salah (20) and Kevin De Bruyne (23) are the only Premier League players to have a better record than the Chelsea star across all competitions.
A homegrown beacon of hope
Throughout Roman Abramovich’s time as Chelsea owner, the club has often found itself in a sort of purgatory. While they’ve undoubtedly wanted success and a first team full of homegrown talents, it’s difficult to say they’ve truly struck a balance between the two.
After all, since the start of the century, Chelsea products reaching 100 Premier League appearances for the club have been a rarity.
John Terry, of course, leads the way, but beyond him it becomes a bit murky. John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic perhaps come closest to fitting the bill, though both did play senior football elsewhere before joining the club as teenagers.
Granted, Mount remains a little way off yet as well having played 69 times in the top-flight for Chelsea, but he’s quickly making up ground.
Not too far behind him are Tammy Abraham (57), Callum Hudson-Odoi (55) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (54), while Andreas Christensen – at Chelsea since 2013 – has featured 72 times.
What’s in store for their long-term futures at Chelsea remains to be seen – they are far less certain than Mount.
But Mount especially shows that where there wasn’t much hope for young talent coming through at Chelsea in the past, now there is for arguably the first time in the Abramovich era.
The accusations of Mount being a ‘teacher’s pet’ have faded. Tuchel has no ulterior motive to keep picking Mount other than the fact he wants to pick the best side to win games. And with just two defeats in his first 21 games for Chelsea in all competitions, the German is certainly doing just that.
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