At a time when some of the biggest clubs in the world struggle to find a left-back of decent quality, Stamford The Lion, Chelsea’s mascot, sits calmly in his den with a reassured air about himself. Some would feel that the presence of Ashley Cole, arguably the best left-back in the game, would be reason enough to feel smug. But there’s another reason too; two to be precise. Chelsea Football Club is blessed with not one but two players, each capable of carrying out the left-back duties with aplomb once Ashley decides to hang up his big boots.
Meet Ryan Bertrand and Patrick van Aanholt – two of the most promising attacking left-backs playing in England. A Chelsea fan may have his or her favorite, but no one doubts the caliber of either of them.
After a comparative study, we realized that there’s very little to chose between the two young boys. However, each of them brings something different to the table, as their unique selling proposition. Bertrand is the more balanced of the two left-backs and is known for his professionalism, and work ethic. While, Aanholt poses a more dangerous threat from the left, and his versatility is his most potent weapon.
“Ryan (Bertrand) has grown on me as a man and a player during the last two years, and he has done more than anyone in this U-21 squad to get us to these finals. I’ve been so impressed with his professionalism. He hangs on your every word and wants to learn all the time. I made him captain a couple of matches ago, so that shows the esteem I hold him in. I would have picked him ahead of Gibbs (even if the latter wasn’t injured).” – England U21 manager Stuart Pearce
“He (Partick van Aanholt) is Ashley Cole in the making. The way he plays is unbelievable. He bombs on, and in the 90th minute he’s still getting forward getting crosses in and earning corners for the team. There’s not many left-backs around the country or in the world who do that. He’s got a lot of energy, and is a very good player.” – Chelsea team-mate Daniel Sturridge
Last season, van Aanholt was promoted to the first team and his performances against Newcastle United (Carling Cup) and MSK Zilina (Champions League) made people sit up and take notice. In January this year, he was sent on loan to Leicester City to get more first team action, while Ryan Bertrand returned from Nottingham Forrest to take his place. The young Englishman made his debut as a second half substitute for Ashley Cole against Birmingham City, and fans, who had waited for him to perform in a Chelsea shirt, were not disappointed with what they saw.
The club thus far hasn’t shown any favoritism towards either of them. Both the players have been sent on loan to gain some valuable experience, and have also been offered new 4-year deals. Aanholt signed his contract extension in May, 2011, while Bertrand has signed on the dotted line, along with Joshua McEachran, this month. Even today, both of them are with the first team, on a pre-season tour to Asia. Either Chelsea are as undecided as the fans on who would eventually take over from Cole or the club is doing the right thing by postponing this decision till the time Cole no longer rules the left flank. This would give Chelsea’s talent management time to evaluate each player better, and then take a decision in the best interest of the club.
Sometimes, all a talented, young footballer require is luck. 10 years back, Ashley Cole, for all his talent, was in a situation similar to what Ryan and Patrick find themselves in today. Devoid of first-team opportunities, he was exploring the possibility of signing for Crystal Palace to continue his development, away from Arsenal. Then Sylvinho got injured and the rest, as they say, is history. The situation is slightly different this time round – not only are the young left-backs in competition with their mentor, but also against each other.
If only one of them was a right back!
The role of Ashley Cole
Although the presence of Ashley Cole has, in some capacity, served as a hindrance for the young men, his contribution in their development cannot be overlooked.
After signing his contract extension, Bertrand spoke very highly of Cole, “ It’s a massive positive having him [Cole] at Chelsea – and a massive hindrance too I suppose! He’s definitely right up there – his attitude, the way he goes about training. He’s won the most FA Cups, and a lot of other silverware, and to still have that attitude at his age is fantastic.” He went on to add, “He’s a fantastic role model. He’s a brilliant man and a brilliant player to have around to help you with your game. If I ever have anything to ask him about a certain situation on the pitch, he’s more than happy to come back and talk. He is able to chip in and give you little bits of advice and that’s really good. He encourages you to be really positive, like the modern-day full-backs, and perhaps think more, with different runs, inside the man and outside the man.” Clearly, the England U21 International, who incidently also wears the number 3 shirt while playing for the country, has deeply benefited from having Cole around.
Not just Ryan, but Patrick too has been fortunate enough to share the dressing room with one of the finest exponents of the art he is trying to learn. He said in an interview, “Having Ashley around has been amazing. Every time I see him play and see him train I am learning from him and that is good because he is one of the best in the world and can tell you exactly what to do. He can remember being my age and he’s trying to help me and give me some information. He says when he was my age he was the same as me, very good going forward and that as soon as you get older you will get used to defending, and that is what I am trying to do, I am learning it now. We get on very well me and Ashley, he is my good friend and some days we just chill out or talk on the phone.“
In February this year, Liecester City fans were shocked to see Cole in the stands for the game against Barnsley. They wondered what had brought the Chelsea superstar to their home. Cole had driven to Liecester City to provide moral support to Patrick van Aanholt, who had just come on loan to the Championship club from Chelsea.
As he slowly nears the end of his playing career, Ashley Cole has a defining role to play in the career of both his students. He is in the best position to guide them and help them improve, as once he himself was a young prodigy relentlessly knocking on the doors of the first team in North London. Also, Chelsea need to look no further than Cole to help them decide on his long-term successor.
What the future holds for them
Cole still has a couple of years of top-level football left in him, while Zhirkov who, will either move soon back to Russia or continue to serve as an option on the left, isn’t a long term solution. In the next two years, hopefully Bertrand and Aanholt will consistently come face-to-face with tricky, pacy right-wingers at the top of their game. It’s one thing to play well in the Championship and in U21 level for the country, and an altogether different one to fight toe-to-toe with truly world-class talent.
Despite all his offensive exploits, Cole is seldom caught out of position defensively. His positioning is top class, and is rarely beaten by his man. Over the years, such has been his consistency that for Chelsea to concede a goal from the left, Cole has to have an “off-day”. Bertrand and Aanholt have to inculcate all his good qualities in their game if they are to replace their mentor at Chelsea.
Ideally, the club should send one of them on loan to a Premiership outfit for the upcoming season and retain the other as a back-up to Cole. Then reverse the roles in the season after that.
Once they have been put through stern acid tests in the next two years, the future can take any of three different paths –
Nothing would please a romantic more than seeing both of them make the cut at Chelsea. The more-balanced and persevering Bertrand to emulate Ashley Cole and make the left-back position his own, at Chelsea and with the England national team. While, the dynamic, versatile van Aanholt to play further up the pitch on the left wing. Together they keep the left flank on perpetual fire, telepathically combining and overlapping one-another.
A pragmatic view would be to hope that one of them takes over from Ashley Cole and serves the club for a long time. As each of them is expected to start for the country at left-back in not so distant future, neither will be ready to accept a back-up role to his counterpart. Rather, he will look elsewhere, and quite justifiably so.
After the recent exodus of youth, one wouldn’t blame a cynic if he thinks that Chelsea will sign the hottest left-back on the market in a couple of years, and sell both Ryan Bertrand and Patrick van Aanholt. However, for the sake of the club and the players, such a development would be a shame.
Ultimately, if Chelsea play their cards well, they will not have to look anywhere else but home for someone to take up the left-back position once Ashley Cole moves on or retires, at least for the next eight years or so. The onus is on Ryan and Patrick to make their own luck, rather than wait for a chance to come their way, to move beyond the shadow of their mentor. Chelsea may have its problems at right-back, but if Patrick and Ryan live up to their billing, Chelsea may well have an embarrassment of riches on the left.