In his latest column, Adam Bate reflects on the outsized expectations that big fees place on Chelsea’s signings, the science behind Kaoru Mitoma’s dribbling, and more…
It was a privilege to be at Molineux on Saturday to see one of the sights of the Premier League right now – Kaoru Mitoma in full flow. Nelson Semedo had nullified Alejandro Garnacho on Monday night but was left for dust by Brighton’s wizard of dribble.
Craig Dawson was also danced past with ease as Mitoma scored the breakthrough goal in his team’s 4-1 win at Wolves. The composure of the finishing is a development in his game that could elevate Mitoma to the very top – but it is his dribbling that makes it all possible.
By now, many are aware that this was the subject of his university thesis but the devil is in the detail. Mitoma has since explained his process. The key is to slow down his opponent before accelerating away from them by ensuring his own stride pattern is unhindered.
It is often said about the best dribblers that they appear to move quicker with the ball than without it. That is undoubtedly true of Mitoma but it seems that the Japan international has a scientific appreciation of what others may have understood only intuitively.
By keeping his foot straighter as he nudges it past an opponent, he remains in a sprinting position. If he looked to control the ball with the inside of his foot instead, this would require a twisting of the hips and make it more difficult for him to accelerate promptly.
The effect is stunning. That Mitoma actually understands the logic behind his own brilliance somehow makes it even more impressive.
Big fees bring big expectations at Chelsea
A 21-year-old Ecuadorian, eager to impress on debut, lunges into a tackle and concedes a penalty. Earlier, a 22-year-old player from Argentina, determined to take responsibility, sees a spot-kick of his own saved. His wait for a Premier League goal continues.
Those are the bare facts of the key moments in Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat to West Ham. Two talented players far from home trying to progress their careers. It is their transfer fees, over £100m each, that provide the context. They risk being seen as examples of Chelsea’s folly.
Outsized prices have brought outsized expectations.
Moises Caicedo looks a one-man midfield, a potential colossus. He has also had one full season in Brighton’s first team. The excellent Enzo Fernandez is a World Cup winner but he has already played more games in a Chelsea shirt than he ever did for Benfica.
It was not so long ago that their previous clubs picked up these players for a fraction of the fee. Few were suggesting then that they could swiftly step into the shoes of N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic – two of the most accomplished midfielders of the past decade.
It is emblematic of what is happening all over the pitch at Chelsea.
At £88m, Mykhailo Mudryk has been dismissed as raw but is that not to be expected of a player signed after 19 league starts for Shakhtar Donetsk? For the promising Noni Madueke, this is also a first taste of football in a major European league.
Malo Gusto, an uncapped French full-back who turned 20 in May, appears to have a big future. He was signed in January, midway through his second season as a regular in senior football. Axel Disasi has more experienced but this is still a step up – £65m for the pair.
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As Chelsea searched in vain for an equaliser during the final 15 minutes, Disasi was one of only two outfield players on the pitch for Mauricio Pochettino’s side aged between 23 and 37. The other was Raheem Sterling, the game’s outstanding performer throughout.
Sterling struggled last season but at 28, and with 82 England caps, he is one of the few in Chelsea blue who can be expected to be at the peak of his powers. It really should temper expectations. But given the other numbers involved, that just feels impossible.
Emery’s recovery powers at Villa
Working for Sky Sports, the level of access to managers is one of the joys of the job. But such is the ebb and flow of the Premier League season, one of the challenges is that those interviews can end up taking place at times of strife as well as times of triumph.
Going to see Unai Emery in the aftermath of Aston Villa’s 5-1 defeat to Newcastle, having lost two key players to anterior cruciate ligament injuries inside a week, brought no great expectation that he would be in a jovial mood. But this is when the best step up.
“As a coach, you have to try to show calm,” Emery explained. On the Monday after that defeat, he was watching a video of Everton’s game against Fulham, reconvening with his analysts for a full breakdown later in the week before presenting to his players.
The result was a 4-0 win back at Villa Park.
Everton were miserable but aspects of Villa’s performance stood out. They engineered space for Lucas Digne on the left, opted to take short corners given the superior height of the opposition, and worked the ball into the feet of Moussa Diaby between the lines.
Villa did some transfer business late in the week to help the group in the wake of those serious injuries, but Nicolo Zaniolo could only watch from the stands on Sunday. This victory was a triumph of planning and execution – as well as keeping calm in adversity.
Nmecha’s injury ordeal continues
Sometimes the timing of an interview does not work out for other reasons. Speaking to Germany international and former Manchester City forward Lukas Nmecha earlier this summer, he had been full of optimism about his targets for the season ahead.
Nmecha discussed his difficult year, the trauma of missing a World Cup due to injury and the work that he had put in since to ensure that he would be ready to return for the new season – with the prospect of Euro 2024 in Germany to look forward to next summer.
Unfortunately, Nmecha suffered a setback in his comeback game. He scored the opening goal in Wolfsburg’s cup win before going off with a recurrence of his knee problem. When his team kicked off their Bundesliga campaign, the star striker was absent once more.
“All the training sessions on my own watching the boys play,” he had said, “it feels like you are on the outside. Through that process it was not always easy to stay positive.” But he felt it was behind him. “I hope this is the year that I push on and go to the next level.”
It is tough to think back to those words now Nmecha is injured again. In football, the money can be big but the careers remain short. At 24, he has time. Here’s hoping he has the mental strength to put himself through it all again in the belief that next time it will be different.