During pre-season, Chelsea looked fluid and dynamic in attack, the likes of Cesare Casadei and Andrey Santos were bossing the midfield, while Raheem Sterling looked a shadow of his former self going forward.
One month later, the Blues look fairly devoid of ideas in the final-third, especially down the left flank, Casadei and Santos have been loaned out, and Sterling has been one of the best players in the 2023-24 Premier League season.
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The Blues currently sit 12th in the English top flight after picking up just four points from their opening four fixtures. Mauricio Pochettino’s reign has only just begun, but the former Spurs boss may be starting to feel the pressure.
The decision to loan out Casadei and Santos will likely not impact Chelsea’s performances this year, but the Blues may be starting to regret one choice for a different reason entirely.
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Casadei and Santos loaned out
The additions of Moises Caicedo for €116 million, Romeo Lavia for €62.1m and Lesley Ugochukwu for €27m meant that Casadei and Santos were forced out on loan due to a sudden overload in the middle of the park.
Throw Enzo Fernandez and Conor Gallagher into the mix too and it was clear that both youngsters would find regular minutes hard to come by at Stamford Bridge.
However, their respective loan moves couldn’t have started in a more stark contract. Casadei, 20, was loaned to Championship side Leicester City, following his six-month loan move to Reading last season, while Santos headed to Nottingham Forest.
Although neither have started a league game for their new club yet, one player has already scored a last-minute winner to open his account and provided a neat assist in the Carabao Cup; the other is yet to make his league debut.
Unsurprisingly, it’s Casadei who has enjoyed the more fruitful start to life as a 2023-24 Chelsea loanee, with the Italy U20 star thriving for Leicester so far.
On the other hand, Santos has played just once for Nottingham Forest (in a 1-0 Carabao Cup defeat to Burnley) and has not yet made a Premier League matchday squad for his new team.
Of course, he was ineligible against parent club Chelsea, but Santos was omitted from the team to face Manchester United a week prior.
At just 19 years old, the Brazilian still needs a lot of development to become a regular figure in the Premier League, but his pre-season performances were so encouraging that he deserves consistent minutes on loan.
However, Forest’s summer business suggests that might be unlikely. Ibrahim Sangare and Nicolas Dominguez were both signed on Transfer Deadline Day from PSV Eindhoven and Bologna respectively and are both central midfielders.
As a result, Steve Cooper now has nine centre midfielders in his first-team squad – Sangare, Dominguez, Santos, Ryan Yates, Danilo, Orel Mangala, Cheikhou Kouyate, Jonjo Shelvey and Harry Arter.
The former England U17 manager has mostly favoured a 3-4-3 system since Nottingham Forest’s promotion to the Premier League, meaning only two midfielders are likely to start. That may increase to three if Cooper uses Danilo in a more advanced role as he has done on occasion this campaign though.
In any case, Santos is competing with eight other midfielders for a space in the Forest starting XI, and given he is on loan, the Brazilian may find himself on the sidelines.
Sangare (€35m), Danilo (€20m), Mangala (€13m) and Dominguez (€10m) have all been purchased since Forest’s promotion to the Premier League and Cooper is a huge fan of the hard-working Yates too.
The last-minute additions of Sangare and Dominguez signal that Cooper had identified central midfield as a area of slight weakness at Forest, which doesn’t bode well for Santos.
Forest may be fighting for survival this year and persisting with a talented, but inexperienced, loanee from Chelsea is not something that Cooper will prioritise over a more experienced professional.
After all, Sangare has played European football with PSV and has over 225 senior appearances to his name, while Dominguez was Bologna’s captain.
Given Chelsea need Santos to pick up consistent gametime to ensure the loan move works, Nottingham Forest doesn’t seem like the ideal destination right now.
Furthermore, Lyon expressed their interest in signing Santos and considering their struggles in Ligue 1, the former Vasco da Gama star would likely have seen regular minutes at the Groupama Stadium.
There is still plenty of time for Santos to establish himself at Nottingham Forest, but the vast number of quality central midfielders at Cooper’s disposal means the young Brazilian may not feature all that much.
As a result, Chelsea might be ruing their decision to deny Santos a loan move to Lyon in favour of the City Ground.