In the end, England’s 2018 World Cup effort so exceeded expectations that there was no need for any regrets. They might have held on to that lead against Croatia, but that they didn’t was hardly cause for any soul searching.
Nathaniel Chalobah wouldn’t have made a difference at any of the competition’s critical moments, but – had he not suffered that training injury in September 2017 – he may have at least had a front-row perspective of them. Like so many other players in the FA’s development system, Chalobah has had Gareth Southgate’s faith for a while and, coupled with an excellent start to life at Watford, that should have been enough to propel him to a first senior cap before the end of last year.
It wasn’t to be. A fractured knee cap would keep him sidelined for more than eleven months and during his absence Watford’s form was hijacked by Everton’s designs on Marco Silva. Chalobah disappeared from view, the strong start he had been part of became incidental.
Had the injury never happened, that might still have happened. Chalobah’s talent is easy to take for granted: his is not a flashy brand of ability and neither does it carry any great novelty. In this age of short attention spans, it’s not quite enough just to be good. He doesn’t possess the dynamic feet of Jadon Sancho, the velvety technique of Phil Foden, nor has he ever drawn the kind of attention currently aimed at Ryan Sessegnon or James Maddison. Ultimately, he’s not the kind of player upon whose back anyone can imagine league championships or World Cups being won, so it’s been easy to move on to the next.
Within that first month of 2017-18 lay so much promise, though. At the time, Watford’s form was excellent and that helped to frame everything at Vicarage Road in a flattering way. Nevertheless, Chalobah’s little contributions still stood out, as did the breadth of his influence. In that brief upsurge under Silva, Watford looked like a very versatile team, full of players – particularly in midfield – who were comfortable in all sorts of phases. Fleetingly, Chalobah was a symbol of that: his physique and timing made him a natural asset with the ball, but he exhibited the technique and vision to be of value beyond the halfway line too.
Ultimately, he looked at home in a Premier League midfield. What’s more, he looked at ease alongside players with whom he had no prior relationship and under a manager he had only just began to work with. The tragedy of the injury wasn’t the World Cup, then, but the denial of the opportunity to see how good he might have become over the course of a full, uninterrupted year. He was steadily growing towards the light until everything went dark.
On Sunday, he reappeared at Vicarage Road. He may have only made a brief cameo against Tottenham, but the crowd’s response to his late substitute appearance was descriptive. As it had been earlier in the day, in fact, when he arrived at the ground and took time to have his picture taken with what seemed like an endless line of young, sugar-doped children. He’s extremely popular in north London.
Today, Premier League footballers are holograms. They’re so ubiquitous, so famous, that it’s easy to forget that they’re people – the temptation being to view them purely through the prism of their attributional and tactical worth. With someone like Chalobah that’s a great mistake, because he’s bright and engaging in person, capable of answering the media’s questions with more than just platitudes and able to look an interviewer in the eye. He’s more three-dimensional than most.
From brief moments witnessed, he seems well-raised too. When he was posing for photographs with those children, down by the tunnel area several hours before kick-off, he took time to remove his headphones and appeared to treat the young supporters as more than just part of his professional obligations. Clubs spend a lot of time training their players to behave like normal people now – goodness, what a sad indictment that is – but you can always spot the ones who are actually at ease with the public and separate them from those who would rather be anywhere else.
Still, having a personable nature is not a sporting attribute. Taking a good picture with a young fan and smiling while you did it is not, in itself, enough to guarantee a good career. But, as part of the overall package, it’s still a relevant ingredient within Chalobah’s make-up. It certainly makes him easier to root for and he’s the kind of player most would want to see succeed, but – more than that – a strong, perspective-led personality is fundamental to many critical areas of sporting life.
Not least injury recovery. Having waited so long for a sustained chance in the Premier League, seeing his window of opportunity temporarily close so quickly must have been a heavy punch to take. Eleven months of recovery is daunting at the best of times, but even more so when it takes place during what should have been a pivotal season. Chalobah might not have been immune to the malaise which began when 2017 became 2018, actually he most likely would have suffered from cumulative fatigue at least, but months of physiotherapy is a poor substitute for the chance to make your name.
Over the long term though, the fascination will lie in seeing how his personality might multiply his talent. Intelligent people often make better footballers. Those with proper perspective are also better suited to the challenges which exist in sporting life. Like any other profession, developing as a footballer depends on being receptive to teaching, but it also depends on a capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and learn from mistakes. In some cases, the missing serum is just the opportunity to play: add the heavy doses of concentrated experience and Chalobah, a bright person with plenty of natural tools, should grow exponentially.
Consider what that might mean, too. Search through his career’s back-catalogue and there’s plenty of evidence showing all sorts of abilities. The tackling and anticipation is a given, so too the physical influence because of his size, but there are little flecks of skill there too – a roulette here, a Cruyff turn there, sometimes even a driven forty-yard pass which cuts a defence to spring a winger or forward. That may not be the association with him, it’s disheartening to hear him so often described as a blunt object, but he really is a cultured player – perhaps not in a way which sends ripples through the analytics community or that leaves much of a tangible imprint, but anybody who has watched him in person will know how that he’s far more than a nullifier.
Unfortunately, a full recovery can take a long time. Seeing Chalobah back in Watford yellow is one thing, proclaiming his return to full-fitness and form is quite another. They’re separate stages, most often months apart. But forget the talent which glints more obviously in the hills and imagine what he could become if the false starts and interruptions are finally at end. Look at Will Hughes, for instance, and see the evolution he’s shown since he started being regularly exposed to this level of the game. Consider also that Chalobah is the more complete of the two, useful in many more departments and almost bespoke built for British football.
This is a very fine player. Maybe not one destined to raise the pulses on social media or who, in the future, children across the globe will imitate in their playgrounds, but a thoroughly decent prospect all the same. The outside world may have forgotten about him over the past year but, judging from the reception he received on Sunday, nobody at Vicarage Road has.
For good reason, too.