Could the 20-year-old defender emerge as a key figure in the Blues’ backline?
Coming on as a substitute against Leicester City for the brilliant victor moses in the 80th minute, the London-born defender had finally fulfilled his dream of donning the royal blue jersey, and even though it was a ten-minute cameo, his mood couldn’t be dampened.
His journey through the youth ranks at Chelsea has been outstanding; following a trial, he made it into the U11s side as a boy, before progressing through the age groups and thereafter making his debut for the U18s in 2012, despite not yet being 16.
His performances for the youth side demonstrated his maturity, and suggested that the Anglo-Nigerian youngster had the potential to emerge as the long-term successor to John Terry.
Aina’s performances after he was promoted to the U21s were exemplary, as he helped them to the FA Youth Cup and Under-21 Premier League in 2013/2014.
The right-back’s displays in the first half of that season led to him signing his first professional contract on his 17th birthday and he was soon promoted to the first time while remaining a vital cog in the youth team that defended their FA Youth Cup and won the inaugural Uefa Youth League.
Aina’s reputation was burgeoning and Jose Mourinho opted to incorporate him into the senior side’s preseason ahead of the 2015-16 campaign. He may not have made an appearance, but his experience of training with the seniors surely left him in good stead as he returned to the U21s.
During his time in the academy, his performances at both full-back positions and the odd appearance at center-back won him plaudits, and his versatility has seen him likened to teammate Cesar Azpilicueta.
Praised for his assuredness in possession, incredible pace, power and high energy levels—he is able to surge forward and make an impact.
In the modern game, full-backs have dual responsibilities—besides providing defensive solidity, they are expected to be a threat in the final third of the pitch by making forays from their defensive position to provide an extra attacking outlet—and this suits Aina’s style of play.
The arrival of Antonio Conte at Chelsea and his subsequent willingness to open the door to youth saw Aina heavily involved in pre-season as he featured in all of the Blues’ six games.
Even though his displays were occasionally raw, he did enough to convince his new manager to keep him in the squad for the current season—rather than sending him out on loan—a big vote of confidence, particularly considering that Chelsea have 38 players out on loan!
He made his debut in the second round of the EFL Cup against Bristol Rovers – playing 77 minutes before injury cut short his outing, and this was then followed by his aforementioned Premier League debut against Leicester City.
Conte’s switch to a back three could ultimately pave the way for Aina’s breakthrough, and his ability to play multiple positions could see him feature more often—primarily at wing back—as he did against West Ham United in the EFL on Wednesday, or even as a central defender in a back three.
In the loss to West Ham he was deployed at left wing-back and got forward at every opportunity, spending the majority of his time camped in the Hammers’ half. He delivered an encouraging showing defensively, tracking back to help his teammates when the team had lost possession of the ball, and all in all it was a satisfactory—if not eye-catching—display.
Ola Aina is emerging as a first-team player at Chelsea, and the current situation needs to be monitored by the Nigerian Football Federation, as it would be devastating to see such another talented youngster lost to England. Could another Chelsea player be donning the green of the Super Eagles imminently?!