It’s often said that managers who have to make choices such as the one Jose Mourinho must make for next season have a ‘good problem’ – whatever the outcome, Chelsea will have a quality player in goal. But play it wrong, and Mourinho risks alienating the guy who many see as the next best goalkeeper in the world, if not just the best goalkeeper in the world.
So if we believe Thibaut Courtois to be the best in the world, or at least better than Petr Cech, then the choice would appear to be fairly straightforward. Cech has been a great goalkeeper for the club – maybe the best – but the arguments in his favor tend to lend heavily on sentimentality.
And perhaps Mourinho is becoming sentimental in his old-age, because the feeling is that the Portuguese would prefer to stick with Cech for next season. Ideally, Courtois would spend another season on loan at Atletico, maybe even another season on loan in England after that, before Cech steps down to usher the new guard in.
However, the reasons for these leanings extend past sentimentality. Cech has leadership qualities that Courtois does not. With John Terry only getting a one year extension on his contract, and Frank Lampard yet to agree a new deal, this Chelsea team could fast become bereft of leaders.
Cech has also been loyal to the club, and perhaps more importantly, loyal to Mourinho. The manager’s career is increasingly being characterized by internal divisions, and in Cech, Mourinho has a player who he trusts. Courtois has not been disloyal to Chelsea but the player has made his lack of identity with the Premier League club well known. This is not surprising given he’s a Chelsea player who has never played for Chelsea, but it is significant.
However, it’s also possible to see this dissatisfaction in a positive light. Courtois has been annoyed by his dealings with Chelsea because he already expected to be playing for the club. And not just playing in the League Cup, but to be the de facto No.1. At 21, it’s understandable that Chelsea have been reluctant to take the gamble on youth, and have preferred to allow someone else to. But Courtois’ abilities have been a thing of certainty since the end of his first season in Spain.
The belief that he should have already displaced Cech at Chelsea suggests that Courtois has the mental attributes to succeed at Chelsea – to be the best goalkeeper in the world. But this confidence has resulted in impatience, and a growing resentment towards his parent club. And it’s here that the danger lies for Chelsea.
Allow Courtois to continue his ‘development’ at the Vicente Calderon and the player may grow in ways unplanned. The annoyance that’s already apparent may transform into something more sinister. Loaning Courtois for a year made sense, as did two. But four? A problem of apathy may turn into turn into one of contempt.
Then there is the issue of Courtois’ contract. The Belgian has two years remaining on his contract with Chelsea and the club will be looking to renew it over the summer. However, the 21-year-old is likely to be reluctant to sign if Chelsea seek to send him on loan again next season, and it’d be hard to begrudge him this reluctance given that he has been treated more as an asset than a player, or heaven forbid, a person.
In an ideal world, Chelsea would prefer a smoother transition between their goalkeepers. However, that may in fact be the riskier course to take.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Courtois has developed far faster than expected and is now deserving of his place at the club. Attempt to deny him this again, and the club may lose a very valuable asset.
Given that Chelsea have largely treated Courtois as thus so far, this may well be the thing to prompt the club to promote the Belgian at Cech’s expense.