ONE year ago almost to the day, Chelsea sacked André Villas-Boas after just a few months in charge. As with any managerial change, the new man will have different players that he rates. One of the major beneficiaries of the young Portuguese manager’s sacking was English fullback Ryan Bertrand. The last 12 months must be scarcely believable for the former Gillingham man. Let’s take a look at his roller coaster year.
When AVB arrived last summer, the squad contained four left backs – Ashley Cole, Russian wingback Yuri Zhirkov, Dutch youngster Patrick Van Aanholt, and Bertand. Cole had started all 38 league games under Carlo Ancelotti the previous season and was undoubtedly first choice. Zhirkov has suffered numerous injury problems in his two seasons at Chelsea, but had given some excellent displays in Cole’s absence during the 2009-10 season. He had spent most of the 2010-11 season playing further forward, either on the left of a four man midfield when Ancelotti used a 442, or as the left central midfielder in a 433. Van Aanholt had been part of the squad at various times under Ancelotti, made his debut before Bertrand, and was a year younger. With Chelsea’s very public interest in Porto’s Álvaro Pereira, it was clear AVB wanted another left back. Whilst Pereira had played some of his career further forward, he had played exclusively at left back for Porto under AVB the previous season. When Porto’s demands were deemed excessive, Chelsea pulled out of any deal and Bertrand was installed as backup left back after Zhirkov was sold, and Van Aanholt departed for a loan spell at Wigan.
However, it was clear that AVB didn’t trust Bertrand as he gave him only four starts during his entire reign as manager. When Chelsea faced a desperately poor Portsmouth side at home in the FA Cup third round, he was given only the last 5 minutes as a substitute. A few days earlier, the side had faced Aston Villa on the Saturday and then Wolves on the Monday. With Cole suffering an recurring ankle injury that means he suffers stiffness the day after a game, he was forced to play twice in three days because of AVB’s lack of faith in his deputy. When Cole was red carded a few weeks later at Swansea, it appeared that Bertrand would get his chance to start a league game against Manchester United. However, AVB decided to rather switch José Bosingwa across to left back.
After Roberto Di Matteo took over after Villas-Boas’ sacking, Bertrand featured very regularly in the remaining games of the season. In the 21 games that season under RDM, Bertrand started nine games, including an outstanding performance against Theo Walcott in a 0-0 draw at The Emirates. When Florent Malouda injured his hamstring in the final league game against Blackburn, Di Matteo moved Bertrand to left midfield as an experiment ahead of the Champions League final against Bayern Munich. With Malouda a doubt for that game throughout the week, Di Matteo worked in training with Bertrand in front of Ashley Cole as a defensive winger. This was to track the forward runs of the excellent Philip Lahm. Just two weeks ago, Lahm set up a crucial third goal in Bayern’s Champions League tie at Arsenal. Di Matteo was clearly vindicated by his selection as Bertrand and Cole did an excellent job of thwarting the Bayern right side of Lahm and Arjen Robben. Amazingly, this was Bertrand’s European debut. He had never even made the substitutes bench before, and had not been registered by AVB for the first half of the Champions League campaign.
That display got Bertrand the attention of both England manager Roy Hodgson and the Team GB Olympic manager Stuart Pearce, who selected him in his 18-man squad for the Olympics. Strangely, Bertrand was used at right back at times during that campaign. Stuart Pearce regularly uses players completely out of position.
Bertrand then made his England debut in a friendly win against a much-changed Italy side, and later made his competitive debut as a substitute for England in a 1-1 draw against Ukraine in a World Cup Qualifier. Bertrand cleared a shot off the line shortly before Frank Lampard scored the equaliser. His inclusion in the squad for that round of qualifiers had come off the back of a strong start to the 2012-13 season under Di Matteo, who started him in three of the first four league games, all as the defensive winger in front of Ashley Cole. Chelsea kept clean sheets in all of those games. He made a further five starts and five substitute appearances before Di Matteo was dismissed in November. With Rafael Benítez taking over, Bertrand lost a manager who had very clear faith in him and had handed him his first real chances in a Chelsea shirt.
Benítez has used Bertrand fairly regularly, but often at seemingly the wrong times. In a home game against Fulham, and with Juan Mata rested, he started as a defensive left winger. In an insipid performance, many were baffled by the selection of a defensive winger in a home game against as a side Chelsea should be beating. He then started a home league defeat against QPR, in which both Mata and Eden Hazard were rested. He also started an away league game at Reading as a defensive winger, and the away defeat at Newcastle in the same position.
Since the Europa League has restarted, Benítez has looked to use Bertrand in that competition. He started both legs of the tie against Sparta Prague as well as the recent FA Cup replay against Middlesbrough. With the schedule allowing very little recovery time for the players, Bertrand will be hoping to share the left back role with Cole for the rest of the season.
With Ashley Cole’s contract due to expire in June 2013, there was plenty of speculation about whether Cole would be granted a new deal or not. Many were wondering what course of action the club would take should Cole depart. Would Bertrand be promoted to first choice, or would an expensive new addition arrive? After Cole eventually agreed to a new 12 month contract, Bertrand stated his pleasure at the news:
I have said from the start that he deserves another contract. We have a good relationship. I’m always learning and there is no one better to learn from.
He has given me plenty of advice over the years. The best advice is not so much what he has given me verbally but just watching him every day and the way he goes about his business.
It reflects in our performances when we play together and I am in front of him at left midfield. It is probably the natural progression to share the left-back role, but I don’t pick the team.
I just get my head down, train well and hopefully that time will come.
It will be interesting to see how the club treats the left back position over the next 12 months. Southampton’s outstanding, young, Chelsea-supporting left back, Luke Shaw has been linked to Chelsea on numerous occasions and could be a possible target to eventually replace Cole and challenge Bertrand for the position. Dutchman Van Aanholt has been enjoying some very impressive form on loan at Vitesse which has seen him touted for a call-up to the Dutch National side.
Whatever Chelsea decide to do when Cole departs (whether that happens at the end of next season or not) will be very interesting. Bertrand is a very dependable player who plays like someone with great experience. That may be because he made 161 appearances over five seasons in various loan spells. He signed new Chelsea contracts in each of the last two summers, with a five-year deal agreed in September 2012. Either way, Chelsea should look at Bertrand as an example of what the academy can produce – dependable, English squad players. The academy does not only have to be about trying to produce world class players, but also players who can add depth to what is currently a small and unbalanced squad. A good example of such a player is Jack Cork, who is performing excellently for Southampton in the Premier League but never made a single appearance for Chelsea, despite joining the club at the age of 9 and impressing in a Premier League loan spell at Burnley in 2010.
Let’s hope Bertrand builds on the highs of the previous 12 months and continues to improve.