At a moment when Chelsea’s retinue of strikers are proving decidedly impotent, it was probably unfortunate timing for the London club that Romelu Lukaku put in a perky performance for Everton on Monday night.
The big Belgian - who joined the club for £18m from Anderlecht and has now been farmed out on loan for a second successive season - scored twice in a 3-2 win over Newcastle, as well as claiming an assist, and, pertinently, has more Premier League goals this season than Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba combined.
Jose Mourinho’s decision to allow him to depart on transfer deadline day looks ever more inexplicable with every goal scored, every defender tormented and every team vanquished. It is likely the Portuguese coach will be asked why he let this brilliant striker leave Cobham a few more times before the season is out.
But Lukaku’s exit was no mere aberration on Mourinho's part: it was the latest manifestation of Chelsea’s consistently clumsy approach when it comes to young talents; a flawed policy which may be most evident in this summer's treatment of Lukaku, but has deep structural roots too.
Despite Roman Abramovich’s huge investment in the club’s infrastructure, the last player to become a first-team regular after emerging from the club’s youth system was John Terry; meanwhile a number of expensive youngsters purchased from home and abroad have found their progression stunted at Stamford Bridge.
Former director of football Frank Arnesen left in 2011 having failed to bring through any players of note despite a worldwide recruitment drive to boost Chelsea’s youth teams which resulted in deals such as the £3.8 million spent on OFK Belgrade’s Slobodan Rajkovic, the £5m paid for Boavista’s Aliu ‘Kaby’ Djalo and the £4m given to Leeds for Michael Woods and Tom Taiwo.
Money was wasted on players who were simply not good enough for Chelsea - or not given the chance to prove they were - and even though this issue is a separate concern to the unwillingness to use Lukaku this season, they are two strands of the same story. Both are borne from an intense focus on immediate results.
After leaving the club, Arnesen claimed the pressure of Premier League football meant a succession of managers felt unable to place their faith in youth: “At Chelsea, we had fantastic talent, we built up marvellous players, but they needed to be given a chance and they never were. The pressure is so big. Managers in England are going out and buying players, the level is high, and it is difficult for them because if they lose two or three games, they are gone.”
Abramovich has been more ruthless than most, that is true, and few owners would indulge the kind of long-term rebuilding that Arsene Wenger has painstakingly undertaken at Arsenal, with repeated setbacks dealt to his young and inexperienced squads.
But Mourinho – a man who comes into clubs wielding a manic desire to win immediately, and is hardly known for his long-term approach - promised a culture change this summer upon returning to the Stamford Bridge hot-seat, even if he would not consider a lack of competitiveness as a by-product.
"I haven't changed my nature and I won't accept development without trying to win – ever,"said Mourinho in June. "It's more difficult to keep trying to win and trying to be successful while at the same time developing young players and giving an identity to the team - but it's something I want at this stage of my career.
"Titles I have, money I have, I need challenges. Nothing motivates me more than challenges. It's about changing the club, I think, and the club thinks so too. We want to go in this direction (bringing in young players). The one or two we may buy are complements because the structure and philosophy is this. I'm more than happy to do that and to help these young guys grow up. Not build the team, because the team has a structure to it, but I want to help the team improve."
Though Mourinho has of course continued to play the excellent Oscar and Eden Hazard – both recruited under Roberto Di Matteo last summer – and tried to utilise Marco van Ginkel before his serious knee injury, the decision to allow Lukaku to leave and the news that Kevin De Bruyne has been axed from his squad – media analysis of which provoked Mourinho to make an early exit from his press conference ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League fixture against Steaua Bucharest – call into question this new determination to develop players.
He would not be the first manager to turn his focus away from Chelsea's youngsters - indeed a prime characteristic of Mourinho's previous reign was the lack of players moving from Arnesen's control to his.
A reluctance to trust in kids is ingrained in Chelsea’s culture under Abramovich and although another loan move for Lukaku will no doubt see him become a more rounded and complete player – just as Thibaut Courtois is becoming a goalkeeper of real renown with his successive loan spells at Atletico Madrid - it is impossible to argue that the striker is not needed right now at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea’s misuse of Lukaku is not the first time their inflexibility over young players has proved rather questionable.
This summer they were linked with a bid in excess of £25m for Benfica midfielder Nemanja Matic – the same Nemanja Matic who was originally used as a makeweight in the deal that took David Luiz to Chelsea in August 2011. Chelsea signed the Serbian from Kosice for around £1.5m in 2009 but he made only made two appearances as a substitute in the Premier League.
Meanwhile, a quick glance at the top scorers list in the Premier League sees a certain Daniel Sturridge sitting proudly atop it. Sturridge, of course, joined Chelsea from Manchester City for £3.5m in 2009 as a hugely talented 19-year-old, but made only 31 league starts in four years with the London club.
He enjoyed a fine start to the 2011-12 campaign under Andre Villas-Boas, performing very effectively on the right of the Chelsea attack, but Roberto Di Matteo’s appointment saw the club shift focus back to their established players – a policy that brought a Champions League and FA Cup triumph at the end of the season.
Still, Sturridge’s progress was dramatically stunted as a result and he was eventually allowed to join Liverpool last January, scoring 15 goals in 17 starts in the Premier League since. His performances this season have been of an extremely high standard and he too – along with Lukaku – would surely saunter into Chelsea’s starting XI at present. Merseyside is benefitting from West London's mistakes.
Meanwhile, as he aims to avoid a second poor result in two Champions League games, Mourinho goes to Bucharest with a £50m club-record signing who has dramatically lost his touch, a 32-year-old brought back to the mainstream from a financial venture in Dagestan and a player in Ba who has two goals in 15 league appearances.
It's too late for this season - Lukaku cannot be recalled, according to Everton - but the Belgian's success should force a rethink regarding Chelsea's methods of developing young players in future.