“I am a central midfielder, my favourite player is Frank Lampard, and so I am very happy to be a Chelsea player,” remarked Mario Pasalic as he penned a long term deal with Chelsea back in 2014.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pasalic has never played with or under Lampard since that day. In fact he can’t even say he set a competitive foot on the turf at Stamford Bridge.
A familiar tale perhaps. Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku will tell you that success at Chelsea i, historically, a lottery, often dictated by the manager’s whim and the club’s purse strings. But you do feel that Pasalic, as far as Chelsea forgotten loanees go, has had one of the rougher rides.
German-born Croatia international Pasalic was snapped up from Hadjuk Split in 2014 for just £3m, a deal that, as was probably the plan all along, eventually turned a neat profit for Chelsea.
The boy had hammered in 11 goals and assisted five times in his debut professional season back home, so there was some obvious method to the signing.
But it wasn’t surprising when at the age of 19, he wasn’t considered part of youth sceptic Jose Mourinho’s plans to mount a title challenge. He was then loaned out to get valuable game time at La Liga outfit Elche before yearly spells at Monaco, AC Milan and Spartak Moscow – the latter of which came just after he bizarrely signed a new four-year-deal with the Blues in 2017.
Bizarre because despite performing admirably in his spells in France and Italy, he never looked close to breaking into the first-team picture at the Bridge.
But it was two summers ago, when Pasalic was shifted out to Atalanta (his fifth loan in four countries), after it was made apparent Maurizio Sarri would not be utilising him that season, that Europe suddenly took notice of Mario.
And it was with good reason. He played 42 games and scored eight goals as Atalanta finished an impressive third in Serie A behind Juve and Napoli and ahead of the two Milan giants. It qualified the Bergamo-based side for the Champions League for the first time in their history.
Still, it wasn’t enough to convince Chelsea that the dynamic midfielder had a future in west London, as he remained on loan in Italy for 2019/20 despite signing another extension to his deal at the Bridge. He eventually joined La Dea permanently a month ago for £13.5m, bringing to an end a six-year Blues career comprising of zero competitive minutes.
Already tactically and defensively sound, Pasalic has developed his offensive game further this season; scoring a hat-trick against Brescia in a 6-2 victory since the restart and providing numerous assists for Atalanta’s attacking trio of Duvan Zapata, Luis Muriel and Josip Ilicic throughout.
His ability to drive from midfield and pick out defining passes has set him apart from most central midfielders in Serie A this season. Atalanta have reaped the rewards, sitting third in Serie A again and through to their first Champions League quarter-final against PSG.
Frustrated Blues boss Lampard has been crying out for more goals from midfield this season, not to mention more precision and directness with passing in the final third. Pasalic has demonstrated that he possesses all those skills and at 25, has plenty of time to learn and develop further.
The problem that Lampard and perhaps Pasalic too realised, was there was already plenty of competition. The permanent signing of Mateo Kovacic and return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, only added to an already strong armoury of central players.
Another factor as to why it never happened for Pasalic is financial. The club were in the midst of a transfer embargo last season and needed funds this summer to secure the eventual signings of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner to rebuild their ageing squad. Pasalic provided a good asset, in the sense that his value had continued to increase significantly off the back of his performances out on loan.
However, Chelsea have scored just 15 league goals from midfield all season, four of them penalties by Jorginho; with Kante, Ross Barkley and Kovacic scoring just five between them. Yes, Mason Mount has been invaluable wherever he has played, but he is often deployed further forward when on the scoresheet.
25-year-old Pasalic has the versatility, with the ability to play in deep-lying role or further forward in support of the attacking forwards, whilst always providing a goal threat. It’s a versatility that could have been utilised well with Chelsea’s current midfield options largely not possessing equal value going forward as they do at controlling the play.
So Chelsea fans may now never get to see one of the longest serving players at the club pull on a Blue shirt, at least not a Chelsea one. They may be baffled after looking at his stats, as to why he wasn’t given anything close to a shot, but you have to remember, this is Chelsea; serial winners, ruthless and historically impatient. Young players are bought with the intention of being sold down the line for profit unless fate and circumstance allow them a rare shot at the first-team.
Had the ever-improving Pasalic joined the club at a different time and under different circumstances, he may well be featuring in a Blues midfield right now. His sale may have turned a profit for the Blues but missing out on his potential is arguably the greater loss.