Jake Clarke-Salter (JCS) is a 21-year-old left footed centre back who stands at 6 foot 2. It seems that he has been brought in to compete with Krystian Pedersen for the left sided centre back role in Blues’ back three. I have looked back on JCS’s previous loan spells to get an idea of what Blues fans can expect from their new loan signing.
JCS spent the 2016/17 season on loan at Bristol Rovers in League 1. This was his first taste of senior football and he was included in the starting 11 until sustaining a dislocated elbow that kept him out of action for 4 months.
When he was on the pitch, JCS showed promise defensively, winning 76.5% of his defensive duels, but was susceptible in the air and seemed to be targeted by opposition teams in this area. This was evident in the last game of the season against Millwall as JCS won just 3 of 16 aerial battles on the day up against the likes of Steve Morison. The video below shows that while JCS was not up to the challenge physically (this may be in part due to the shoulder injury), he also struggled to judge the flight of the ball and position himself accordingly.
JCS mostly looked like an average passer in his time at Bristol Rovers, although he did attempt slightly more passes to the final third than an average centre back and completed these at a higher rate than average. This can be attributed to the direct style of the Rovers team, as a lot of these passes were lofted balls up to the strikers.
JCS joined Sunderland on loan in the January 2018 transfer window. This was a very bad team, demonstrated by the 3-1 loss to a Steve Cotterill-led Blues team; Sunderland were bottom of the league when JCS joined and finished the season in the same position. In that game at St Andrews, and in most of his time at Sunderland, JCS filled the role of the left sided centre back in a back three.
JCS struggled defensively at Sunderland, including back to back appearances with red cards. He only won 56% of his defensive duels, which was a big drop-off from his time at Bristol Rovers, however this is to be expected given the dysfunctional team in which he was playing and the step up from League 1 to Championship. JCS’s aerial vulnerability persisted while his passing became even more direct, with the amount of long passes and passes to the final third increasing by approximately 40%, but the accuracy on his passes worsened.
A skill that JCS did demonstrate in his time at Sunderland was the ability to carry the ball out of defence and beat opposition players off the dribble. JCS attempted 1.3 dribbles per 90 minutes and successfully completed 70% of these; this does not seem like a lot, but to add some context: Championship defenders averaged 0.7 dribbles per 90 with a 58% success rate last season, and only one centre back averaged more than 1.3 dribbles per 90. If JCS could execute this for Blues, it would be an effective asset as it draws opposition players to the ball and destabilises the defence, making it easier to play through. This would be particularly useful given that David Davis, a very limited passer, has lined up on the left side of midfield so far in pre-season.
Last season JCS followed the much travelled path from Chelsea to Vitesse Arnhem in the Eredivisie on loan. He racked up more minutes for Vitesse than in the other two loan spells combined, despite two month-long spells on the sideline with knee and foot injuries.
Due to the strength of this Vitesse team, JCS was required to do a lot less defending, with significantly less defensive and aerial duels compared to his other loans. However, when he was called into action, he was dominant, with a similar success rate to his time at Bristol Rovers in terms of defensive duels, but also much improved aerial success. This improvement should be taken with a pinch of salt given the young average age and low level of physicality in the Dutch league.
JCS averaged more passes per 90 at Vitesse than in his other loans, but was more conservative with his distribution, evidenced by less long balls and less passes to the final third, but improved accuracy in all areas. There was also a big decrease in the amount of dribbles that JCS attempted, but this may be down to Vitesse playing a flat back four, giving JCS less license to advance into midfield.
JCS captained England’s team for the U-21 European Championships this summer and started each of their games. It was not a successful tournament for England, as they picked up 1 point from their 3 games and exited at the group stage.
While the England defense did not cover itself in glory during the tournament; the back four were left exposed when the sole defensive midfielder in the squad Hamza Choudhury received a red card in the first game. JCS saw a lot of the ball in these games, averaging significantly more passes per 90 than in any of his loan spells. He was relatively conservative in possession, completing 95% of his passes, and although he did progress the ball into the final third quite often, most of these passes were to the left back who had pushed up high and wide. He did attempt some more adventurous passes, and while he was able to spot the runs in behind by the striker, he was unable to connect on the balls over the top, but had more success with cross field balls.
On the whole, Jake Clarke-Salter is a very highly rated prospect in the England set-up and at Chelsea, evidenced by the new contract that he signed before joining Blues on loan. While the signing has generated a lot of excitement among Blues fans, the question marks over JCL’s capabilities mean he may not be a sure-fire starter, and will face stiff competition from Pedersen for the left sided centre back role. In his previous loan spells on these shores, there have been displays of rashness defensively and weakness in the air, while his passing has been consistently mediocre. His most recent loan spell with Vitesse proved to be the most convincing defensively, but the overall standard of play and physicality in this league mean too much stock cannot be placed in this. He showed the ability to identify high value passes for England’s under 21s this summer, but will need to execute these passes with more regularity to take the next step as a ball playing centre back.
On the whole, this seems to be a sensible move by Blues, with a very high upside but relatively low risk. If JCL can replicate his defensive dominance from last season and further develop his ball carrying and passing skills, then Blues could have one of the best ball playing centre backs in the league on their hands. If JCL’s defensive frailty persists and his passing remains at an average level, then Blues have added depth at the left centre back spot where previously Jonathan Grounds was the only cover.