The uncertain future of Danny Drinkwater, the Premier League’s forgotten man

Given that Maurizio Sarri is under pressure and Manchester United are the opposition, we can expect Chelsea to field a full-strength starting XI in their FA Cup fifth-round clash with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side on Monday night. With United now having overtaken the Blues in the race for fourth spot, Sarri knows that cup competitions could play a big part in determining his future at Stamford Bridge.

The former Napoli head coach used meetings with Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday in previous rounds to rest some of his big names and hand opportunities to fringe members of his squad. Eden Hazard, Jorginho, N’Golo Kante, Pedro Rodriguez and Kepa Arrizabalaga were among the first-team regulars who did not start either match, while Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ethan Ampadu, Andreas Christensen, Davide Zappacosta and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were all given the chance to impress from the first whistle in at least one of the clashes with Championship opposition.

Even in those games, though, there was no space for either Gary Cahill or Danny Drinkwater. The former was expected to depart west London in January having fallen down the pecking order since Antonio Conte’s exit, but the transfer window shut with the centre-back still on the club’s books. The latter, meanwhile, has become the Premier League’s forgotten man; whereas the 33-year-old Cahill is coming to the end of his career, Drinkwater is 28 and should theoretically be in his prime.

The midfielder’s move to Chelsea in the summer of 2017 always felt like a curious one. It was difficult to see him forcing his way into the starting XI, and although he helped fill the homegrown quota that all Premier League clubs must abide by, a £35m fee seemed wildly exaggerated – particularly as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who went on to feature prominently in England’s run to the semi-finals of the World Cup, was sent out on loan to Crystal Palace in the same window.

Drinkwater did at least feature every so often last term, making 12 appearances in the Premier League and a further 10 in cup competitions. Things have been different this time around, though, with Sarri unconvinced by Drinkwater’s ability to perform in his favoured 4-3-3 system.

“He is at the moment with us [training with the first team],” the manager told reporters at the end of last month. “As you know very well, because I told you my opinion about this player, he is a very good player. But I think he is more suitable for playing with two midfielders. He is not a central midfielder, he is not a centre-right in the midfield with three players. But he is a very good player in a 4-4-2.”

Drinkwater demonstrated that during his time at Leicester, most notably in their extraordinary title-winning campaign of 2015/16. Jamie Vardy’s goals, Riyad Mahrez’s creativity and N’Golo Kante’s ball-winning meant it was that trio who earned most of the plaudits for one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time, but Drinkwater was another integral member of Claudio Ranieri’s side. He was the perfect foil for Kante in the engine room, playing a box-to-box role alongside the Frenchman and frequently setting up chances for Vardy with pinpoint passes in behind the opposition’s backline.

Yet for all that he was important at the King Power Stadium that season, Drinkwater never looked like the type of player who could thrive week in, week out for a club which aims to challenge for trophies every season. That, combined with his supposed incompatibility with the type of football Sarri is trying to implement at Stamford Bridge, has seen him cast to the sidelines. Drinkwater has not got on the pitch in the Premier League this season and has been named in the matchday squad on just one occasion, for the 4-1 victory over Cardiff City in September. He was also an unused substitute in the 3-2 League Cup defeat of Derby County the following month, and he has still not played a single minute of senior football since the Community Shield in August.

Recent events have cast doubt on Sarri’s future at Stamford Bridge, but Drinkwater’s appears more clear-cut. Even if Chelsea make a managerial change it is difficult to see the ex-Leicester man suddenly becoming a key player for the club, so he should do everything he can to secure a move away in the summer – even if that means a drop in wages. Although under contract at Chelsea until June 2022, Drinkwater must make regular football his priority from next season onwards.

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