Had things worked out a little differently for Xavier Mbuyamba, he would now be in the early stages of his third season at Chelsea. Unfortunately, the transfer ban served by the Blues in the summer of 2019 delayed his arrival. Instead, he joined Barcelona. Silver linings and all that.
The centre-back only spent a year in Catalonia, however, He wanted to be a Chelsea player and ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, Mbuyamba’s dream became reality.
“I know there is a lot of pressure on me at Chelsea,” he told Dutch outlet NOS after joining the Blues. “I come from FC Barcelona, I am talked about a lot and I get the stamp ‘the new Virgil van Dijk’. I don’t care. I show that I can handle it and be as good as they say.”
Then fate dealt him a cruel blow. In just his second training session with the Blues, the teenager tore the meniscus in his right knee. He underwent keyhole surgery in September 2020 and began his recovery. He was expected to miss around four months of football.
Mbuyamba returned to training with the Development Squad at the start of the year and was pushing to making his senior bow for the Blues. But it was decided at the end of January he should undergo another small operation on his knee.
“I know you’re all wondering when you will see me play in Chelsea kit,” the young Dutchman posted on his Instagram page in February.
“A few weeks ago that moment was almost there. I was so focused on the comeback and hungry to play. Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned.
“Three weeks ago I had another operation, not as big as the first one but I will be out for a bit longer. It’s very frustrating but I have to be patient, the key is to keep working hard and stay strong so the comeback will be big. That’s what I do.”
Mbuyamba returned to training in April and made his maiden Development Squad appearance as a substitute against Southampton. He scored with his first touch.
The 19-year-old would go on to four further appearances at the end of last term and there was an expectation that he would be involved with the first-team squad for pre-season.
That wasn’t the case, perhaps no surprise given the sheer number of returning loanees Tuchel had to run his eye over before those in action for their countries returned to Cobham.
Mbuyamba has started the campaign with the Under-23s and has featured in the young Blues’ opening five matches. His form has been patchy, no surprise given he is still adapting to the demands of the English game. Yet that hasn’t stopped him from making progress.
During the international break, Mbuyamba trained with Thomas Tuchel’s depleted first-team squad. It was a landmark achievement for the defender.
“A moment I’ve been working towards since joining this incredible club,” he posted on Instagram. Truly blessed to be training with the first team this week. Lots to learn and my motivation is on another level right now!”
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Mbuyamba, a ball-playing, left-footed centre-back capable of playing in a back three or four, was part of the Development Squad defence on Sunday that shipped six goals against Arsenal, who played the entire second half with ten men.
Yet despite struggling against the Gunners, he was back working with the first-team squad this week and Tuchel took the decision to name the youngster on the bench for the Carabao Cup third round against Aston Villa alongside the experienced Thiago Silva.
If injury does force Tuchel to change his backline this evening, it’s likely he will turn to the experienced Brazilian international. But given the journey Mbuyamba has been on over the past two years, a senior debut may not be too far away.