Slipping Through The Net: The Mismanaging of Ola Aina

Temitayo Olufisayo Olaoluwa Aina – better known as Ola Aina was a precocious talent who managed to impress Jose Mourinho at just age 18 and was part of a growing wave of talent that would win multiple honours at youth level at Cobham. Capable of operating either side of the defence, and in more advanced wingback and midfield roles, Aina possesses the rare combination of pace, strength, height and defensive awareness that earmarked him as the archetype modern defender.

Yet, despite all of this, Aina only managed three appearances in four years as a senior pro at SW6 – less than the number of caps he achieved at England U20 level before switching allegiances from the Three Lions to the Super Eagles. Now firmly ensconced as one of Torino’s key players, it’s time to be open and honest – mismanagement of Aina prevented him at least establishing himself as a useful and reliable squad player at Chelsea.

The Wave of Talent

Born in Southwark, Ola Aina joined Chelsea at U11-level, and as a schoolboy, he burst onto the scene in the FA Youth Cup, deployed in his preferred right-back role in the semi-final victory against Liverpool (playing alongside the likes of Nathan Ake, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jeremie Boga). Although Aina was one of the youngest names on the pitch, he quickly adapted after a shaky start and his performance, coupled with other squad injuries led to him starting both legs of the FA Youth Final against Norwich City. In truth, this game was a massive learning curve for Aina: he was outfought and outmuscled by the hugely impressive Jacob and Josh Murphy who tormented the entire Chelsea backline as the Carrow Road underdogs secured famous victories at home and at Stamford Bridge.

The next season was much more positive for Aina. A year older, a year stronger and a year wiser, he returned to the FA Youth Cup squad and played in both legs of the semi-final and final, as Chelsea triumphed over London rivals Arsenal and Fulham to lift the trophy, and also starred in rotation in the Premier League 2 as Chelsea won the main League, before playing every minute of the semi-final and final of the knockout rounds as Chelsea beat off competition from Manchester City and Manchester United to win the additional accolade. Further appearances for Aina in the UEFA Youth League Round of Sixteen and Quarter Final cemented his reputation as a rising star in the world of English football. His progress was rewarded in July 2014 – at just age 17, he managed to get minutes in Chelsea’s topsy-turvy 3-2 pre-season victory over AFC Wimbledon, replacing the injured Todd Kane before being substituted himself for Serbian stalwart Branislav Ivanovic.

Ola Aina in action for Chelsea's senior side.
Ola Aina in action for Chelsea. Image Credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images.

Ola Aina: Elation and Frustration

By the end of the 2014-2015 season, Ola Aina was a stalwart of Chelsea’s talented youth system and established firmly within the England youth set-up as well, playing at U16, U17, U18 and U19 level for the Young Lions. Making thirty-seven appearances across three competitions, Aina alongside his teammates announced Chelsea’s status as European Youth superpower as they won the UEFA Youth League in blistering fashion, scoring twice in all but one match. Grabbing his first Chelsea goal as they beat Schalke comfortably in the group stage match, Aina locked down the right-back position for the entire impressive run. He only missed out on one minute of match action during the tournament, against Roma in the semi-final 4-0 rout, where he was substituted for Fikayo Tomori.

Aina’s pace, power and drive wasn’t just spearheading Chelsea to success in one competition. He appeared in all but one Premier League 2 match. After providing an assist in the season-opening victory over Manchester City, Aina played 1,616 minutes in total as the Blues finished third, just four points behind Manchester United, but competing with the youngest squad in the competition, aged just 17.5 years on average. His pace and power, plus versatility to play at left back, centre back and right back impressed pundits and fans alike. Of course, once again, Aina picked up an FA Youth Cup medal, playing every minute of the tournament and keeping two clean sheets as Chelsea battered their way to the crown once more, dispatching Tottenham 5-4 on aggregate and Manchester City 5-3 on aggregate in the semi-finals and finals to once again lift the silverware. In total, Aina made 37 appearances across all competitions and played 3,085 minutes in total. A remarkable feat for someone so young – to put it into perspective, that’s just about 350 minutes shy of a full Premier League season.

2015-2016 promised much for Aina, as he was promoted to the full senior squad under Jose Mourinho, but Aina faced tough competition for the fullback positions, competing against Ivanovic, Azpilicueta, and Abdul Rahman Baba. Once again, Aina picked up silverware at youth level as an impressive Chelsea side once more won the UEFA Youth League, this time rotating his minutes between right-back and left-back due to the emerging Dujon Sterling. Aina played every single minute once again. At Premier League 2 Level, the 18 year old was swapping with consumate ease between left back, right back and centre back and his versatility was important, despite a disappointing campaign in mid-table for the Blues. He did score once again in the competition, this time against Norwich

With turmoil on the pitch, Aina seemed likely to get a chance at some point. At least, in theory. The closest Aina got to action was two spots on the bench, over six months apart from one another: the September League Cup victory against Walsall and a disappointing 1-0 loss against Swansea in April. With Ivanovic fading rapidly, and Baba Rahman struggling to consistently string together performances, one does wonder why neither Jose Mourinho, nor Guus Hiddink took a chance on Ola Aina, especially when the club desperately needed some positivity that a youth star emerging could have provided.

Ola Aina playing at Stamford Bridge in the Carabao Cup.
Aina in action for Chelsea’s senior side. Image Credit: Adam Davy.

Consolidation, Change and Ciao

Aina’s contract was up in 2016 and the vultures began to circle, as teams including Liverpool queued up to offer Aina a chance to get away. He rejected one contract offer and looked certain to leave. Then Antonio Conte arrived and Aina surprisingly u-turned on his decision to leave, signing a new four-year deal, to much relief in the Chelsea hierarchy. At this point, Aina performed another u-turn, switching his international allegiance.

His decision to stay seemed to be vindicated as he played in all six pre-season matches, and in the 2016-17 season, he made his EFL Cup debut against Bristol Rovers, FA Cup debut against Peterborough, scored in the crazy EFL Trophy penalty shoot-out against Oxford United and made 3 Premier League appearances as Chelsea lifted the trophy. Was luck finally turning around for the new Nigeria international?

The question of regular senior minutes still loomed large and Aina went on loan to Hull City in Championship. Although the Tigers struggled for consistency as they flirted with relegation, Ola Aina settled in nicely playing in every single Championship match, and performing well despite his teammates’ erratic form. Unlike Fikayo Tomori, who found himself rotated in and out of the Hull XI as they searched for a winning formula, Aina established himself as first choice right back, sometimes filled in at left back and even occasionally forayed forward in right midfield. The Tigers kept 12 clean sheets, 20 year old Aina made 44 appearances and he matured rapidly in a testing year. When he returned to Chelsea, it was clear – ‘use me or lose me.’

Sadly, Chelsea settled on the latter. Although Aina had impressed at the Championship level, it was clear Antonio Conte had set wingback targets for his 3-4-3 system. Elseid Hysaj of Napoli and Alex Sandro of Juventus were the names to compete with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses and nothing was going to change Conte’s mind. Despite signing a new 3 year deal, Aina sensed that the chances were non-existent at SW6 and left on loan to Torino on August 14th 2018. Approaching his 21st birthday, it was clear Aina wanted stability and a place to properly establish himself – and Chelsea signing Davide Zappacosta from Torino just over two weeks later provided him with the perfect opportunity. Aina thrived with the attacking freedom that Torino’s system afforded and became a dynamic wide midfielder at Stade Olimpico Grande Torino.

He made 32 appearances during his initial loan, picking up three assists and scoring once. No wonder Torino chairman Urbano Cairo couldn’t wait to cash in on Aina’s paltry £9m release clause in June 2019. This season, Aina has made 25 appearances so far in all competitions and his drive and dynamism has been a welcome boon in what has otherwise been a disappointing season for Torino fans.

Ola Aina: The Final Word

The biggest question I’ll always have is this – if Aina was not good enough for Chelsea, how come he was perfectly suited to replacing Davide Zappacosta? I can’t believe that even in the season of turmoil under Jose, Guus Hiddink wasn’t willing to give him a chance. If you are good enough, age is not a relevant factor. Similarly, I was surprised Antonio Conte didn’t consider him a viable option to rotate at wingback on a regular basis, as he has all the attributes required for that role. With his pace, versatility and power, Aina certainly could offer something different to the current squad, especially as a pure wide midfielder and his engine is up there with N’Golo Kante in terms of longevity. Like so many wide players in mid-table clubs in Europe, if his end product can be a bit more consistent, someone will snap him up soon and he’ll show everyone he can be a very good player indeed.

Written and edited by Rob Pratley

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