Charly Musonda: What went wrong for Cobham's forgotten man?
Charly Musonda. A name many Chelsea fans will be familiar with.
An explosive winger regarded as one of the finest of his generation, he burst through the Cobham youth ranks, impressing with his pace, skill, dynamism and trickery, also standing out in the Belgium youth teams, heralded as another gem in the next generation of Belgian talent.
Musonda realised his Chelsea dream on 20 September 2017, scoring his first senior goal for the club in a Carabao Cup tie versus Nottingham Forest. The Belgian found himself free on the edge of the area after a clever through ball from Cesc Fabregas, and composed himself to drill the ball home with a right-footed effort into the bottom corner. Musonda was jubilant; a Chelsea player since the age of 16, his dream appeared to be materialising into reality.
Fast forward into 2020, and Musonda’s last involvement in a Chelsea shirt was in January 2018, a nine minute cameo off the bench in the 0-4 drubbing of Brighton. Musonda recently opened up about his injury struggles, an interview which will jerk a tear for many Chelsea fans; the all-too familiar story of a bright talent unable to reach the top heights purely due to bad luck, instead of lack of talent or application. He revealed doctors left him with just a 20 per cent chance to play football again after a nasty cruciate ligament tear, affecting the knee. This knock-back came after various consecutive injuries slowed down his game time and progress, beginning in 2016, and culminated in knee surgery in August
"It’s been four years since I played back to back professional games, three years since I last played for my club, two of those last four years, I’ve been injured with the post cruciate ligament of my knee. Nothing but heartbreak and heartache. Doctors told me going through surgery after being out for so long would be the end, an impossible mountain to climb, were the exact words. Until that day comes I’ll keep training and believing in the impossible comeback, because the greatest comebacks always seem like there is no way back, and that’s when we’ve got to dig deep and live to tell the story and not die in it."
Musonda is now 24 and still contracted as a Chelsea player, working on his rehabilitation and training outside the main squad. What is Charly’s story so far, and what lessons can he and Chelsea fans take looking forward to a more optimistic future for our bright star?
Joining Chelsea, Academy Days
Musonda was born in Brussels to Zambian parents. His dad, also named Charles, was a footballer, playing over 100 games for Anderlecht in the 1990s, as well as 48 times for the Zambian national side. Charly’s two older brothers are also professional players - including Lamish who was in the Chelsea academy from 2012-2014, and currently plays in the Congolese league.
Charly started his football career in the same steps as his father - joining Anderlecht at the age of 6. By the time he was 15, his immense talent was already evident. Chelsea first registered their interest in the teenager, who caught scout’s eyes with his incredibly quick pace, technique with both feet, skillset, and ability to make things happen in the box. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man Utd and Man City also scouted the youngster.
In June 2012, Chelsea agreed a deal to sign Charly as well as his two brothers [Lamisha mentioned previously, and Tika, who was forced into early retirement due to recurring injuries]. Chelsea were very active in the Belgian market at this point, tying up deals for Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois and Kevin de Bruyne between 2011-2012. It was anticipated Musonda would follow a similar career path to these players. Chelsea and Anderlecht agreed a 'compensation fee' for the three players.
In October 2013, Musonda, aged 17, signed his first professional contract with the club. At this point, he was a regular for the u18 side, playing 10 games and scoring once. It was the 2014/15 season where Musonda really developed as a player - playing 33 games in the u21 Premier League, FA Youth Cup, and UEFA Youth League, scoring seven and assisting 3. He proved his versatility by playing eight times on the left, 17 times as a 'no.10', and six times on the right. This squad also contained Nathan Ake, Andreas Christensen, Fikayo Tomori, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jeremie Boga, Dominic Solanke, and Tammy Abraham.
Musonda was also prolific for various teams in the Belgian national youth sides, a farm of young talent including Youri Tielemans, now a Premier League regular with Leicester. Across the u15s to the u21s, Musonda played 51 times, scoring 11 goals.
In 2015 Musonda signed a new deal running until 2019. Despite not yet making his first senior appearance, he attracted interest from Monaco and Marseille on loan. Coming into the 2015/16, Musonda demanded more first team football, which looked hard to come by with the arrival of Pedro. Musonda was not involved by Mourinho in the first team picture, and asked to leave in December due to a lack of minutes. In January, Musonda rejected a loan move back to Belgium with Standard Liege.
Move to Real Betis
In January 2016, it was obvious Musonda would leave on loan. He was 20, and his progress had somewhat stalled after he could not make the seamless transition from youth team to senior side under Mourinho’s second spell of 2013-late 2015. His form for the u23 squad remained promising, scoring 1 and assisting four in 10 games from August 2015. On 29 January 2016, Musonda joined La Liga side Real Betis, managed by ex-Blue Gus Poyet. The deal was a six-month loan, without the option to make the move permanent.
Musonda had an impressive first six months in Spain. He was deployed six times on the right wing, and nine times on the left, showing his adaptability as a modern day winger. He was awarded man of the match in his league debut versus Valencia, and scored his first goal for Betis the following game versus Deportivo in a 2-2 draw.
Despite that being his only goal of the season, Musonda also registered assists versus Getafe and Espanyol in wins. Musonda was also able to enjoy regular football, key to his development in building up fitness and confidence, being involved in 15 consecutive games.
It was because of this positive form that, in June, Betis confirmed the loan was extended to cover the 2016/17 season. However, this season was not so positive for Charly. Gus Poyet was sacked in November, his successor Victor Sanchez preferring Joaquin and Alvaro Cejudo as wingers. Despite being involved in the first seven games, assisting v Malaga, Musonda picked up his first knee injury just before a home clash against Real Madrid. Musonda was briefly introduced versus Las Palmas, playing 13 minutes, before the same injury recurred. In January 2017, it was confirmed Chelsea had recalled Musonda, who totalled one goal and three assists in 24 games for the Beitcos.
Six Months in London
After returning to Chelsea, who were now managed by Antonio Conte, Musonda was linked to another loan move, including Roma. However, Conte confirmed Musonda would remain with the club for the rest of the season. Musonda did not make the senior squad though, and only played three games for the u23s due to his injury issues.
Musonda finally made his first team debut in the 2017 Community Shield versus Arsenal, a game I was lucky to attend. Musonda was only involved sporadically with the first team, making the bench for the opening game versus Burnley, a ghastly 2-3 defeat at home, before being omitted from the squad, or an unused sub, in the next six games.
Musonda returned to play 25 minutes in a 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, but then found himself without any senior minutes for the next 14 games. Throughout this time, Musonda regularly found himself in the u23 squad again. However, Musonda showed glimpses of his vast talent in the Carabao Cup.
He scored his first senior goal in the 3rd Round against Nottingham Forest, a huge moment for the 21-year-old in his career to date. Musonda also assisted in the following round versus Everton, sending in the cross for Antonio Rudiger’s header.
Celtic Loan, Lack of Consistent Minutes
In January 2018, Charly again went out on loan, this time to world-famous Scottish club Celtic. This time, the loan was an 18-month deal running until the summer of 2019. Musonda played in the first three games upon joining, starting against both Kilmarnock and St Johnstone. However, Charly was an unused sub in the next five games, before only managing four minutes in his return versus Hamilton. Musonda also only managed a combined 87 minutes in the Scottish Cup, and 36 minutes in the Europa League, albeit assisting versus Zenit.
Throughout this time, Musonda again struggled with a recurring knee injury, and adapting to the style of the Scottish game. In May 2018, the loan was cut short after both Chelsea and Celtic agreed Musonda wasn’t playing enough.
Vitesse to now, Injury Nightmare
In the summer of 2018, Musonda certainly had reasons for pessimism. His recurring knee injury was constantly setting his fitness back, and impeding regular game time. Furthermore, he was yet to find a loan club that prioritised his style of play - quick runs, and raw technique over work rate.
After training at Cobham over the summer, Musonda made the familiar move to Dutch side Vitesse on a season-long move on deadline day. It was hoped that dropping down to a slightly 'lower level' would allow Musonda to play as much as possible and really strut his stuff.
Devastatingly for Musonda, and football fans in general, Charly picked up yet another knee injury in September 2018. This reduced his involvement for the season to just 14 minutes off the bench versus De Graafschap, and only making the bench one other time. Vitesse chose to be patient with the Belgian, and his loan was extended to cover the 2019/20 campaign. Musonda picked up 65 minutes in the first three Eredivisie games, before he was forced to have surgery on his knee in August 2019, thus missing the entire season.
Musonda returned to Chelsea this July. He is currently training with a professional fitness team at Cobham in his long path of recovery and rehabilitation. Charly remains contracted as a Chelsea player until the summer of 2022, and the club are devoted to supporting and helping one of their 'forgotten men' around the club.
Just five years ago, Musonda was held in the same regard, sometimes higher, as his contemporaries such as Tammy Abraham, Jeremie Boga and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Now 24, he is no longer the boy that entered the Cobham ranks in 2012, but a man that still has a dream of performing at the highest level of professional football, and he is working hard to reach this goal, against all the odds.
All Chelsea fans hope we'll see Charly back on the pitch as soon as his recovery allows, whether that is in a Chelsea kit or not, performing the quick darting runs and flashy step-overs we fell in love with in years ago. Musonda’s progress, which he records on his Instagram, is inspiring for all young professionals facing a gruelling injury and return from surgery.