The Sliding Doors moment of Jérémie Boga’s Chelsea career came on the opening day of the 2017/18 season.
Boga impressed. His quick-feet and dribbling ability as problematic for experienced defenders as those who had been bamboozled by the winger in academy football.
His impact, coupled with injuries to Eden Hazard and Pedro, meant Conte decided to start the youngster against Burnley for Chelsea’s Premier League opener. It was his moment to impress, an opportunity to make his mark. He lasted just 18 minutes.
It was through no fault of his own, it should be said. Boga was a victim of circumstance. Gary Cahill was dismissed for a reckless high challenge on Steven Defour and Conte, somewhat predictably, sacrificed the youngster when he introduced Andreas Christensen.
That was that. Boga was packed off to Birmingham City on loan for the rest of the 2017/18 season less than three weeks later. The following summer he moved to Italian club Sassuolo on a permanent basis.
Chelsea received a fee of just £3.5m but they did include a buyback clause in the deal. And after a series of impressive performances in Serie A this season, talk has started as to whether the Blues should consider activating that in January – if they are able to enter the transfer market, of course.
Boga has hinted he would be open to a return to Stamford Bridge. “I have no regrets [about his first spell at Chelsea],” he told Foot Mercato. “Everything comes in its own time and it was certainly not the time for me to play for Chelsea.
“I always keep that in mind. But if I continue to do what I am doing and work hard, maybe I will be back one day.”
Perhaps Boga’s interest in returning to Stamford Bridge is fuelled by the number of his former academy team-mates now in the Chelsea side. He grew up playing alongside Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori and was part of youth teams that also included Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christensen.
But could Boga have an impact under Frank Lampard if he was to return? That’s not a simple question to answer, but there is no doubt this season he has become a far more rounded attacker.
And it’s something the 22-year-old has acknowledged.
“Defensively and especially tactically, the coach (Roberto De Zerbi) has helped me a lot,” he added in his interview with Foot Mercato. “Mentally, too, I have matured.
“Before I dribbled without having a finish. It polluted my game. Now I have more efficiency and I hope it will continue like this. I have to do even better – more assists, more goals. I must try to be even more effective.”
Boga’s ability to evade challenges and skip beyond defenders is unrivalled in Serie A. And that has been the case since he joined Sassuolo.
Last term he was completing 5.13 dribbles per 90, the most of any Serie A player. This season it’s dropped to 4.71 per 90 but he remains out in front. However, as Boga has conceded, dribbling for dribbling’s sake is somewhat pointless. There has to be a reason for it, an end product to the chaos creates.
That is what Boga has added this term. His goals per 90 has risen from 0.19 to 0.43 and his assists per 90 has increased from 0.06 to 0.11. He is also taking more touches in the opposition box (5.35 compared to 4.32) and is completing more passes (28.32 compared to 25.03).
Perhaps most importantly, of the 24 Serie A goals Sassuolo have scored this term, Boga has been involved in a quarter of them (four goals and two assists). The latest was special, too.
? An OUTRAGEOUS goal from Jeremie Boga!
? Sassuolo strike back immediately as brilliant buildup play from Boga is more than matched by the dinked finish over Buffon! pic.twitter.com/7lBy2IoxyZ
— Premier Sports ? (@PremierSportsTV) December 1, 2019
That goal is Boga in a nutshell. He is a player who can make the incredibly difficult look unerringly easy. A player who can unlock the most stubborn of defences. A player who can embarrass one of the greatest goalkeepers to have played the game.
These moments of pure ingenuity were always fleeting, though. It’s what Sassuolo and De Zerbi have worked to change. Boga has been given the right guidance but, more importantly, the platform to perform. It’s paid off.
It’s why Chelsea should leave him at Sassuolo, at least for the time being.
If the Blues were to bring Boga back in January, he would be competing against Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Willian, Pedro and Mason Mount for a starting berth. First-team football would be limited, Boga’s development stunted once more.
But next summer – if Willian and Pedro depart at the end of their contracts and the Sassuolo No.7 continues to impress – a deal may make sense, especially if the buyback fee is a modest one.
And if Boga did return, his second debut is likely to be far more impactful than his first.