Tammy Abraham's agile mind, hard work sets him apart as one to watch
When Tammy Abraham was on loan at Bristol City last season, upon his arrival at training every day he would make a point of greeting as many people -- staff, coaches, teammates -- as possible and shaking their hands. That might seem like a small detail but it is one indication of why everyone speaks so warmly of a young man who at just 19 has been one of the most coveted players in the summer transfer window.
When Abraham is finished at the Under-21 European Championships, where he's part of a promising England squad, he will head to the Premier League -- specifically to Swansea if reports are to be believed. There he'll see if he can repeat last season's success, when he scored 26 goals for a side that avoided relegation from the Championship by three points. From watching him play and listening to those who have worked closely with him, there's no reason to think he can't.
Abraham is one of the coterie of players that Chelsea have out on loan, but he's slightly different to many of those around him who were bought as youngsters with the aim of selling on for profit. Abraham joined the club when he was just eight but unlike many of his peers, he didn't enrol in Chelsea's full-time academy programme, training twice and playing one match a week until he was 16.
It's worth reiterating that was only three years ago. Since then, he has blossomed into one of the most promising strikers in the country, 6-foot-3 with limbs that seem to go on for days, pace, a feather touch and an ability to think with lightning clarity. It's remarkable that Abraham already seems so rounded at such a young age but that doesn't sound like an accident or simply a gift.
"He's very coachable," Dean Holden, Bristol City assistant head coach who worked with Abraham extensively last season, tells ESPN FC. "He wants to go to the very top and he knows to do that he needs different strings to his bow. He'd talk to us about the centre-backs he'd be playing against, what their strengths and weaknesses were and what he could do against them, which runs to make, etc.
"He'd want to know as much information as possible."
The capacity for learning is particularly interesting for someone of his size -- a "machine of a specimen," says Holden -- and youth. Frequently when a young player grows early and is so much bigger than their peers, they lean on such physicality, eventually coming to rely on it. But it's evident from watching him play that it's not the case for Abraham: his height, strength and pace are assets but it's the way he thinks about the game and uses his touch that marks him out as different. As does the variety of goals he can score.
"Left-foot, right-foot, with his head: he's a triple-threat, which makes him very difficult to defend against," says Neil Dewsnip, the FA's technical lead for 17-to-21-year-olds and the man who gave Abraham his England Under-18s debut when he was just 16. Having watched him for the last few years, Dewsnip has seen Abraham improve.
"The things he could do then, he's just doing better now," Dewsnip says. "He's scoring more frequently and at a higher standard. He's 6-foot-3 but from being a bit of a beanpole, he's now started to fill out and become a young man. I suspect he's going to get a lot stronger and become a real physical, competitive presence. From a young age, you could see a real passion and desire to improve." It's worth noting that Dewsnip's previous job was as Everton's Academy head coach, where he brought through Ross Barkley and Wayne Rooney among others. He knows a player when he sees one.
"Every time you'd speak to an opposition coach or a manager after a game they'd be raving about him," says Holden. "They didn't know whether to try and be physical with him, or play a bit deeper to stop him running in behind. Then sometimes he'd drop in short into the No. 10 position and hit the wide player with a pass. And then he just wants to get in the box and score goals. He absolutely loves scoring goals."
Abraham's hard work comes up frequently but his mental agility is what makes him a formidable striker. Holden speaks about one goal he scored for Bristol City last season, in a high-pressure game against Blackburn as both sides fought to avoid relegation.
A pass was played over the defence and Abraham, having sprung the offside trap, latched onto it and a simple chance looked likely. But a strange bounce and spin on the ball took it back behind the striker's run, stopping the momentum of both player and ball. Rather than panic, check back or look for other options, Abraham stretched one of those mile-long legs behind him, hooked the ball past the keeper and into the corner of the net before any of his opponents had worked out what he was going to do.
"It was just an instinctive thing to do," says Holden. "You might think 'Shall I take it on, shall I go round the keeper, shall I chip him...' but that was an unorthodox type of finish, and that's what gives him a chance, because he can do lots of different things."
It's always tricky to tell how a young player like Abraham will cope with the step up to the Premier League, particularly with the expectation building around him. Chelsea seem to have handled his development sensibly, and just like at Bristol City, will keep up with his progress through monthly reports from whichever club he joins. It wouldn't be a surprise if this time next year, he's a part of the Chelsea first team.
"You could never get him off the training pitch," says Holden. "You'd have to drag him and some other lads off because they'd be knackered for the games otherwise. That's the sort of thing you want in a young player. When Eric Cantona went to Manchester United, he emphasised that mentality: you really have to work at your craft, and Tammy does that."
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.