He started this season on loan at Burnley, and — hampered by injury — he played once in the Carabao Cup and once in the Premier League. In January, frustrated by his lack of minutes, he canceled that loan and joined Villa instead. His first game was last weekend, a baptism of fire against Manchester City. Villa lost, 6-1. Drinkwater, clearly struggling to keep up, was held culpable for at least two of the goals. When he was substituted, it felt like an act of mercy.
Elite sports is a brutal environment, even among those who do no more than watch it. Drinkwater’s display made him something of a figure of fun: the fact he had been exposed so surgically by Kevin De Bruyne; and the fact his last three games in the Premier League have all been defeats to Manchester City, in the shirts of three different clubs.
But his story is better understood, really, as less a three-year punch line and more a cautionary tale, highlighting just how precarious a soccer career can be, the fragility of success and the damage that can be inflicted by one bad choice.
In Drinkwater’s case, it all turned on leaving Leicester. Chelsea as a club wanted to sign him; Conte, it has to be said, was a little more lukewarm. When his new midfielder was presented in 2017, Conte would only say that he had “specific characteristics” that he had been looking for.
When Conte left the next year, even that gossamer protection was removed. Drinkwater lost all hope under Sarri. Those who know him say his love for the game dwindled and died. He had the sense that whatever he tried would not be enough and so, after a while, he stopped trying. He felt isolated, angry, besieged.
The rejoinder here, of course, is the same as it always is: money. Drinkwater went to Chelsea for more money, and he has spent much of the last two years being paid a six-figure sum every week not to do very much. Sympathy, in those circumstances, tends to be in short supply, even if the explanation for it — he had the sort of childhood that contains so little money that you understand its importance all the more — should carry some weight.