Despite all of the money invested in Chelsea’s academy system since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, not a single player has been able to fully graduate through the youth system and cement a place in the first team. Furthermore, not since the days of John Terry’s debut at Aston Villa has a player established himself in the team in the same manner. Many have tried before falling short, with only a few players even on the peripheries of a first team place.
A portion of the blame could be acquitted to the constant chopping and changing of managers throughout the past decade, each of who had their own ideas regarding the youth players. Some such as Carlo Ancelotti tried to promote the likes of Josh McEachran before leaving his post in 2011, others such as Jose Mourinho were always notoriously famed for not being one to believe in the kids. There is of course the argument to consider, which is that the youth team simply was not as good as it currently is, with the ‘blues’ only beginning to dominate youth football in the last couple of years with lots of trophies. Before that, there was actually not much success to speak off.
The theory that the youth players were just simply not of the same ilk of what was required in the first team is a valid argument. What is not valid though, is that neither are the current bunch. They have set a strong precedent by winning three of the last five FA youth cups and this shows they must be worthy candidates for the best academy in the country. What adds further substance to this argument is the past two years, in which the UEFA youth league (youth champions league) title has gone to Chelsea. Particularly in this year’s competition, in which facing lesser opposition such as Maccabi Tel Aviv, the young blues showed no mercy and swiftly brushed aside all sides in front of them on their way to the final against PSG. Once there, they faced arguably the other best side in Europe. However, the blues were the most dominant side and won 2-1 with goals from Fikayo Tomori and Kasey Palmer.
One main stigma labelled upon the Chelsea academy ever since Abramovich came in, is that the academy does not develop enough English talent. This of course, could be interpreted as true when considering that not many young players have been promoted at all, and most of the ones that do, tend to end up in the vicious loan cycle before eventually being sold off for a profit. However, after this year’s campaign, the vast majority of the academy side were either English or eligible to play for England in the future. In fact, every single member of the starting 11 from the recent success against PSG are eligible to represent England, with quite a few already doing so at U21, U20 and U19 levels.
With Chelsea’s season grinding to a halt following the FA cup exit at the hands of Everton, there was even more of an emphasis put into giving the youth a chance for the rest of the ‘dead rubber season’. Although this was not the first time it had been mentioned. All the way back in October, after suffering a 3-1 defeat to Southampton before heading into an international break, Jose Mourinho stated that it was now time to give more game time to the younger players like Ruben Loftus Cheek as the senior players were not pulling their weight. Mourinho said: “Clearly it is time. Not to play four, five or six kids – some are not ready – but Ruben is a case where he’s more ready, and if everything goes normal during the next two weeks, he’s a player to start the next game and a run of matches, to try and get that stability as a first-team choice.”
With the upsurge in talent arriving from the youth team, and with nothing left to play for, certain members of the academy such as Kasey Palmer and Charlie Colket have been training with the first team for a while, even before Mourinho was dismissed. More younger players such as Fikayo Tomori and Jake Clarke-Salter have also joined up recently and even been pushing for a place in match day squads, like seen recently against Aston Villa. With the Blues cruising comfortably at 4-0, Guus Hiddink gave Clarke-Salter his first taste of first team action next to fellow debutant Matt Miazga. One fan of Clarke-Salter is club captain John Terry who had this to say about the young centre half “Jake has a great attitude. I remember watching him a couple of years ago being in control of the game and a really vocal player. He reminds me a bit of myself.” Terry even went on to say “He is doing great and I hope he goes on to take my position and gets in the first team. It was great for him to make his debut.”
On the 3rd April, Hiddink had a press conference after the 4-0 victory away to Aston Villa in which he said how he wanted to give the younger players a chance to stake their claim in the side and show their qualities. The current Chelsea manager said “I always like to bring in the youngsters and now for the rest of the season we have the opportunity to bring in more frequently those guys”. Despite playing more experimental sides against Villa and Swansea a week later, in the two games that followed, Manchester City at home, and Bournemouth away, the squad was predominantly the same sort of team that had been fielded all season.
On the 21st February, Chelsea played Manchester City in the FA cup, a team with an impending 1st leg of their champions league round of 16 vs Dynamo Kiev. City played a side that contained more debutants than experienced players and although they lost 5-1, it did prove that other sides are not afraid to blood their youngsters even if it means risking the result of the match.
One player Hiddink seems to have taken a liking to is Burkina Faso international Bertrand Traore. At times when Diego Costa has been out suspended, the Dutchman has often looked to Traore to fill the void instead of more experienced players such as Loic Remy and Falcao. The stats don’t lie, since Hiddink came in last December, Traore has made 13 appearances which have resulted in 4 goals. This is a good return for a player who has only played 379 minutes of first team football. Another of the more seasoned youngsters is Brazilian Kenedy. In a season with few high points, Chelsea can take one away which is discovering Kenedy’s talent and even more importantly his versatility. With injuries to a large part of the defence throughout the season, replacements had to be drafted in and when Chelsea fans fist saw Kenedy at left back they must have thought that Mourinho and Hiddink were trying to fit square pegs in round holes. But in important matches he has soaked up the pressure and performed admirably and will have hoped to push his way into Antonio Conte’s plans next season.
Conte does not care for the age of player as long as they are good enough, highlighted by the fact his two transfer masterstrokes at Juventus were signing Paul Pogba and Andrea Pirlo, two players at the opposite end of the playing age spectrum. The question now is who, if any, of the current academy players will force their way into his plans. The ones that make the most sense are the ones that fit his preferred system of 3-5-2. This means that unfortunately it may be hard for the likes of Ola Aina to break into the side given he is a natural full-back, but for the likes of Charlie Colket the future looks bright as he could fit seamlessly into the middle of that 5.
What is clear however, is that the future looks bright for the Chelsea academy, regardless of how Conte plans on deploying his new side.
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