Why Chelsea could finally be reaping the rewards of their outstanding academy

Why Chelsea could finally be reaping the rewards of their outstanding academy

WITH A STREAM OF TROPHIES and memories to last a lifetime, the modern Chelsea fan doesn’t have much to complain about. However, question any supporter around Stamford Bridge for a possible area of improvement for the club and they’ll cite to you the lack of youth development. Not since John Terry in 1998 have the Blues introduced an academy player who’s gone on to be an integral member of the first team.

When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, the club’s training facilities were identified as an important area for new investment. Back then, the club were using the Harlington training ground, owned by Imperial, part of the University of London. It had been that way since the 1970s and had helped introduce players such as Neil Shipperly, Michael Duberry and Jon Harley.

The facilities were seen as outdated when compared to other top sides, such as the Trafford Training Centre that Manchester United used and the Arsenal’s London Colney. The side began training at the new complex in Cobham in 2005 with work completed in 2008. 

Numerous players have shown promise of graduating from the academy to the first team over the years, perhaps none more so than current under-18 manager Jody Morris. He played over 100 times for Chelsea, coming into the first team at a similar time to Terry. While never being a guaranteed starter, he was a big fan favourite and part of the 2000 FA Cup-winning squad. He didn’t survive the Abramovich takeover and was sold to Leeds in 2003. 

More recently, a number of English academy graduates have had fans excited about a possible change in fortune. The trio of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham and Nathanial Chalobah all joined the club before they hit their teenage years. The first two, currently out on loan, have been talked up recently by Antonio Conte. When Chalobah wasn’t given assurances regarding his playing time in the summer, he left permanently to join London rivals Watford. Many Chelsea fans were angry with his departure, especially when Danny Drinkwater was signed for over £30 million on deadline day.

Loftus-Cheek tops the fans’ expectations, especially after his impressive England debut in November 2017. The powerful midfielder is currently performing well at Crystal Palace on loan and will surely be a part of future Chelsea squads. Under Conte last season and José Mourinho the season before, Loftus-Cheek was often involved, without ever having an extended run in the team. Mourinho stated on numerous occasions that he was ready for the first team, but actions speak louder than words. Getting regular playing time is what he needs at this stage and that’s what he’s getting at Selhurst Park.

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Abraham has surprised some at Swansea, seemingly making the switch from the Championship to the Premier League at just 20 years old. He too made his international debut in November friendlies. Seeing  Conte’s obvious distrust in using Michy Batshuayi, some fans have questioned why Abraham wasn’t kept as back-up to Álvaro Morata. He probably isn’t as far along in his progression as Loftus-Cheek, so expect another Premier League loan next campaign.

These three, along with countless others, have shown that the quality of the academy isn’t the issue. In fact, Chelsea’s academy has been the best in England over the last five years. Last season they won the under-18 Premier League title and the FA Youth Cup. They’ve been the Southern Under-18 Premier League Champions for the last three seasons running and in 2014 they clinched the under-21 Premier League title.

They’ve also succeeded on the European stage, winning two of the four UEFA Youth League finals since its formation in 2013. The squad that beat Shakhtar Donetsk in 2014 contained Andreas Christensen, Loftus-Cheek, Charly Musonda, Abraham and Dominic Solanke. The talent is clearly there.

A major reasoning behind the recent success of the youth sides is the local feel to the staff. Morris has done an excellent job with the under-18 side since he became manager. Joe Edwards was a Chelsea schoolboy and has now been a part of the setup for over 10 years, currently as the development squad manager. Ex-players Paulo Ferreira and Eddie Newton keep an eye on the players out on loan, while academy director Neil Bath started working at Stamford Bridge part time in 1993. 

For all of Chelsea’s investment and their recent academy accomplishments, however, it’s still yet to produce a consistent flow of quality Premier League players. Look through some of the previous graduates and most have gone on to have good careers, but not at Chelsea’s level. They include Carlton Cole, Jack Cork, Andy King, Fabio Borini, Patrick van Aanholt and Scott Sinclair.

Chelsea have been guilty in the past of letting players go when they shouldn’t have, such as Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne, but they’ve yet to make a serious mistake with an academy graduate. Arguments could be made that Ryan Bertrand, Nathan Aké and Chalobah were let go too soon, but all three would be no more than squad players if they were still at the club this season. Hopefully this latest generation can be different.

Original Series  |  The Academy Way

In 2013, 10 years on from his arrival, it was widely reported that Abramovich was searching for answers as to why his significant investment of the academy had to yet to yield a first-team player. It could merely be a coincidence that following his intervention Chelsea have dominated at youth level, or it could be the benefit of the years of work put in following his takeover in 2003. Some even suggest thgat thge work goes back a lot further, well before the Russian’s takeover.

Sadly, the club’s short-term approach to winning trophies means it’s unlikely that Chelsea will see a rapid influx of academy players anytime soon. That, mixed with a notoriously trigger-happy owner, creates a scenario where a manager is never more than a few bad results away from the door. Why would any boss going into Chelsea concentrate his efforts on developing an academy player when he could sign a ready-made equivalent? After all, given the staff turnaround at the club, they’re unlikely to still be there to reap the rewards in the future.

Furthermore, the effect of a constantly changing manager filters down through the club. Chelsea have no definite style to the way they play that be replicated throughout the age groups. Since Conte has come to the club, they have primarily played three at the back; under Mourinho it was a strict 4-2-3-1; before him, during Rafa Benítez’s brief interim period, it was 4-3-3.

One of the reasons Barcelona’s La Masia is so effective is that they are taught to play one way from a very early age. At Chelsea, an academy centre-back who’s played in a back four his whole youth career could be drafted into the first team and asked to play in a back three. It’s not ideal and means that when a player begins to train with the first, they must learn the manager’s philosophy and methods from scratch. This takes time, which sadly few Chelsea youngsters are afforded.

In recent years Chelsea have struck an unlikely alliance with Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem. It started in 2010 when the club was brought by Merab Jordania, who happens to be a good friend of Abramovich. Since then, many Chelsea youngsters have moved to Vitesse on loan, including Nemanja Matić, Macro Van Ginkel and Bertrand Traoré.

The majority of players shipped over to Holland by Chelsea have been ones they’ve brought in themselves, but a few academy graduates have made the move. Those included are Izzy Brown and Lewis Baker, both now participating in loans to English clubs. Baker’s performances in particular impressed, earning him a new five-year contract in the process. In theory, the relationship is a good idea – allowing Chelsea youngsters to get quality experience at a senior level.

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It’s becoming apparent that to break into this Chelsea team from the academy, one will have to prove his credentials via a loan placement first. Andreas Christensen has shown the way; after two years on loan in the Bundesliga with Borussia Mönchengladbach, the defender has returned to Chelsea and cemented himself a place in the heart of the Blues defence. Although not graduates of the Chelsea academy, the successful loans and subsequent returns of Victor Moses and Thibaut Courtois display the benefits of this route.

The Danish defender signed for Chelsea at 15, making his professional debut in 2014 in the League Cup. He made the headlines a couple of years later, famously signing a contract worth £20,000 a week before starting a professional game for the club. He was clearly highly-regarded at Stamford Bridge.

Returning in the summer, he found himself surrounded by a whole host of centre-back options including David Luiz, Gary Cahill, César Azpilicueta, Nathan Aké and Kurt Zouma. A few weeks later, Antonio Rüdiger joined the already well-attended party and many could be forgiven for predicting that Christensen’s temporary departure would soon be made permanent.

This season, however, he’s been nothing short of a revelation. Starting the season as a squad player, several impressive displays have seen him oust David Luiz from the middle of Chelsea’s defence. He’s a calming influence, talented on the ball, and reads the game excellently. 

Blues fans won’t get carried away just yet, much like they won’t wish this to be the end of the production line. Fans are always going to prefer someone they’ve seen mature through the academy, as opposed to another expensive import. They’ll always be more forgiving and accepting of their mistakes. The preference, of course, would be an English prospect, but at this point Chelsea supporters will take what they can get.

It also makes sense for the club as Chelsea have put huge amounts of time and money into the academy. There may be a point in the future when Abramovich is reluctant to continue spending money on transfers year after year and Chelsea are forced to find a more sustainable solution to player turnover. If they’re not going to utilise the output, why spend so much on the input?

With increased revenue in the Premier League, there’s more competition than ever for the top players’ signatures. Chelsea can no longer rely on their financial power to pick and choose the world’s best talent. It’s high time they started reaping the rewards of their academy 

By Dan Clark  

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