On Wednesday night, Chelsea’s U18 side thrashed Manchester City 5-1 to lift the FA Youth Cup for the 6th time in 7 years. Since the turn of the decade only once have the side not reached the final – when Paul Pogba lifted the trophy for Manchester United. Since 2011 the worst performance in the competition has been a runners up place. For any side in any competition that is an incredible domination. It’s playground bullying.
This year, the victory was watched, in the flesh, by Roman Abrahmovich and Antonio Conte as well as John Terry and Frank Lampard. For the highest of powers at the club to be taking such a keen interest in the progression of youth players, it should indicate that this new stock of young, blue blood have a probable future on the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Yet, we’ve seen this story a hundred times before.
The first winning team on this incredible period, in 2010, included Jeffrey Bruma (now at Wolfsburg), Gökhan Töre (West Ham United) and Josh McEachran (Brentford). These three players have since made over 500 senior appearances, combined, since 2010, yet only 31 of those have been in the blue of Chelsea. This was the start of a generation of young prospects that achieved so much in the academy, and yet were eventually forced to quit their Chelsea dreams and look elsewhere for the sake of the careers.
Whilst various players have come to the academy, won, and moved on, the last 6 years have bred a core group of the Chelsea academy. The ‘seniors’ of the football school per say. This group consists of Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Aké, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Baker, Ola Aina, Dominic Solanke and Tammy Abraham (with Isaiah Brown joining later from West Brom). Having spent years winning domestic and European youth competitions, their only rewards had been sporadic loan spells to the lower leagues, or to Vitesse Arnhem in Holland.
Then José Mourinho came along, and said this:
‘My conscience tells me that if, for example, (Lewis) Baker, (Isaiah) Brown, and (Dominic) Solanke are not national team players in a few years, I should blame myself. They are part of a process the club started without me. In this moment, we have players who will be Chelsea players. And when they become Chelsea players, they will become England players, almost for sure. At 16 or 17 I don’t think it’s good for them to go somewhere else to play, like in the Championship. At 17 they have to train with us and they have to learn with us. They will learn a lot.’’
José Mourinho, 29th July 2014. (Source: Daily Mail)
It was a very welcome change of tune for Chelsea fans, and it looked like the young stars might finally get a shot at Chelsea’s first team. That season, Mourinho gave a total of 12 appearances to youth products in all competitions (bar John Terry of course). Out of the aforementioned Brown, Solanke and Baker, ONE substitute appearance was made and Baker was shipped out on TWO lower league loans. So much for staying at Chelsea being best, José…
This season under Antonio Conte has seen some improvement at least. As of 27th April, 31 appearances have been given to Nathan Aké, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ola Aina. For the vast majority of the games this season, at least two of them have been part of the match squad at the very least. To add to this, Lewis Baker (Vitesse Arnhem), Isaiah Brown (Rotherham/Huddersfield) and, most noticeably, Tammy Abraham (Bristol City) have all had breakthrough loan spells. It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s the best we’ve seen.
What next though? These players are arriving into their early 20s and, without beating around the bush, need to be playing football. It’s acceptable to say that a 17 being in the match-day squad is ‘good experience’, but for players like Aké, Chalobah and Loftus-Cheek, this period of their career is coming to an end and they need to start racking up minutes. Just take a look at Marcus Rashford and Kylian M’Bappé for evidence of what experience on the field can do.
I will now take a look at every member of this ‘senior’ group and give my verdict on what next season will have in store, and whether their future is blue…
Nathaniel Chalobah (22 Years Old)
It was thought that Chalobah’s career was about to take off after an impressive loan spell at Gianfranco Zola’s Watford in 2012/13, but the last few years have been distinctively average for the heart of this group. The issue Chalobah has is his position. He’s been a centre-back, a defensive midfielder and a more advanced player yet has not truly excelled in any part of the pitch. His cameos for Chelsea under Conte have highlighted a creative edge to his game, but is it enough to warrant a permanent squad place?
With summer midfield additions likely to come in, Chalobah’s chances may look even bleaker next year and a strong loan move will be his best chance to revel in the spotlight. When Josh McEachran was in a similar position, his loan moves were wasted and his bright potential fizzled into mediocrity. Eddie Howe did a great job with Nathan Aké and the south coast could be a good platform for Chalobah to really shine.
Verdict – Premier League Loan (Best Suited – Bournemouth)
Nathan Aké (22 years old)
Arguably the most proven of the group, Aké’s benefitted from the loan system to step his game up in the last season and a half. Last year, the Dutchman was a constant presence at left-back in Watford’s defence before breaking his way into Bournemouth’s backline as a centre-back this season. His performances under Eddie Howe were so impressive that Conte recalled Aké to provide more cover for his title-pushing first team.
Since then, Aké has barely been seen, but was thrust into the limelight in Chelsea’s 4-2 FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham last weekend. Some stage, ey. He put in an excellent showing that offered real promise and showcased his defensive and ball-playing abilities. If he isn’t going to contribute to the first team at the level he is at now, then he deserves to look for more minutes. Potentially top Premier League defender.
Verdict – Part of 1st Team Squad
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (21 Years Old)
Under Mourinho, it looked as if Loftus-Cheek was Chelsea’s ‘golden boy’, with regular substitute appearances, praise from the manager and even a Champions League press conference. However, this smooth path again became fractious, with public criticism from Mourinho and less appearances in the matchday squads. Now it’s fair to say that RLC is in the same category as Chalobah; good, but not good enough for regular first team action just yet.
If he was to go out on loan, and got minutes on the pitch, there’s no doubt Loftus-Cheek would succeed. He has the physique of a 27 year old and a natural ability to drive forward with the ball. He needs to find his best position though, whether that be a 10, an 8 or a 6 in the midfield. A favourite of Gareth Southgate from the U21’s, a successful run of Premier League form could also see a quick England call-up for Loftus-Cheek. He just has to gamble…
Verdict – Premier League Loan (Best Suited – Newcastle)
Lewis Baker (22 years old)
A beautiful footballer to watch play the game, Baker has been lighting up the Eredivisie with feeder-club Vitesse Arnhem for the last two seasons. Whilst no doubt slightly envious of his fellow graduates’ presence in the Chelsea set-up, Baker is absorbing professional experience in Holland. He has made 70 appearances in two seasons at Vitesse, scoring 19 goals and becoming a key player in a top 6 side.
Another Southgate favourite, Baker has been a leader in the England U21s alongside Loftus-Cheek, scoring 7 goals in 13 games and winning the Golden Boot at the prestigious Toulon Tournament – that England won. His technical quality is obvious, especially from dead-ball situations, and he is ready for the Premier League. Most likely in need of a Premier League loan in-between the Eredivise and the Chelsea first team. Is ready to become a key attacking midfielder for a mid-table team.
Verdict – Premier League Loan (Best Suited – Crystal Palace)
Tammy Abraham (19 years old)
Surprisingly overtaken Dominic Solanke in the race to become the first academy striker to break into the first-team – partly due to the latter’s contract dispute and mostly due to the former’s incredible form this season. Abraham’s loan move to Bristol City could not have gone any better, with 26 goals in 46 appearances so far this season. The goals have been a fantastic bonus, but, for someone of Abraham’s age, the 46 appearances at the nitty-gritty end of the Championship will be of equal value.
Abraham already looks a level above the Championship, and is already showing Premier League quality, both with his on-the-ball composure and his clinical finishing. Many are calling for him to come back to Chelsea as a 3rd striker, but Abraham needs to keep this momentum going. The risk is following the Patrick Bamford route into the dark side of loan-hopping, but with a productive loan at a side that needs goals, Abraham could quickly propel himself up the ladder of English strikers.
Verdict – Premier League Loan (Best Suited – West Brom)
The rest of the pack are all at very different stages of their development. Dominic Solanke should be in the above list, but has fallen to the worst poison of youth football; greed. Whether him, or his family, he has seemingly ruined his Chelsea career by demanding £40,000 a week. If rumours are to be believed, he’s on his way to Liverpool. A true goalscorer but one that needs to focus on the game.
The likes of Isaiah Brown and Ola Aina would do well to spend a year more in the Championship, racking up minutes and learning the tricks of the trade in one of the world’s most competitive leagues. Of course, if Brown’s Huddersfield get promoted, there may be a place for him in the Premier League next season. Talented boys that need experience.
The international stars of previous Chelsea academy sides – alongside Aké – Andreas Christensen and Bertrand Traoré have enjoyed immense loan spells on the continent. Christensen has become one of the best young defenders in the Bundesliga, with Borussia Monchengladbach, and will be welcomed back to Chelsea like a new signing after two years away. Many believe he’s ready to slot straight into Conte’s defence.
Traoré had a few chances last season, with 4 goals in 16 appearances, and has long been considered the brightest gem of Chelsea’s youth setup. A star player for Ajax this year, Traoré has managed 11 goal in 31 matches, despite battling injury and being played out on the wing. Could very easily come back to Chelsea as a squad player but with match practice at a high level, maybe the Burkina Faso international could have a similar rise to that of Rashford and M’Bappé. Very much a star in the making.
Thanks for reading.
Image Credits – Daily Star, Talksport, Daily Mail, The Metro, Zimbio