Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Will José's juniors ever get to shine?

Picture: Chelsea FC

I don't wish to go on about Chelsea's victorious season (and I realise that I just have), but it should be pointed out that the club has won not one, not two, but FOUR titles in 2014/15.

The Barclays Premier League you know about, and the Capital One Cup (which still sounds more impressive as, simply, the League Cup) you may vaguely recall from the first weekend of March. But what almost slipped past unnoticed five weeks ago was the club's much-vaunted and, lavishly-equipped 'Development Squad' winning both the FA Youth Cup and the UEFA Under 19 Youth League.

While Roman Abramovich's largesse has been mostly seen to have won senior trophies (Champions League, Europa League, four Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, a Super Cup and the Charity Shield), there has been plenty going on in building up the supposed next generation. Except, much-deserved silverware notwithstanding, there hasn't been much to show for it in terms of the Chelsea Academy breaking into the first team, surely the purpose of developing young players.

John Terry was the last Chelsea youth product to break into the senior squad and stay there. He's 34 now and while having just completed a season in which he played in every Premier League game (despite having been written off by both Rafa Benitez and Andre Villas-Boas), he is clearly now the club's sole elder statesman, with Didier Drogba joining Frank Lampard in gentler climes.

Benitez and Villas-Boas were, infamously, charged with the task of bringing down the average of Chelsea's squad, a strategy coupled with the club's policy of only offering players over 30 single-year contract extensions.

That certainly has been achieved: the core of the team that last weekend lifted the Premier League trophy is clearly the basis of Chelsea's mid-term future - Eden Hazard (24), Thibaut Courtois (23), Willian (26), César Azpiliqueta (25), Nemanja Matic (26), Diego Costa (26).

But with the still youthful (relatively) Gary Cahill turning 30 this year, the outstanding Branislav Ivanovic 31, and Petr Cech - if he stays - now 33, opportunities for Chelsea's youth product to break through must surely be in the offing.

© Simon Poulter 2015
To give José Mourinho some credit, he has promoted Academy players like Nathan Ake, Isiah Brown, Dominic Solanke and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to the first team squad this season, and while they have largely been warming the bench, they have occasionally been given their chance. But these have been the exception.

This last season, Chelsea loaned out as many as 25 young players - enough to form two full teams with three to spare - including much-admired prospects like striker Patrick Bamford (14 goals for Middlesbrough and almost helped them to promotion), right back Todd Kane (Nottingham Forest), the highly rated defensive midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah, the Czech wunderkind Tomas Kalas, and Marco van Ginkel, the talented young Dutchman who was dispatched to AC Milan before even getting a chance to pull on a Chelsea shirt.

Somewhere out there, too (Vitesse Arnhem, actually) is Josh McEachran, the 22-year-old midfielder seen at one time as the successor to Frank Lampard, and who is also actually very good, but must wonder what he's got to do to get a game at his parent club, one that keeps buying midfielders.

With all his apparent contentment, a notable lack of any friction with the club hierarchy, and talk of extending his contract to 2019, Mourinho must now start thinking about building a legacy at Chelsea. Youngsters like Loftus-Cheek, Brown and Solanke have been awarded cameos in the most recent campaign - though notably the job of winning the Premier League was more or less over by Christmas, making appearances for them somewhat risk-free. Loftus-Cheek has, in particular, shown encouraging promise. Bamford, at Middlesbrough, has shown plenty of self-confidence in front of goal.

Surely it is time for these young players to enjoy a bigger part in what Chelsea has built over the two seasons since Mourinho returned to the club? Or is his refusal to accept anything other than winning blanking off the potential for the club's expensively built Academy to do no more than serve as a nursery for talent that can be sold on to other clubs for a premium?

Picture: Chelsea FC
The prospect of Mourinho extending his contract at Chelsea is the kind of stability its fans have dreamed of, as managers have come and gone like Ryanair jets at an airport terminal. We used to look enviously at Manchester United and even Arsenal, with Ferguson and Wenger putting down roots that maintained those clubs as perennial winners. Even now, you never know what the capricious Mourinho will do: he has never stayed at a club for more than three full seasons.

For now his challenge is to defend a title, with opponents coming back from the summer break not only more determined to take that title from him, but with fresh ideas of how to do it. Could youth be the opportunity? Could the Under 21, Under 19 and Under 18 players who are pulling in trophies form a nucleus of youth to sustain Chelsea for years to come, much in the same way as Sir Alex Ferguson did with the Beckham/Scholes/Neville/Neville/Butt/Giggs group?

The trouble is that for all of Mourinho's seemingly token promotion of youth, it's clear that this has not been his priority. The club can afford to buy whichever senior players it wants, and unless given an ultimatum to realise its investment in the Academy by playing more of its product, Mourinho has no actual need to play them. A shame, really, as England and the other national teams already represented within Chelsea's youth set-up, could only benefit from more frontline experience in the Premier League.

Mourinho himself, however, claims that promoting Loftus-Cheek to the first team this season has been an achievement as great as the Chelsea Academy producing two major trophies. He has also hinted at more opportunities for Chelsea's youngsters next term.

It would be nice to see, but Mourinho's win-at-all-costs mindset will always decide. Just a few weeks ago, with Costa and Drogba injured and Loic Remy yet to really prove himself as a first-choice, Dominc Solanke was denied the chance to even sit on the bench against Liverpool, with Mourinho instead choosing a three-man midfield attack.

José: from parking the bus to riding it
© Simon Poulter 2015
He is, though, adamant that Loftus-Cheek, Brown, Ake and other contemporaries are in the first team squad to stay.

Former Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair believes that Chelsea must match the words with deeds when it comes to developing Academy players into first team regulars. "For John Terry to be the last regular to play in Chelsea’s first team is a concern," he told TalkSport recently. "They probably got the best academy in Europe and they should have more players playing in the first team.”

The issue is how much they will play. Chelsea will surely come in for one or two of the bigger names on the market this summer, and as has been the case for a long while, you must question how youth players will develop if they're missing out on playing time because there is always someone bigger and more expensive before them in the squad.

One thing Mourinho is clearly conscious of is avoiding the Raheem Stirling situation at Liverpool. "In modern football, because of the agents and the parents, when the players are in the process of being almost there, they think they are already there," Mourinho said recently. "They make the players think they have arrived when they haven't. They think about money before the career starts and everything gets very, very confused. That doesn't help the players. They need stability. To be in a big team and to reach the level to be playing regularly for the first-team, you need time and stability. We try to give that to our boys."

The question for me is how much time?

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