One never knows quite what to expect from a reserve campaign, but typically it’s not a great deal.
2010-11 will see a new structure in place, but even before things get underway, you get the impression it’s a bit like the emperor’s new clothes.
Promises have been made, but in all probability, nothing will have changed and frustrations will grow at a system which is not conducive to developing young talent at a key juncture in their careers.
With a number of teams choosing to withdraw from competition in search of their own solution, gone is the straight regional north/south split of previous seasons. Teams are still grouped geographically, but this season will see everyone get a go against everyone else.
On the face of it, that means a few fresh faces and kits for Chelsea fans to see – the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton will be alongside the increasingly familiar Arsenals, West Hams and Wolves’ of this world.
And yet, that appears to be the only positive. There remains no rules over what constitutes a reserve squad, meaning we’ll often see a side with an average age in the high teens (Chelsea led the league with the youngest average age last season) against a team which has such a large first team squad they can’t help but overspill into the reserve ranks (hello Birmingham).
Furthermore, being enclosed in their own system with merely the prize of being reserve league champions come May once again offers little incentive for the players to want to play. Playing in front of a few hundred fans on a midweek night isn’t particularly ideal for their development – and even that may be in doubt this year.
The Premier League have agreed to let clubs stage fixtures at their own training grounds, which has led to clubs like West Ham and Arsenal taking the majority of home matches away from public viewing, staging them on weekday afternoons behind closed doors. Nothing more than glorified training sessions.
Chelsea are set to do the same at times throughout the season, and indeed, finished last season at Cobham, but on Monday, at least, they will open the doors of Stamford Bridge to welcome Everton.
A young team will most likely take to the field, with Steve Holland working with a number of second-year players who have made the next step in their careers earlier than perhaps expected. With very few ‘genuine’ reserves – that is, too old for academy football but not on the fringes of the first team – line-ups will be prone to change, but again, there’s nothing new there. An average of 40 players have been used each season over the last three campaigns.
With Rhys Taylor currently out on loan, Jan Sebek and Sam Walker will hope to split playing time in goal. The Czech stopper has recovered from shoulder surgery in the spring and must aim to play more fixtures than he was afforded last season, whilst Walker’s aim must be to continue showing the fine form he displayed when making his reserve team debut back in April.
In front of them is an exceptionally young defensive unit. At times we may see the likes of Michael Mancienne, Jeffrey Bruma and Patrick van Aanholt, especially if first team opportunities are not forthcoming, but otherwise second-year pros Rohan Ince, Billy Clifford and Aziz Deen-Conteh will be joined by first-year Daniel Mills Pappoe and schoolboy Nathaniel Chalobah, who has been training with the group throughout the summer.
Carl Magnay is stepping up his recovery from a terrible knee injury, and, of course, the terrible news of Sam Hutchinson’s retirement impacts the unit’s depth further. Ben Gordon, Ryan Bertrand and Jack Cork are on long-term loan deals, whilst Slobodan Rajkovic is set to join them in the coming week.
There’s not a lot of depth available, and what’s there is rather raw, so expect some growing pains along the way, but with the majority of those involved having been a part of the FA Youth Cup success, they’re ready for the opportunity to impress.
In the middle of the pitch we find more Youth Cup winners in Conor Clifford, Jacopo Sala, Kaby, and Josh McEachran. Clifford was set to head out on loan but, after impressing Carlo Ancelotti over the summer, will stay at the club until at least Christmas, training with the first team and most likely captaining the second string.
McEachran is another who has been working with the club’s elite ranks and possesses incredible potential. Heading into what will be his third season of involvement at this level, he doesn’t turn 18 until next March, and may well have made a first team debut by then.
Kaby and Sala offer versatility to the unit, allowing for Holland to utilise either a diamond midfield or a three-man group with wingers flanking a lone front man. Michael Woods’ experience will be important at times, but having recovered from an injury-riddled 2009/10, he may need to join an expanding group of loanees to help his development.
Daniel Philliskirk is currently at Oxford but may return at the end of the month, whilst rumours this weekend have Nemanja Matic and Jacob Mellis heading to Vitesse Arnhem in Holland, which would be an intriguing deal to say the very least. If they spend the season away from the club, Holland will consider looking at George Saville, Anton Rodgers, Amin Affane and Mesca from the Under-18 ranks.
If you’re particularly optimistic, Gael Kakuta is set for a breakthrough year in the first team, and so may not be seen much at this level, and to be perfectly honest, he may be best served by such a promotion. After his debut last season he spoke of how much easier it was playing with more talented team-mates, and he struggled to shine when dropping back down.
It may appear somewhat unprofessional to make such a statement but for someone like Gael, and the skills he exhibits, it makes sense on many levels to afford him the chance.
At least Holland isn’t likely to lack attacking talent if he does miss Kakuta. Borini, Lalkovic, Mitrovic, and Gokhan Tore are all capable of making an impact, and Franco di Santo may get a chance early in the season with his future uncertain. Add the return of Adam Phillip from injury and Philipp Prosenik from the youth team and there’s goals to be scored and shared around.
You’ll be able to keep up to date with everything throughout the reserve campaign here at TheChels, and on Twitter @chelseayouth.