It was an evening for learning lessons and finding perspective.
When the team news ahead of the Development Squad’s Premier League 2 fixture at home to Derby County came out some 45 minutes before kick-off, social media was abuzz, for not only was Tammy Abraham involved at this level for the first time in more than two years, he was joined in an exciting front three by Callum Hudson-Odoi – the current academy jewel in the Chelsea crown – and Charly Musonda, who was once in Hudson-Odoi’s position.
With Billy Gilmour, George McEachran and Luke McCormick backing them up, and a switch to the first-team’s 4-3-3 formation for the first time in this nascent season, there was no little intrigue in a team that some claimed would be a force in Championship football. The subsequent 1-0 defeat to a first-half Chris Martin goal, and the disappointing performance overall therefore, will leave many wondering what happened.
Dan Davies’ match gallery is the best way to relive the action.
It started well. Joe Edwards’ youngsters were in lively form after winning 3-0 at Blackburn Rovers on Monday night, and they took the game to Derby from the off, eager to win a competitive Under-23 match at Stamford Bridge for the first time in more than a year; since they beat the Rams themselves last August.
Their early play bore some of the hallmarks of the sort of play being coaxed out of the first-team by Maurizio Sarri too; Hudson-Odoi’s one-touch link-up play was delightful, encouraging Juan Castillo to drive forward from left-back, and their interplay almost opened the door for McCormick, who couldn’t get the better of goalkeeper Josh Barnes at the far post.
Right-back Tariq Lamptey was keen to get involved too; he quickly embarrassed the far more experienced Scotland international Ikechi Anya with some typically daring play down the right, but Abraham couldn’t make the most of his cross when it arrived to him. A vibrant and bright first ten minutes seemed to have set the stage for the rest of the evening, only for it all to fall apart when Derby then took the lead.
It was a goal Chelsea shouldn’t have conceded. Timi-Max Elsnik dribbled his way to the edge of their penalty area without ever looking fully in control of the ball and, as Joseph Colley and Marc Guehi were drawn towards him, they left the experienced Martin unmarked. He sprung the offside trap, collected Elsnik’s pass, and finished easily past Marcin Bułka.
Rather than it kicking them into life, the goal rather subdued Chelsea, and Derby started to look like the better team. They had more senior experience in the form of Martin, Anya, and the powerful midfielder George Thorne, and their more intimate knowledge of some of the sport’s dark arts helped to limit the hosts’ play, as did the referee’s willingness to allow it.
McCormick should have scored just before half time when McEachran and Hudson-Odoi combined to good effect, but he couldn’t provide the finish at the far post, and was replaced at the break by Tariq Uwakwe. The ensuing reshuffle saw Musonda move into central midfield, where he should have been able to dictate the tempo more often, but a disappointing individual performance would ultimately get a lot worse when he was later sent off for two innocuous yet needless fouls that each earned yellow cards.
As the West London rain fell heavily under the Friday night lights, Anya thought he’d extended the lead only to see the linesman’s flag cancel out his near-post finish, and Elsnik fizzed a left-footed drive just over Bułka’s bar from just behind the penalty spot. The visitors enjoyed the chances whilst Chelsea’s play broke down consistently; Abraham was superbly marshalled by Ethan Wassall and Joe Bateman, and their midfield wore down the Blues’ trio, a task made even harder when it was reduced to a duo by Musonda’s early exit.
Daishawn Redan had been due to replace the Belgian midfielder just as he received his marching orders, but instead remained unused on the bench, as did his three remaining fellow substitutes. Edwards left his ten men to fight it out for a late reward, and after Bułka had kept them in with a chance by producing a fine flying save to deny Alex Babos, they almost got it. The giant Pole ambled forwards for a late corner that Abraham connected with, but his header was off target, and that was that.
Football League scouts will have been interested in Abraham’s first full ninety minutes for three months ahead of next week’s transfer deadline, and Musonda will be hoping that his pedigree will help him secure a suitable move after underwhelming on the night. For their spells of good football, they were unable to put it together consistently enough over the course of the ninety minutes, and will go back to work knowing that they must improve in that regard if they’re to make the sort of progress they hope to make this season.
Chelsea: Bułka, Lamptey, Guehi, Colley, Castillo, McEachran, McCormick (Uwakwe 45), Gilmour, Abraham ©, Musonda, Hudson-Odoi
Subs not Used: Mola, Cumming, Redan, C.Brown
Booked: Uwakwe, Musonda
Sent Off: Musonda
Derby County: Barnes, Gordon, MacDonald, Thorne, Wassall, Bateman, Guy (Eyoma 76), Elsnik, Martin, Babos ©(Cresswell 90), Anya
Subs not Used: Ravas, Karic, McAllister
Goal: Martin ‘22