It’s not yet Christmas and the stakes are already high.
Chelsea have won five FA Youth Cups in a row. They’ve beaten the best the country has to offer without exception, and they have been thoroughly dominant, winning 40 of 44 matches in that run while losing just twice. Each of those defeats came in the first legs of Semi Final ties; they responded by scoring five in both second leg outings to blow their opponents away.
They have another record in their sights as nobody in the illustrious history of the competition has won six editions in a row. Only Manchester United have won as many as five on the bounce, and it’s therefore a considerable coincidence that the Red Devils are the first team to try to prevent the latest Chelsea vintage from going one better.
United host Chelsea at Leigh Sports Village on Monday evening in what is undoubtedly the tie of the round. It’s a clash of the two best youth teams in the country, as last May’s national Under-18 Premier League Final attested to. That was also played at Leigh, and was the final match of Jody Morris’ remarkably successful reign as youth team coach, his side winning 3-0 to complete an historic quadruple.
Fast forward to last Saturday, when the two teams squared off again, this time at United’s training ground. They exacted a measure of revenge with a 3-0 win of their own in the Premier League Cup, but they did it against a second-string Blues side, while naming what was in effect their strongest starting eleven. Nevertheless, they were able to strike an early blow and give themselves confidence, ahead of what will be a titanic head-to-head.
Every year we ask ourselves if Chelsea can continue to be so much better than everyone else. Three consecutive Final triumphs against Manchester City. Semi Final humblings of Tottenham to the tune of 5-4 and 9-2 aggregate victories. A record 7-1 aggregate hammering of Arsenal in last year’s final. A 5-1 battering of Man Utd the last time these two teams met in the Youth Cup, again on United territory almost three years ago, when Marcus Rashford was a mere prospect with hopes and dreams of what might be in the years to come but when he also cut a frustrated figure against Fikayo Tomori.
Andy Myers, himself a youth team graduate in the early 90s, follows Adi Viveash, Joe Edwards and Morris in trying to keep the run going. Like his predecessors, he has a core of second-year players to lean on in his pursuit of glory, but it will be the depth of his squad and the next generation stepping up to assert themselves that will likely determine whether or not he’s able to add his name to the list of Youth Cup-winning managers.
He can call upon Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ethan Ampadu, Billy Gilmour, Daishawn Redan, Faustino Anjorin and Tariq Lamptey in defence of the title they won back in April, a cohort of players few can hope to match in overall quality. How do they compare to the returning winners in previous years?
2017-18: Jamie Cumming, Reece James, Marc Guehi, Juan Castillo, Dujon Sterling, George McEachran, Charlie Brown
2016-17: Trevoh Chalobah, Jacob Maddox, Mason Mount, Iké Ugbo, Cole Dasilva
2015-16: Fikayo Tomori, Jake Clarke-Salter, Jay Dasilva, Ruben Sammut, Mukhtar Ali, Tammy Abraham, Isaac Christie-Davies, Josh Grant
2014-15: Brad Collins, Ola Aina, Charlie Colkett, Charly Musonda, Dominic Solanke, Jeremie Boga, Izzy Brown, Kasey Palmer
They stand up to scrutiny, particularly when acknowledging Anjorin as a first-year scholar who produced match-winning performances as a schoolboy, but uncertainty over the involvement of Hudson-Odoi and Ampadu affects how strong of a group it might ultimately be. Both played ninety minutes for Maurizio Sarri’s first team against Vidi in Budapest on Thursday and have graduated to full-time duty at that level, which is what it’s all about. They retain youth team eligibility, however, and can be called upon if required.
Yet in taking the duo out of contention, and considering the summer departure of Jonathan Panzo to Monaco, leaves the scholar class of 2017 looking a little light by comparison at this point. That has hit home in Myers’ league campaign to date; a far less-experienced side than usual hasn’t quite as dominant as usual, though the fact that they are well in touch with powerhouse squads at Tottenham and Arsenal is to their credit, and another regional crown is still very much a possibility.
What it does mean, though, is that the old idea that you’re only as strong as your weakest player remains as true as ever. Where they’ve laid the foundations on experience, Chelsea have powered their Youth Cup domination with the injection of talent from the next guys up; stellar schoolboy performances from Clarke-Salter, Solanke, Dasilva, Sterling, Hudson-Odoi, Anjorin and others have given them a significant edge over everyone else, and they’ll need that again this season, perhaps more than ever.
Myers has preferred a 3-5-2 formation for much of the season to date, but has equally shown flexibility to mix things up when required, also using a diamond midfield and a 4-2-3-1 look last time out in the not-so-quite-dress rehearsal at United. What he uses on Monday night might not be the same look he uses for any future ties should they win, and it might also be heavily dependent on who he has available to him. Having Ampadu and Hudson-Odoi in the party gives flexibility to a host of options he might not otherwise have.
Karlo Žiger is the presumptive starter in goal, replacing Jamie Cumming from last season, and has slightly more experience that Nicolas Tié (who is only recently back from a shoulder injury) and regular youth team goalkeeper Jake Askew. Ethan Wady, the fourth stopper in the ranks who played last weekend, has been on a work experience loan at Stevenage and is cup-tied from his involvement in their campaign.
If Ampadu plays, he’ll be the first name on the team sheet. Jack Wakely and Sam McClelland are the likeliest to join him in a three, or paired together in a two without him, with regular Saturday captain Wakely’s two-footed ability and composure sweeping up loose balls meshing nicely with McClelland’s natural aggression and ability in the air. If Myers uses a back three without Ampadu, he could name Marcel Lavinier on the right, or one of Dynel Simeu or Pierre Ekwah Elimby on the left. All three have featured this season without really excelling there – Lavinier certainly is more impressive at wing-back – but if push came to shove, Ekwah Elimby would have the edge.
Wing-back, on the other hand, is where Chelsea have had a devastating edge in the last five years, and where they figure to do so again this time around. Lamptey reprises his role on the right, while Castillo’s spot on the left is handed over to compatriot Ian Maatsen, a similar player who has already made his Development Squad debut despite only joining from PSV in July. Lamptey is nursing an ankle injury but a week of rest should help him be ready to showcase his unique and dynamic talents.
Deploying a back three with wing-backs typically requires three central midfielders, a group that will be led and possibly captained by Gilmour, who scored in last year’s final. Chelsea’s last five Youth Cup-winning captains have all been English graduates from the earliest age groups – Loftus-Cheek, Colkett, Clarke-Salter, Mount and James – but Gilmour exhibits all the qualities required of a leader and will thrive on the responsibility if given to him.
Clinton Mola began to work his way into the team in 2017-18, showing the versatility to play at full-back or in the middle, and provides a left-footed balance to go alongside his natural work off the ball. He covers ground superbly, drives through the lines well in possession, and is a consistent performer who knows when and how to cover for the more attacking players. That leaves Anjorin free to take the attacking midfielder spot and, after he led the charge to five in a row with goals and assists in the Semi Final and Final last season, he now takes centre stage to lift his game to the next level. With ten goals to his name since August, he’s scored in the Premier League 2, Checkatrade Trophy, UEFA Youth League, Under-18 Premier League and Under-18 Premier League Cup, so the task of marking his presence in a sixth different competition – not including England tallies too – is there to be had.
His powerful running and ability to take over a game will be huge on Monday, particularly against a strong and capable United midfield. Recognised by Morris as one of the best finishers last season’s vintage, he’s displayed those hallmarks in plentiful supply over the past few months, and Chelsea will lean heavily on him despite him only turning 17 three weeks ago.
Of course, if Hudson-Odoi is available, he won’t have to do quite as much of the heavy lifting. Little more needs to be said about Callum’s transcendent talents that saw him score in all but one round last season – a round he didn’t play in – but in general Chelsea fans should hope that he isn’t available, and is instead making more tangible progress under Sarri at much higher levels. Whether that happens or not, Daishawn Redan will occupy one of the forward berths, and with 27 goals in 49 Chelsea matches, he is one of the country’s leading youth goal-getters.
A partnership with Charlie Brown that yielded so much last season continues to thrive at Under-23 and Under-19 level this season but, with Brown now too old for Youth Cup duty, the next men up are Thierno Ballo, George Nunn and Armando Broja. Ballo is the youth team’s leading marksman with eight goals in thirteen games, many of them poacher’s efforts, and although Nunn is somewhat similar to Brown in style (and is a fellow left-footed forward), he isn’t quite there yet but could prove a handy threat to come off the bench. Broja is a big-bodied target man who contributes more than his goals total might indicate but was miscast as a winger last weekend and shouldn’t be used there often.
There are more strings to Chelsea’s bow, although many of them are unproven, and it reinforces the fact that their chances of success rely as much on the big names driving them forward as it does new heroes coming to the fore. Jordan Aina, James Clark, Henry Lawrence, Marcel Lewis, Jonathan Russell and even talented schoolboys Valentino Livramento and Lewis Bate – who lead a hugely gifted crop that will push hard to continue a proud tradition of early Youth Cup success – will have the chance to make the difference.
The ability to use Ampadu in defence or midfield, the flexibility to unleash Lamptey in a purely attacking role with Lavinier deployed in a defensive capacity behind him, or the ways in which you can move personnel around within fluid formation concepts will, as usual, be interesting to watch unfold. For example, there is ostensibly little difference between a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3 where the full-backs and defenders, plus a defensive midfielder dropping in between the centre-backs, shuffle from side to side as possession dictates. The players will ultimately win or lose the match, but putting your best players in a position to make the biggest impact they can is Myers’ task, and it’ll be fascinating to see how Chelsea line up in Round Three.
United have suffered just one defeat this season, at the hands of Middlesbrough, and average 3.5 goals per game. Mason Greenwood, responsible for most of those, joined captain James Garner on Jose Mourinho’s first-team bench midweek in Valencia, while Ethan Laird, Brandon Williams, Dylan Levitt, Arnau Puigmal, Aliou Traore and D’Mani Mellor have been excellent for some time and make this particular Third Round match the toughest Chelsea have faced in recent memory.
The last time a fellow Category One academy blocked their path at the first hurdle was before Categories even existed, when Nathaniel Chalobah and George Saville saw them past Sunderland in a match that was rearranged three times due to poor weather. Back in 2008, United hosted Chelsea at Old Trafford, and led early through Ravel Morrison before goals from Gael Kakuta, Frank Nouble and Fabio Borini saw Paul Clement’s boys through, rendering Danny Welbeck’s late second a mere consolation.
This is a new generation. They have the chance to rewrite the record books, and the quest starts on Monday night at Leigh Sports Village, with free entry to all. If you can’t make it, you can watch at home on Chelsea TV and MUTV, with live updates throughout on Twitter @chelseayouth.