The season ended prematurely and in circumstances nobody saw coming back in August but, for Chelsea’s Development Squad, 2019-20 was memorable in so many ways.
They might yet be crowned PL2 champions – that’s a decision for another day – but whether they’re officially awarded the title or not, going unbeaten in all 18 league matches up to the start of March when action was brought to a halt is a remarkable feat that might not be repeated any time soon. The Blues held a three-point lead over Leicester City heading into the home straight and, despite plenty of challenging circumstances that have somewhat paled into insignificance by comparison to more recent troubles, they just kept on going.
Indeed, they suffered just two defeats in all competitions all season as an Under-23 group, and both of those were against Football League clubs in the EFL Trophy. Late goals cost them against both Bristol Rovers and Walsall, but they saw off Swindon and Plymouth in the same competition, once again testing their mettle against opponents of more considerable experience and stature and coming away from battle with plenty to show for themselves.
And they did it all with a squad that, by the season’s end, featured a bunch of 17 year-olds who hadn’t even completed a full season in Saturday morning youth team football. Yes, at times, they were able to lean on the experience of Michy Batshuayi, Antonio Rudiger, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James and Ruben Loftus-Cheek as they each worked their way back to fitness after long-term injury absences, but the parachuting in of senior players not familiar with the group as a whole can often result in disjointed performances and a lack of structure. It’s testament to the connection forged between Frank Lampard’s first-team squad and Neil Bath’s academy that those problems were noticeably absent when that hasn’t always previously been the case.
Lampard called upon plenty of Andy Myers’ charges too, not just for training, but for meaningful senior action. Marc Guehi, Tino Anjorin and Ian Maatsen debuted against Grimsby in an autumn League Cup romp, a month after Billy Gilmour had made his Premier League bow against Sheffield United. The young Scot would later assert himself as the next one off the Cobham production line, but not before Tariq Lamptey had wowed in a cameo debut at Arsenal, while Armando Broja’s emergence saw him become the eighth academy debutant of the season against Everton last time out, a new club record.
With each call-up, with each training session, with each promotion came a problem for Myers to solve, but a problem everyone involved wants to have. The January transfer window afforded Guehi, Charlie Brown and George McEachran the chance to head out on loan for the first time, meaning Broja, Lewis Bate and Levi Colwill all got the chance to step up a level. The permanent exits of Lamptey to Brighton and Clinton Mola to Stuttgart were unexpected by comparison, but the team kept on rolling. With Henry Lawrence turning in top-quality performances week after week in any number of positions, and with the likes of Dynel Simeu, Valentino Livramento, George Nunn and Marcel Lewis proving their worth, the title challenge rarely faltered.
And there were several moments where it might have. This resilient group came back from 2-0 down to earn a draw three times before the end of September and seven times in total over the course of the season, home and away, rain or shine, getting it done. Whether they had to call on the unrelenting dominance of Anjorin, the creative spark provided by Tariq Uwakwe, or the intelligence of Thierno Ballo, they always found a way to get it done.
That speaks volumes of the work done by Myers and his assistants, Jon Harley and Eric Ramsey, working at this level for the first time in each respective capacity. Like their players, they learned on the job, but they also showed a tactical flexibility and an understanding of the tools at their disposal that promises much for the years to come. A 4-2-3-1 shape might have been their formation of choice on a nominal basis, but the pieces of the puzzle were different from week to week, as they worked within a coherent philosophy to overcome a diverse array of domestic opponents. The eclectic nature of the PL2 can mean facing a bunch of teenagers one week before squaring off against a group of experienced senior pros the next, but Chelsea dealt with them just the same.
In continental Under-19 competition, however, it was an altogether different story. Aiming for a fifth UEFA Youth League Final appearance in six years – having been denied entry by UEFA in 2017 – they instead fell at the group stage for the first time in tournament history. A solitary win away to Ajax wasn’t enough as they lost in both Valencia and Lille and drew all three home matches on their way out before Christmas. Certainly, they struggled to field their best eleven at times, but when Ajax lost an entire starting team to the Under-17 World Cup during the month where they faced Chelsea back-to-back, it is a rather weak excuse. Each of the autumn first-team graduates were below-par, and they’ll be the first to admit that, leaving the less experienced members of the squad more exposed and uncertain in a series of disappointing performances. They made too many mistakes, failed to capitalise on the glut of chances that came their way, and found that success is far from guaranteed.
Indeed, Development Squad football at Chelsea has often been a bit of a shock to the system for so many players accustomed to team success on their way up in the academy. This is a club that places a premium on winning as a part of development, and the trophy cabinet in the reception area at the training ground is filling up less than two years after doubling in size. Most of that success belongs to the younger age groups; by the time they arrive in the Under-23 ranks, the focus on individual development is greater than at any other time in their fledgling careers. It’s not a level of football Bath and company want players to spend very long in at all; some will spend a year or less there before going on loan, most will do two seasons and then move on, and it’s rare for anyone to be there by the age of 20.
The 2019-20 squad’s average age comes in somewhere just under 19, younger than every other team in the PL2. In finding themselves top of the pile with the finish line in sight, the scale of that achievement starts to become apparent; when they signed off against Everton at Aldershot on March 2nd, they did so with six players aged 17 or younger against the defending champions. That changing of the guard might never be formally recognised with the end of season title celebrations so many were looking forward to at Kingsmeadow last Friday night, but it will shape the future of the football club.
There has never been a better time in Roman Abramovich-era Chelsea to be an academy footballer. The pathway is there, the opportunities are coming, and the confidence flowing through every rung of the academy ladder is tangible. Whenever the 2020-21 season starts, the group that signed off earlier than they wanted will be ready to hit the ground running, and you’d be foolish to bet against them finishing what they started.