After taking a look at Chelsea’s opposition in the past couple of days, we take a look at the Blues themselves on the eve of the academy campaign’s big kick-off.
What are we expecting of the defending FA Youth Cup winners over the next ten months?
It probably won’t include a retention of the trophy won back in April, for Sam Walker, Jeffrey Bruma, Conor Clifford, Kaby, Jacopo Sala, and Marko Mitrovic are no longer eligible, and losing over half the starting eleven will impact heavily upon chances of returning to the summit once more.
It’s not about that though, it’s about furthering development of individuals and the academy as a whole, with the constant strive towards increased representation in Carlo Ancelotti’s first team squad.
Neil Bath noted recently that they’re just over halfway through a ten-year project, and patience should be stressed, yet there are some signs of positive movement. It’s important not to get carried away with things, but the Chelsea academy is perhaps in the best shape it has ever been in.
It may not be as productive as in previous eras, but with the club competing at a level higher than ever before, the quality of player needed to step up is also reaching new highs, and you only have to look at the players released from the club in the last few years compared to those who went before them to see that.
Dermot Drummy enters his third season in charge of the Under-18 team and he has settled into the role well. His job is a tough one, as his tactical ideas and plans must also incorporate an overall club direction, but he executes it well, and finds a nice balance between instructor and observer, often letting the players communicate amongst themselves.
He will likely operate with a slightly smaller and younger squad this season, with a number of players making the jump to Steve Holland’s reserve setup in just their second year out of school.
Indeed, eight of them signed professional deals over the summer and Billy Clifford, Josh McEachran, Aziz Deen-Conteh, Milan Lalkovic and Rohan Ince are expected to feature more for the second string than the junior outfit.
Add defender Daniel Mills Pappoe to the list and you’re looking at a big chunk of last year’s squad. Many of them will still drop back down on occasion, but pre-season has indicated that a number of schoolboys could take the next step ahead of time.
That’s nothing new, of course. It’s a practice the club has adopted for some time, and going forward they are likely to accelerate the process for any individual they deem suitable and ready. It’s a sensible approach, not least because it provides a sterner challenge of ability, but if the player thrives on it, they make their way through the ranks into the first team at a younger age.
The Under-15 team brought home the Northern Ireland Milk Cup after a quite outstanding tournament and despite most of them still being 14 years old, six of them have featured in friendly matches in July and August, in addition to a clutch of 15 year-olds destined for scholarships next summer.
Going through the team and starting in goal, Jamal Blackman is the only scholarship-age eligible goalkeeper in the squad. Walker may appear as an overage player on occasion but the starting job is the 6’5” Croydon-born stopper’s without any uncertainty. Offering cover is young Mitchell Beeney.
With Mills Pappoe and Ince moving onto bigger and better things and Kenny Strickland having departed, the best defender in the Under-18 ranks won’t turn 16 until December.
That’s no issue for Nathaniel Chalobah though. With over 20 England youth caps and an international trophy success to his name, he’s more than qualified to lead the defence this campaign, and after a busy pre-season with the first team, may not be for long at this level.
His regular partner will probably be Archange Nkumu, a versatile player capable of playing at full-back or in midfield. Ben Sampayo offers cover if necessary, whilst Alex Davey may get his chance on occasion.
Sampayo will get a healthy number of appearances in 2010-11 after playing well last year, and is well served by being able to play across the back four. When playing at left-back he allows Todd Kane to play on the right, although Kane can also play on the other side.
The Cambridge-born youngster impressed mightily at the end of last season and provides a drive and energy to the side from back to front, and is a really likeable character. Reece Loudon, meanwhile, will switch time between left-back and left-wing in his first year as a full-time scholar.
The midfield is the healthiest area of the squad, with a number of players competing for starting roles, and a group of schoolboys eager to push them for playing time.
Anton Rodgers is a contender to captain the side this season. After a stop-start campaign last year, he can weigh in with goals from open play and particular set pieces. George Saville, meanwhile, has grown into the holding role superbly and dictates the tempo of the team’s play.
Diminutive Swedish signing Amin Affane is the more creative option, possessing a wand of a left foot and scoring touch, whilst Danny Stenning can play an all-round game whilst being another threat from dead ball situations.
One of the more exciting storylines ahead of the big kick-off is the return of James Ashton. He suffered a terrible twelve months riddled with injury but is on the comeback trail, and fresh from signing a professional deal, will be keen to hit the ground running.
Also likely to be involved are Mesca, a 17 year-old second-year player signed from Sporting Lisbon in rather mysterious circumstances, and John Swift, who played twice last season and was the star of the Milk Cup Final. His size, skill, and robust style lends itself well to playing against an older age group and of all school-age players, he and Chalobah are most likely to feature.
A lack of wingers suggests that a diamond midfield shape will be adopted for most of the campaign, leaving two striking roles. There are, however, only two strikers in the squad.
Philipp Prosenik struggled with injury last season but found the net towards the back end of the season and will lead the line when fit. Bobby Devyne needs to find consistency in front of goal if he wants to move on from youth team football, and the duo should get ample time to feature.
Beyond them, you may see Lalkovic drop back down and play on occasion, but the likes of Gokhan Tore and Adam Phillip would need to play as over-agers. With the absence of another signing to create competition, one or two schoolboy forwards are next in line to see some time if necessary.
With the team getting younger, there will be growing pains, ups and downs, battles against injury and consistency, and the inevitable hype about impressive individuals. It’s what academy football is all about, and you’ll be able to follow it all here on TheChels.net throughout the season.