Age – It’s Just A Number

On Wednesday night, Carlo Ancelotti opted to field a near full-strength side in a meaningless Champions League tie against Marseille.

Josh McEachran was the sole ‘youngster’ to be afforded a start, with the likes of Patrick van Aanholt and Gael Kakuta left kicking their heels on the substitutes bench, undoubtedly frustrated.

It rankled with Chelsea fans, who felt the occasion to be another opportunity to give the next generation some much-needed playing time.

Certainly, those who observed Barcelona’s matchday squad 24 hours prior as Josep Guardiola’s much changed side made short work of Rubin Kazan, having already secured first place in their own group, will have become frustrated.

Two less-than-familiar names – Andreu Fontàs and Víctor Vázquez – notched the goals whilst B Team regulars Jonathan Dos Santos, Thiago Alcántara, Jeffrén and Marc Bartra also saw action.

The undeniably foremost and most successful club academy in the world at present featured 14 products of La Masia in their 18-man party and continue to make youth development look easy, with each youngster seemingly able to make the step up in a seamless fashion.

However, if you look a little bit deeper, the average age and experience these players have will be greater than many will expect.

Take goalscorer Vázquez for example. He made his debut back in the 2007-08 campaign, but his first goal for Los Culés comes a little more than a month before his 24th birthday.

By way of comparison, Daniel Sturridge is a recent 21 year-old who many Blues supporters doubt has what it takes to make a regular impact at Stamford Bridge.

Where Vázquez has an advantage, however, is his experience in adult professional football. As a member of Barcelona’s B team, he has over 100 senior appearances to his name, and has missed considerable time injured.

Sturridge, meanwhile, has just 66 outings, the overwhelming majority of which have come as a substiture with mere minutes on the field of play.

Fontàs (22), Jeffrén (23 next month), Jonathan (20), Bartra (20 next month) and Thiago (19) have all paid their dues in the club’s own structure whilst gaining valuable experience in structured football week in, week out.

They’ve each been afforded the opportunity to develop at a natural pace before being asked to contribute to a team challenging for domestic and continental honours.

One may argue that the Catalan side have a much bigger first-team squad, but in truth, they have just 18 senior professionals in their 25-man La Liga squad, which isn’t wholly different to Chelsea’s.

The contrast in attitude is remarkable though. Whilst many are quick to write off Gael Kakuta (19) and Jeffrey Bruma (a very recent 19) after some inconsistent first-team performances, the leaders in the field are content to simply wait.

Michael Mancienne turns 23 next month, whilst Jack Cork and Ryan Bertrand are still just 21 for some time yet. Yet their futures are considered all but over in West London, with a feeling of resignation surrounding their chances of ever having a career in a blue shirt.

In a world where everyone is infatuated with having the next Lionel Messi or Cesc Fabregas – both outstanding regulars at the tender age of 17 – anyone who takes a little bit longer to develop is immediately cast aside in search of the next flavour of the month.

Witness that in operation right now amongst the Chelsea faithful. A little over a year ago, Kakuta had a cameo debut to remember, wowing the crowd with a display of panache and confidence at home to Wolves.

Now, he’s little more than an afterthought, with hopes placed squarely on the diminutive shoulders of Josh McEachran.

What chance attention shifts to Nathaniel Chalobah – not yet 16 – at the first sign of Josh showing growing pains?

The message to take on board here is clearly one of patience. Chelsea Football Club understands this, or at least they do to an extent.

This year’s squad was clearly put together with one eye on giving half a dozen youngsters as much playing time as they warranted. As yet, that hasn’t been forthcoming, but it’s not to say that they should be consigned to the scrapheap.

It’s a process which takes time and cannot be rushed. One may point at the likes of Everton and Aston Villa, who seem to be able to keep a steady flow of players graduating into first team ranks, but to be blunt, they’re playing at a lower level of competition and can therefore afford to use players who are of a sufficient standard for their own needs.

Chelsea’s needs differ. Playing with Europe’s elite demands a certain quality. Consequently, players may need a little longer to iron out the flaws in their game and become a rounded professional.

It’s not just at Barcelona where this is in evidence. Bayern Munich’s Champions League Final side featured Holger Badstuber and Thomas Muller, neither of whom made an impact until they had turned 20. The duo went on to impress for Germany in the 2010 World Cup Finals.

You can probably find your own examples as well, those are just a selection. There’s nothing to say a player can’t be tried at 17 or 18, and indeed, if he’s able to make a contribution, then by all means let him play.

But please, let’s not start judging them until they’re ready to be judged. For some, that might be as ‘late’ as 24 or 25. So what if it is?

Patience, as the saying goes, is a virtue.

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