Chelsea begin their defence of their Reserve League title this Monday at home to Sunderland as another campaign which promised much change kicks off with the status quo having been maintained.
Once again, four of the twenty Premier League sides have opted not to participate in this year’s league structure, whilst a small group of others may find themselves distracted by involvement in the Next Generation League, a European Under-19 competition which has attracted much interest but failed to grab many of the biggest clubs on the continent.
There had been talk that the much vaunted Elite Player Performance Plan would see the inception of an Under-21 developmental league as early as this summer but with no concrete information on how the Premier League chairmen voted on the proposals, such moves are unlikely for at least another twelve months.
That means we’re back to more of the same, but with a very slight change for 2011-12. As a result of the geographical shift in participating teams – facilitated by the promotion of three southern teams – there is no longer a need for teams to be split three ways.
As a result, the league will operate with two groups of eight teams. Each team faces their group opponents home and away, and will then play once against each of the eight teams on the other side of the divide, splitting four at home and four away.
That promises two extra fixtures for Chelsea, who will once again play most of their matches behind closed doors at Cobham.
After leading the youngest team in the league last season to glory, Steve Holland has earned a deserved promotion to the first team coaching staff, but in Dermot Drummy the club have an ideal replacement.
Drummy – who has never coached above Under-18 level in his career – makes the step up with a number of players he has coached since the ages of 14 and 15.
He is therefore ideally placed to continue helping and shaping them into adult professionals, and has spoken of his excitement at being able to do so.
At the same time though, he is working with the likes of Jacob Mellis and Adam Phillip for the first time, and is working with older players who are more independent and have different needs to schoolboys and scholars.
It’s a vastly different job and one which Holland handled exceptionally well, particularly when you factor in the nature of a reserve squad.
Players will often be pinched for first team training and matches, or be required for youth team/FA Youth Cup action, sometimes leaving as few as half a dozen true ‘reserve’ team members.
The situation is a very fluid one and whilst planning is difficult, the backroom staff do an admirable job.
Once again, the season will likely be split into two halves, ‘before Christmas’ and ‘after Christmas’.
The first few months of the campaign will see a more experienced team turn out, players who aren’t particularly ready for a full season on loan or who require a little more refinement before embarking upon a temporary move.
Then in the new year, many of these – perhaps the likes of Billy Clifford and Kaby, as examples – will take on new challenges and will be replaced in the reserves by standout performers from the youth team.
Witness the rise of Todd Kane and latterly Jamal Blackman last season. Both started as first year scholars but finished as key members of the reserve and Youth Cup teams, and it’s that progression which will inspire the likes of Adam Nditi and Lewis Baker to be doing the same time time around.
Blackman will don the gloves for most of the season, with Sam Walker, Matej Delac and Thibaut Courtois all out on loan and Rhys Taylor almost certain to join them.
Hilário and Ross Turnbull will provide cover and the occasional start, whilst the club may look to bring in a temporary option between Blackman and Mitchell Beeney, the schoolboy who is set to be the Under-18’s regular first choice.
Defensively, the team looks quite strong, and certainly has more depth than any other department in the squad.
Kane has made the right-back slot his own, whilst the centre-back roles should be manned by any combination of Nathaniel Chalobah, Tomas Kalas, Daniel Pappoe and Rohan Ince.
The latter pair have suffered greatly with injuries in the last two seasons and have both missed the entireity of this pre-season, and so may be a little behind as kickoff approaches.
With Carl Magnay sure to be seeking a loan with a view to a permanent move, we could see Archange Nkumu add to his fleeting appearances from last season, whilst Sam Hutchinson remains a wildcard.
Having retired last summer after suffering chronic knee injuries, he featured in two of the three domestic reserve team friendlies in July and August and looked every inch the quality player he is.
Wisely, both club and player have been non-committal on the chances of a full time return, but the thought will at least have crossed their minds, so we can only watch this space for more.
There’s also no shortage of quality at left-back, but arguments can be made for each of Ryan Bertrand, Patrick van Aanholt, Ben Gordon and Aziz Deen-Conteh needing regular loan football.
That creates some uncertainty, with an educated guess pointing towards whichever player the club opts to keep around as cover for Ashley Cole as holding the advantage.
Whether that is Bertrand or van Aanholt will become clear towards the end of the month, but both need greater challenges than reserve team football at this stage.
That opens the door for the aforementioned Nditi to seize an opportunity. As one of the older first-year scholars, he turns 17 in mid September and has a full youth team campaign under his belt already.
A winger or forward by trade, the club has taken to converting him into an attacking full back with some success and he will be one to watch early and often.
Drummy may be blessed with a wealth of defensive options but faces more of a challenge in midfield.
Michael Woods was released at the end of his contract whilst Mellis and both Cliffords – Conor particularly – should be heading out on loan at some point, leaving relatively few experiences options.
Billy Clifford will no doubt feature after a summer with the first team whilst Chalobah and George Saville will certainly come into the reckoning along with the Portuguese Kaby.
Josh McEachran’s involvement depends on how often Andre Villas-Boas intends to use him in the first team, but beyond these six, attentions turn to youth teamers Baker and Amin Affane.
Drummy is a big fan of Baker and has already mentioned that reserve opportunities will come his way, whilst Swedish second-year Affane will want to hit the ground running having signed professional terms and take the next step in his career.
The return of James Ashton from two years out injured promises much if the midfielder can maintain his fitness.
Now almost 19, the club have stuck with him and he is a year into a three-year pro deal, and at his best can play in any of the club’s three midfield roles with great effect.
Last season, the Blues were top scorers at this level, first benefitting from Fabio Borini clearly being too good to play reserve team football, and then from the excellent work of a trio of versatile forwards in Gokhan Tore, Milan Lalkovic and Adam Phillip.
Tore has departed but Lalkovic and Phillip remain and the latter in particular has had an excellent pre-season, grabbing six goals and scoring in every fixture.
Loans beckon for both but Lalkovic is likely to remain until at least the new year, whilst Phillip, now 20, has his eyes set on a full season of league football having proven his fitness in the last twelve months.
The team is well stocked for prototypical centre forwards in the 4-3-3 formation with both Marko Mitrovic and Philipp Prosenik keen to make up for lost time having missed most of last season, and for Mitrovic in particular the coming months are of great importance.
His contract is set to expire at the end of the season and the plan of action must be to impress in blue before Christmas, earn an extended deal and then head out on loan.
If new scholar Walter Figueira and Ismail Seremba improve sufficiently over time then there’s a chance they could see some playing time as they’re next in line to, and Brazilian Lucas Piazon arrives in January and will likely feature for a while.
As usual, the team will almost certainly be the youngest in the league, but Chelsea are keen to challenge their players earlier and earlier and have them play against the next age group up as soon as is necessary in order to encourage progress.
In Drummy they have a perfect man to handle various levels of experience, and whilst there may well be perfectly valid questions about the point of reserve league football, Chelsea at least remain thoroughly watchable and an intriguing prospect.
You can, of course, keep fully up to date with things throughout the season here with unrivalled content on TheChels.net and on Twitter @chelseayouth.