Reflections On The Youth Season So Far

Since we’ve reached the halfway marker in the first half of the youth and development season (I guess that makes it the quarter pole overall?), it’s time for some reflections and musings on what we’ve seen so far in 2012-13.

It’s a campaign which ushered in a ballyhooed new era, with the old reserve team structure making way for a new Under-21 league under the auspices of the Elite Player Performance Plan, designed to aid the development of young English footballers like never before. As usual, there’s plenty to talk about.

Some of it may read as if it has a negative slant, but the only aim here is to discuss things we’ve seen and analyse them from a development standpoint.

Ups and downs with the 4-2-3-1 formation

Like the first team, both Dermot Drummy’s Under-21s and Adi Viveash’s Under-18 team have adopted the 4-2-3-1 formation as their first choice shape. Viveash’s teams are slightly more flexible and can resemble many other looks, but Drummy’s team is set up strikingly similarly to Roberto Di Matteo’s, and it’s almost certainly a deliberate approach.

Where it primarly differs from ‘Jose Mourinho’s’ 4-3-3, which was so ingrained throughout the club for so many years, is removing a single anchoring midfielder and putting him further up the pitch as a playmaker behind the forward(s) and/or between the wide players. We saw this transition to good effect last season when Billy Clifford enjoyed a run of strong performances, and he’s continued in that vein this season as Drummy looks to him as the key creative spark in the team.

It makes for exciting, attacking football with a number of potent weapons able to be included in the same eleven, but it has its pitfalls as well. Chief amongst those is the suitability of certain players to the position(s) they’ve been playing in. That brings us nicely to the next point.

Individual Development vs The Team

With so many players out on loan at Under-21 level, the core of Drummy’s weekly selection is familiar and easily recalled. Yet in a few areas – particular in the attacking third – players have been used outside of their comfort zone and in unfamiliar roles which affects their capacity to influence the game.

Islam Feruz and Lewis Baker are both fine footballers who have had fabulous years, but neither are wingers, nor are they wide midfielders. Feruz’s athleticism lends itself well to some aspects of the role whilst Baker’s intelligence and craft can come in handy when given space and options, but they are both better used elsewhere.

That’s not always possible though, so they’re included where there’s room, and clearly benefit from the exposure to a higher level of football at the tender age of seventeen. In recent games they’ve both been included in the same team with Lucas Piazon away with the first team squad, but results have taken a bit of a tumble south at the same time.

Whether it’s a coincidence or not can be debated, but it’s been evident that things haven’t quite clicked in attack. Baker is naturally inclined to seek a dangerous position around the edge of the box, but that’s generally Clifford’s domain. With one of the deeper midfielders generally supporting the attack and Patrick Bamford eager to offer himself short to link play up, the central area 20-30 yards from goal becomes congested.

Bamford is a good forward and has an impressive scoring record since he joined in January, but he is best suited to a slightly different type of football. He is primarily a poacher; an instinctive finisher in the box, with the ability to finish on either foot and make quick decisions. A casual look back over his goals in blue will attest to this, but more often than not this season the creative forces behind him are looking to provide a different sort of service.

We’ve seen through balls, deft lobbed passes, and intricate play around the edge of the box, which is nice to watch, but it doesn’t suit Bamford as much as it might others. If one or two loanees had been kept around instead, the options and the flexibility provided would be much greater, and we’d probably end up with better results, but players will naturally move on and take the next steps in their own careers, and so therefore certain expectations need to be tempered.

When Chelsea won the national reserve title a couple of years ago, they were scintillating in the second half of the season when Adam Coombes (then Phillip), Milan Lalkovic and Gökhan Töre found perfect harmony and simply tore teams apart. This is a perfect example of the available players clicking perfectly with the desired shape.

Let’s take this season’s undoubted high point; the 5-0 win over Wolves. The second half saw a spell of three goals in ten minutes which saw schoolboy Jeremie Boga take control in Bamford’s areas (despite the former Nottingham Forest man being on the pitch) and he was devastatingly effective.

And so there’s something of a developmental dilemma to therefore consider. Does a manager have to set his team up to get the best out of the players on the pitch, or does he give his best players every opportunity to play, and work out the most suitable way for them to play?

There’s probably no right answer to that and it’s fantastic to see a host of 17, 16 and 15 year-old lads playing under Drummy, and they’ll be huge beneficiaries of that approach in years to come. It’s simply an interesting debate to consider, and one which will probably be revisited many times throughout the season.

The two sides of the defence

Throughout the pre-season, reams of fans of football league and non-league clubs alike shared one common opinion about the young Chelsea players they’d just watched.

Nathan Aké is really good.

This wasn’t particularly breaking news to regular followers of the youth team as the Dutchman was a key figure in the FA Youth Cup success in his debut season in England, but in his first series of challenges against adults, against big strikers capable of causing him more than a few problems, he passed with flying colours.

He also developed something of a partnership with Alex Davey late last season, generally beginning in the first leg of the Youth Cup Semi Final at Old Trafford, when Davey came into the team and put in a man of the match performance. From that point on Adi Viveash sought to pair them up whenever possible, and Dermot Drummy has followed suit with the Under-21s despite them both just being 17.

Outside of the central pairings we’ve seen a full-back duo we know plenty about in Aziz Deen-Conteh and captain Todd Kane. After a frustrating time waiting for an opportunity behind Ryan Bertrand and Patrick van Aanholt, Deen-Conteh now holds all of the cards at left-back, whilst Kane has been on the right track since coming into the youth team as an Under-16.

On paper and indeed in theory, it’s a well-balanced group, capable of holding their own at the back and making a major impact in attack. Yet individual errors have crept into each of their games in recent weeks, and perhaps more importantly, one side of the defence is performing much better than the other.

Deen-Conteh has been one of the more impressive Under-21 players so far this season. He gets forward with purpose and has come along very well in his defensive duties. He’s a major, major threat from first to last and from front to back, and Wolves will attest to the damage he can do. Alongside the rock-steady Aké, the left side has been in good hands.

The same can’t be said of the right though, which is a strange thing to say considering the personnel. Davey’s progress in the last six months has been remarkable to the point he’s highly-rated in the Scottish national youth setup now, and his distribution from the back is a quality asset for any team to have, but there’s been the odd hiccup here and there this season.

That’s fine, as we’re talking about youth development here, and defenders make mistakes at all levels, but combine it with Kane’s below-par showings and it has resulted in a misbalanced back four.

Again, that might seem a little harsh on Kane, who has certainly done little wrong overall, but for a player who is at his best when playing at full speed, driving forward and causing havoc in the attacking third, he’s been a bit subdued thus far. He isn’t moving with the same gusto, and isn’t as decisive as he has been before. There’s an uncertainty about his play.

We can speculate as to the reasons why this apparent misbalance has occurred; be it that Piazon is a more effective outlet on the left than Baker out of position on the right has been, or that George Saville tends to play on the left of the ‘double pivot’ as well instead of the more inexperienced Ruben Loftus-Cheek (the most common partner for Saville so far), but there may not be one true factor at all. It’s merely an observation of how things have gone, and something to watch out for in the coming games.

Under-18 depth and versatility

Whilst the Under-21s have struggled, the Under-18s have had no such issues and have racked up a perfect record, winning each of their first six games and putting themselves out in front in the academy league.

They’ve been aided to an extent by an unusual fixture schedule which has seen them play all of their home games consecutively before doing the same with their away clashes, but in arguably the most competitive of the three Under-18 groups (six of the seven teams in it are Category One and Crystal Palace deserved to be too) they’ve held their own and deserve the record.

However, arguably the biggest asset available to Adi Viveash has been the depth and versatility available to him in terms of quality. Twenty-five players have been used so far and with a monster crop of first-year scholars joined by four or five extremely talented Under-16s being promoted early, playing time has been hard to come by for some and even harder to keep for those getting it.

It means highly-competitive training sessions, a real hunger to work for a place in the team on Saturday, and a desire to prove yourself on the pitch and keep your place. To this end, we’ve ended up seeing a largely settled team because the boys keep winning, although just four players have played in all six games to date.

It’s not just the sheer volume of numbers which has given Viveash options though. This is a remarkably versatile group of players, with a number of defenders capable of playing anywhere across the back four or in more advanced positions. Many of the midfielders have been used in defensive and attacking roles and occasionally out wide, whilst the trend of forwards playing both wide and more centrally has continued with positive effect.

With injuries bound to take their toll at some point and a tough slate of games in the run up to Christmas, having so many options will be amongst the most important factors determining how long the young Blues can stay perfect or unbeaten for.

Those who may move on

An unfortunate consequence of having so many good players in one age group is that there’s only so much playing time you can dole out, and whilst some thrive, others find themselves on the sidelines contemplating their next move.

This is particularly relevant when considering the second-year scholars who are yet to be offered a professional contract. We’ve already seen Ismail Seremba head to Bristol City on a short-term loan deal so he can get out on the pitch, whilst Samuel Bangura, Ali Gordon, Walter Figueira and Nortei Nortey have been absent from the team all season, with injuries again causing severe headaches and hampering progress for many of them (as it has Anjur Osmanovic, who has signed pro terms).

Tom Howard is the only second-year player to have featured regularly this season and he has done so to good effect with his eyes on a longer stay, but otherwise the Under-18 team has retained its very young look. As the campaign goes on, next season’s scholars will come into the fold more and more as the cycle continues.

An English core

One of the things which has jumped off the page so far this season is the English representation in both teams. For a club which has been rather maligned in the press in recent years for a lack of production from the academy at all, let alone English players, the picture really is quite impressive.

At the top, as many as half a dozen Blues have been involved under Roy Hodgson, with academy-produced Ryan Bertrand the latest to step up, and it’s a trend which continues down the national team age groups and throughout the club too.

Drummy’s Under-21s typically feature a healthy representation, at times as many as eight or nine, whilst Viveash has named a fully English (16-man) matchday squad more than once this season.

In a deliberate bid to accelerate the overhaul of the academy in the middle of the last decade, Frank Arnesen leant heavily on overseas imports to strengthen the ranks whilst the younger age groups developed under a new footballing philosophy.

The fruits of the work done from entry into Chelsea is now starting to be realised with this year’s intake of scholars the first to have almost exclusively played in the ‘new’ setup. Jordan Houghton, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ben Killip all joined at Under-8 and saw the last days of the previous setup but they are all ‘Abramovich era kids’ and it shows, with this being touted as perhaps the most promising group in a generation.

Progression from this point obviously depends on a great many factors, but the signs are extremely positive, are drawing good publicity and even a healthy, competitive envy from some quarters.

Looking ahead – the FA Youth Cup

The start to the season has clearly been very good for the Under-18s. Performance and development are placed at the top of the pile in terms of priorities but results are always nice, especially when they read as they do currently.

December will herald the start of the Blues’ defence of the FA Youth Cup, a competition they make no bones about targeting and have done so with unrivalled success in recent years; twice winning it whilst finishing runners-up and semi-finalists in the last five years.

The depth spoken of earlier combined with strong recent form, the desire to win the competition and a ton of potential returnees makes Chelsea early favourites in the eyes of many.

Blackman, Kane, Piazon and Amin Affane are the sole regulars from the 11-12 success to have graduated the team, meaning Under-21 regulars Aké, Davey, Baker and Feruz are all able to contribute once again, as are John Swift and Adam Nditi. Nathaniel Chalobah could conceivably take part too, but he’s moved on to bigger and better things.

Consider for a moment that the Chalobah-Baker-Swift trio which was so successful last season could carry on, with the likes of Loftus-Cheek, Starkey, Houghton, Boga, Colkett and a cast of what seems hundreds providing alternatives. Houghton has also shown a strong partnership with Dion Conroy in the Under-18s’ central defence this season, but the first nod may go to Aké and Davey.

It’s quite simply depth we’ve rarely seen before and it promises to be a fascinating cup campaign. It’ll have to go some to top the drama of last season’s though.