Under-21 & Youth Team Season Preview – Part Four: The Blues

Having previewed Chelsea’s opponents in Under-18 and Under-21 competition ahead of the coming season, and taken a look at those competitions themselves in some depth, all that remains is to preview the Blues themselves ahead of 2012-13.

Nearly twenty new first-year scholars and promoted schoolboys join a group of players which has won both the Reserve League and FA Youth Cup crowns in recent years and bring additional quality and quantity ahead of a hectic new campaign.

Dermot Drummy will lead the newly-named Under-21 team in the Professional Development League as English football takes a step forward into the EPPP era and does away with the old reserve team structure and concept.

Drummy will also take charge of the club’s Under-19 team in the NextGen Series against some of Europe’s finest with a squad featuring some of his players and some of Adi Viveash’s Under-18 squad. The youth team face the same six teams in Group 3 of the top division as the Under-21s do, with Liverpool, Fulham, Manchester City, Wolves, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough on the agenda before Christmas.

It’s an exciting time for everyone at the club, but it has presented new challenges and conundrums. Chief amongst them is how to ensure that such a big group of players all receive ample playing time throughout the season.

Each manager will have roughly twenty players available to him and the club have arranged their Under-18 and Under-21 fixture lists accordingly in order to facilitate some individuals playing for both sides of a weekend, should it be required.

There is, as mentioned above, extraordinary depth in all positions at both levels even with loanee departures already closing on double figures. Should more players depart throughout the season, players will simply shuffle on upwards and the next generation of Under-16s will get their chance to shine, as they always do in the later parts of the season.

(Depth chart isn’t wholly representative of likelihood of starting, more of who is available per position)

Jamal Blackman steps up from the youth team to be the full time first choice Under-21 stopper, with Sam Walkerback out on loan again. First-year scholars Mitchell Beeney and Ben Killip will share Under-18 duties, with Beeney being first in line to deputise for Blackman due to his greater experience as a schoolboy last season.

The club have been looking at 27 year-old Ivorian international Vincent Angban over the summer as well as part of a much greater interest in his 15 year-old brother Victorien. If the duo end up signing, Vincent would be Blackman’s immediate backup.

Todd Kane has been named as the Under-21 team captain for the coming term, indicating perhaps that he will not be heading out on loan and that last season’s captain Nathaniel Chalobah may well be instead.

Chalobah has been linked with Watford and Bristol City and despite being just 17, he already has two seasons of ‘reserve’ team football to his name and may consider this the right time to take the next step.

If he does go out – or even if he doesn’t – look for Alex Davey and Nathan Aké to continue to build on their excellent partnership in central defence. The duo both signed professional contracts in the summer after proving an instant hit in the latter stages of the FA Youth Cup last season and Drummy has kept them together throughout the pre-season campaign.

Archange Nkumu and Tika Musonda offer cover at right and centre-back, whilst Daniel Pappoe is working hard in the later stages of rehabilitation from a serious knee injury suffered at the start of the year.

With Ryan Bertrand’s ascension to the first-team ranks now permanent and with both Patrick van Aanholt and Ben Gordon out on loan, Aziz Deen-Conteh finally gets to begin the season as first choice in his position. He finished last season well after a frustrating start and will be keen to progress in 12-13. Adam Nditi will ensure he stays on top of his game by pushing for playing time in his first season as a pro.

In midfield, both junior teams still tend to use a three-man unit as opposed to Roberto Di Matteo’s deeper-lying two with three more advanced playmakers, but such things are fluid and Adi Viveash often used a “two and one” system last year and the personnel available to both him and Drummy allow for a great deal of flexibility.

The Under-21s may well feature last season’s cup winning trio of Chalobah, Lewis Baker and John Swift, with the latter pair having been promoted over the summer. However, George Saville is one of the more senior faces in the group and had a fantastic 11-12 season, and will command a regular place either in midfield or at centre-back.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek has also been fast-tracked through the age groups, joining the Under-21 squad despite being only 16 years old, and you can expect to see a lot of Billy Clifford should he not go out on loan. The team’s chief playmaker and best player last season can play in a number of roles and positions but is best used centrally, behind the forwards, where he can use his deft touch and vision to full effect.

New signing Thorgan Hazard offers a change-up with skill and flair, as does Amin Affane (loan move to Roda JC pending), whilst James Ashton, Danny Stenning and Lamisha Musonda should be involved on occasion as well.

Patrick Bamford and Adam Coomes (formerly Phillip) figure to be the chief goal getters, with Lucas Piazon chipping in from wide positions and Islam Feruz getting in on the act as well. With Milan Lalkovic departing on loan for the season, opportunities for younger forwards like Alex Kiwomya will also undoubtedly come along.

Indeed, there is remarkable depth at youth team level, not only in pure numbers but in the fact that so many of the players are positionally versatile and multi-functional. Most of the defenders can play right across the back four and most of the centre-backs can slot into defensive midfield positions, making a projection of a ‘strongest’ team a tough proposition, if such a thing should be considered in the first place.

(Depth chart isn’t wholly representative of likelihood of starting, more of who is available per position)

To that end, the depth chart above indicates that the likes of Ali Gordon, Nortei Nortey and Sam Bangura – each in their second years of scholarship – can and will move around within the team, whilst new first-years Fankaty Dabo, Jonathan Muleba, Jordan Houghton, Isak Ssewankambo, Kevin Wright and Andreas Christensen will do the same.

Dion Conroy is in the minority of players who may solely feature in one place but he has shown in a short space of time that he might be the best centre-back in the group at this early stage of development.

Houghton, Ssewankambo and Christensen offer very useful options in midfield whilst Jesse Starkey, George Cole, Tom Howard and Anjur Osmanovic provide their versatility further forward. They’re all able to play in a central midfield role or out wide in a more advanced forward position.

Ambrose Gnahore stands out as an athletic wide player who will play at full-back or on either wing, as does talented Under-16 Connor Hunte. His fellow schoolboys Jeremie Boga and Charlie Colkett will be involved early and often, with Boga already making headlines as a key contributor in attacking situations.

In attack, Walter Figueira will be hoping to stay fit after a long layoff last season and should have the inside track on spearheading the frontline ahead of first-year Chike Kandi, who offers a more physical threat in relief. As previously mentioned, Alex Kiwomya will likely share time between two teams and between central and wide attacking roles, whilst Ismail Seremba and Reece Mitchell are equally well versed in the versatility required of being a Chelsea forward.

Colombian schemer Joao Rodriguez has provided intrigue over the summer with eye-catching performances but much like Bertrand Traore and the Ivorian Angban, his contractual status with the club is uncertain and doubtless complicated.

It promises to be yet another exhilarating season below first team level at Stamford Bridge, and you can be sure of being right up to date with every development between now and next May here at TheChels and by following @chelseayouth on Twitter.