No other club can claim to have an FA Youth Cup record even approaching that of Chelsea’s in recent years.
The Blues have twice won the prestigious junior age group tournament in the last six years, whilst they have also lost a final and made the last four in the 2010-11 season. It stands to reason that we can expect an assault on what would be a third consecutive appearance in the final this year – something which hasn’t been done since the 1950s, when Manchester United run roughshod over the competition – but if it does happen, it won’t necessarily be in a familiar style.
The advent of continental challenges in the form of the NextGen Series and the UEFA Youth League have offered considerable food for thought at Chelsea’s academy headquarters in Cobham, and combined with an improved domestic Under-21 programme domestically, a shift in short-term philosophy has taken place this season, with long-term benefits in mind.
Academy Manager Neil Bath, collaborating with Under-21 coach Dermot Drummy and Under-18 boss Adi Viveash, has decided that although another Youth Cup success would be nice, it wouldn’t offer any particular challenge for a group of boys who have been there and done it, and therefore they need tasking with tougher asks which further their development.
Andreas Christensen and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, for example, remain eligible to return to the fold this season, and we may well see them in dispatches, but for a duo which featured for the first team in post-season friendlies at the end of last season and who are Under-21 regulars, dropping down an age group is almost literally taking a step backwards.
Similar might be said for Mitchell Beeney, Lewis Baker, John Swift, Islam Feruz and Alex Kiwomya; mainstays of Drummy’s group last term and individuals who could probably cruise to the latter stages of affairs without breaking sweat. They’re all better served by going deep into European football and competing with older players – Chelsea’s Under-21 side is still statistically the youngest in the country – for league and cup success whilst seeking the approval of Jose Mourinho in a bid to break into the first team.
It means a younger and less experienced bunch of prospects get to try their hand at continuing what has become something of a tradition in maintaining the high standards expected of the club in the Youth Cup. A handful of second-years who missed out last time through injury will lead the way, whilst an increasingly influential crop of first-years and a precocious batch of Under-16s will press for their time in the spotlight too. It speaks to incredible volumes that despite handicapping themselves, Chelsea will still be amongst the favourites.
Brad Collins should take over from Beeney in goal and should fare very well in doing so. With Ben Killip having departed to take the offer of a professional contract from Norwich City, there is little by way of competition for the starting gloves and whilst Beeney may feature on occasion (indeed, he is likely to play this week), Collins should get his fair share of action.
A much-changed defensive group will likely eschew the international flavours of Christensen and Nathan Aké (who is now too old to be involved) and instead focus on the club-developed Dion Conroy and Jonathan Muleba, each of whom could captain the squad. Muleba has held the armband for much of the Under-18 league season to date and has been in superb form; so much so that he has managed to secure a professional deal despite not having been offered one in the summer.
He can also play in any spot along the back four, which opens up a number of options for Viveash. George Brady can play in the middle if Muleba were to be moved out to left-back, where he has played for much of the season to date, and that might be a likely approach should Kevin Wright continue his Under-21 progress.
Viveash also gave right-back Ola Aina a surprising head at the business end of last season’s campaign and was rewarded with four stunning outings from a supremely athletic boy with rampaging attacking capabilities. He’ll be pencilled in to start now that Isak Ssewankambo has also joined the exodus to the Under-21s, although the versatility of the Swedish Under-17 international may be called upon should he be required in a more central role. Fankaty Dabo has also always played well when called upon and should get a chance here and there.
Jordan Houghton started last year’s third round trip to Colchester before suffering a serious knee injury which kept him out until August, so expect him to both pick up here he left off and make up for lost time in his last crack at the Youth Cup. A pair of England Under-18s in Kasey Palmer and Charlie Colkett could help comprise a very exciting (and home-grown) midfield, with Colkett’s natural flair and creativity likely meshing well with Palmer’s box-to-box approach and improved goalscoring.
George Cole and Ambrose Gnahore have been in good form over the first three months of the season and offer the ability to play either wide or central behind the forwards, whilst Chike Kandi and Reece Mitchell will be involved having missed chunks of time themselves. Mitchell suffered a broken leg at Derby early in 2013 and has only just returned to match fitness, scoring his first goal of the season against Aston Villa in late November.
The attacking wildcard will be in the number ten spot, where Jeremie Boga and Charly Musonda spoil Viveash somewhat. Boga is arguably the most talented 16 year-old in the country and scored twice in last year’s final, but has only been playing at youth team level as part of his rehab of an ankle injury suffered at Southampton in September.
If, as expected, he returns to Drummy’s 21s on a permanent basis, Musonda will get the nod and whilst he lacks Boga’s physicality and directness, he has alarmingly quick feet and a stupendously mature footballing brain for one so young, and can undoubtedly carry the team on his back should he be asked to.
Dominic Solanke is the best of the forward options despite being a schoolboy and is approaching double figures for goals already, whilst having just as many assists. His movement and link-up play allows for a fluid attacking approach and his finishing has improved with every game. Fellow Under-16 Tammy Abraham, although raw, offers unusual size for his position and has the ability to be a weapon later on in games, whilst Mitchell and Kandi can also play the number nine role when required.
The draw for Round Three has been as kind as it could have been with a home tie against Dartford on the cards. The Kent outfit have done exceedingly well to come through a number of qualifying matches but it is (on paper at least) as big a mismatch as any top-flight versus non-league fixture at first team level and the part-timers will be up against it from the start.
Chelsea last played a non-league team in December 2007, when Adam Coombes (then Phillip) scored the only goal away to Stevenage, and the Blues will be hoping for a similar result (if not scoreline) than in 1995, when they contrived to lose a First Round Replay to another Essex club, Basildon United.
Based on the team selected for Tuesday’s UEFA Youth League stroll against Steaua Bucharest, Viveash’s team selection could look something like this:
Beeney, Aina, Conroy, Muleba, Wright, Loftus-Cheek, Musonda, Boga, Cole, Mitchell, Solanke
The match will be played at Aldershot’s Electrical Services Stadium this coming Thursday, with kickoff scheduled for 7.30pm and the match being covered live by Chelsea TV. As always, you can keep fully up to date with events as they happen on Twitter @chelseayouth.