We’re not quite a quarter of the way through the 2013-14 season but the international break provides a timely interlude to take a retrospective of Chelsea’s impressive start to affairs at youth level.
A series of strong displays from both the Under-21 and Under-18 teams have caught the eye, whilst the UEFA Youth League has resulted in a pair of 4-0 victories, and even the next fledgling generation of schoolboys are making headway in the latest and most important stage of their careers.
The pre-season schedule promised much; both Dermot Drummy and Adi Viveash were blessed with strength of both quality and depth in their respective squads and led a strong summer across both age groups. Drummy’s elder boys put half a dozen non-league teams to the sword with goals aplenty, whilst Viveash and company included almost a dozen boys from the younger age groups and made considerable early strides.
Both teams have made good on the hard work put in throughout July and August by putting points on the board when competition proper got underway. Drummy’s 21s have won four of their six matches and arguably should have picked up at least a point from one of their two defeats. An opening day hiccup against Tottenham aside, it’s been an enthralling and entertaining first few weeks, with young English talent coming to the fore.
To say John Swift has been the form player would be an understatement. He weighed in with six goals in pre-season and with a further half a dozen to his name since, has been relentless in his pursuit of improvement. Drummy spoke last season of a need for the England Under-19 midfielder to work on certain aspects of his game which had not come up to scratch, and that he was working with Frank Lampard to address some of them. Needless to say, the impact of spending time with Chelsea’s all time leading goalscorer has become evident.
He has been ably supported by new signing Isaiah Brown and the influential Lewis Baker, who earned a maiden first team call for the League Cup tie at Swindon, whilst the group has also been able to call upon the more experienced services of Josh McEachran, Nathaniel Chalobah and Billy Clifford from time to time.
Injuries and problems in securing suitable loan spells meant the talented trio have turned out at a level quite honestly below them, but they each took it seriously and provided the leadership and decisive ability expected of them. With Nathan Aké and Andreas Christensen featuring extensively in defence, it’s been a very strong team for the most part, and they’ve looked good more often than not.
The same group of players – save those born before 1995 – have made a strong start to their European challenge this term too. The NextGen Series may be on hiatus but the UEFA Youth League provides an opportunity for the club to go one better and win continental honours at junior level, and handsome wins over Basel and Steaua Bucharest have got the ball rolling. It might not be the most capable of groups and Schalke will provide a sterner challenge, but value lies in travelling overseas and experiencing different cultural challenges for now, and come the knockout stages in the new year, the difficulty should go up a notch or two.
The Under-18s, meanwhile, have an even better record with six wins and a draw from eight games and a tidy 25 goals scored along the way. Dominic Solanke, Kasey Palmer and Ambrose Gnahore have been almost unstoppable with 18 of those goals between them, leading to debuts at the next level with Drummy for two of them.
Solanke – still an Under-16 by age – has run roughshod over everyone in his way, racking up seven goals and seven assists in his six appearances. With composure they belies his years and a robust, determined approach, he’s a handful and then some, and already looks like he might be too good to spend too long at this level.
Palmer and Gnahore have been just as capable in support and their combination of dynamic athleticism and intelligent approach play has been central to maintaining an average of three goals a game for the youth team. Middlesbrough and Blackburn each took a five-goal hiding whilst Southampton and Liverpool both left Cobham with theirs tails between their legs after being swept aside. Only Everton have emerged victorious against the Blues and that owed much to a controversial red card issued to Fankaty Dabo.
The integration of so many schoolboys in preparation for the new season was not a mere token gesture, with Viveash having given no fewer than eight of them an outing already. Solanke leads the way and is a fully-fledged regular but Isaac Christie-Davies, Mukhtar Ali, Kyle Scott, Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham, Jay Da Silva and Nias Butungu have also featured and will continue to do so as we move forward.
The EPPP, though much maligned for various well publicised reasons, allows clubs considerably more contact time with younger players and makes provisions for clubs to educate their 14-16 year-olds in whatever environment they wish. Through a relationship with Glyn School, the club are able to have their brightest prospects on site at Cobham on a daily basis and with educational requirements fulfilled can then spend more time on the training pitch and having them train and play with older, full-time age groups.
The strides made in this area in particular mean that it’s much more feasible to push the younger boys towards more challenging scenarios and opposition. Chelsea tend to be very dominant at Under-16 level, with overwhelming wins a regular occurrence, but to truly be able to kick on, they need to have asked tougher questions of them. To this end, Academy Manager Neil Bath has suggested that there might be a change of approach as far as the FA Youth Cup is concerned this season, with a much younger group of players set to take on the challenge of maintaining an unrivalled recent record in the competition.
Having won it twice and finished runner-up in the last five years, Bath hinted that the club may focus on the Under-21 and UEFA Youth leagues in an effort to help that age group push on and press for senior involvement, but this is a club that expects certain standards to be maintained and if it is a much younger group taking on the Youth Cup challenge, they will be asked to be amongst the contenders. Perhaps the scariest thought of all is that they might even be considered amongst the favourites despite being at best the second strongest team Chelsea could field.
Every level finds itself on an upward trajectory and as a loanee system enjoying it’s most productive period yet with the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, Thorgan Hazard and Patrick Bamford catching the eye goes from strength to strength, hopes of ascension into the first team continue. For now, at least, things are going about as well as they can.