Academy Season Preview: Part Two – The Opposition

As part of our build-up to the new season of youth football here at, we traditionally take a look at the teams Chelsea will go up against at Under-21, Under-19 and Under-18 levels.

The UEFA Youth League draw is still a few weeks away, leaving us squarely focused on domestic affairs for the time being. The Blues will face a handful of sides across both age groups, with the remainder then featuring at either one level of the other. Let’s meet them.

Under-21 and Under-18 opponents

Leicester City
An increasingly impressive force at Under-21 level since being granted Category One status, the Foxes emerged as potential title contenders last season before the weight of the fixture list and the might of some of their opponents caught up with them. A top eight finish last season secured them a place in the Under-21 International Cup and with new first team manager Claudio Ranieri already having turned his attentions to the younger generation, there are first team minutes to be had for those catching the eye.

U21 Player to Watch: Ben Chilwell – The England Under-19 international left-back has spent much of the pre-season with the senior players and it looks as if he’ll be involved in the Premier League sooner rather than later. Blessed with a wand of a left foot and a motor allowing him to cover the length of the pitch from first to last, he’s one to keep a close eye on.

U18 Player to Watch: Hamza Choudhury – He stands out as much for his ability as for his signature hairstyle but his take no prisoners approach in midfield has seen him emerge as a genuine candidate for a top flight future. Integral last season, he’ll be looking for more this term.

Norwich City
Norwich’s academy has undergone something of a revamp in 2015. The Under-18s were amongst the youngest in the country last season with several Under-16s and Under-15s blooded ahead of schedule, and coaching changes followed at U21 and U18 level in the summer. Former Reading defender Graeme Murty takes charge of the younger age group whilst the 21s are now under the tutelage of Dmitri Halajko, a former FA development employee.

U21 Player to Watch: Michee Efete – A supremely athletically gifted defender who can line up anywhere across the back four, his experience will be called upon in a transitional year for the age group as he seeks to break through into professional adult football.

U18 Player to Watch: Benny Ashley-Seal – The ex-Man Utd schoolboy scored goals as an Under-16 playing up last season and even saw Under-21 minutes here and there. A powerful and quick centre-forward, he can also play wide and provides a potent attacking threat.

The Royals continue to impress in youth development, making waves as national Under-15 champions whilst earning promotion to the Under-21 top flight. Throw in an Under-21 Premier League Cup and a strong FA Youth Cup record in recent years and you have a club providing a consistent pipeline of talent into the first team squad, with manager Steve Clarke more than happy to give those deserving a decent shot at making it to the very top.

U21 Player to Watch: Andrija Novakovich – An American centre-forward who debuted for Clarke at the end of last season, he will have been disappointed not to have been included in his country’s Under-20 World Cup squad this past May and will go into the new season determined to keep up his prolific ways in search of earning further recognition at the next level.

U18 Player to Watch: Tom McIntyre – A Scottish youth international defender who spent much of last season playing Under-18 football as a schoolboy, he is every inch the modern defender and will likely be on the fast track to Under-21 action in his first year as a scholar.

For all the talk of Southampton being the standard-bearers for English youngsters getting their opportunities, things aren’t necessarily all they seem. Pressed into replacing their multi-million pound domestic departures, a host of overseas players have arrived under Ronald Koeman, and in the last two or three years a number of their scholarships have been handed out to players deemed surplus to requirements by the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea. They were strong in Under-21 football last term but not so at Under-18 level and the surprise summer departure of youth team coach Anthony Limbrick leaves more questions yet to be answered.

U21 Player to Watch: Will Wood – The flame-haired centre-back has been tipped for a bright future as the latest centre-back fresh off a recent production line that has also seen Jason McCarthy, Jack Stephens and Jordan Turnbull develop into potential first-team candidates. As the youngest of the group his time is yet to come but a strong Under-21 campaign will do his chances the world of good.

U18 Player to Watch: Callum Slattery – A wonderfully balanced creative midfielder who captains his country at Under-18 level, he’s already been tied down to a professional deal for when he turns 17 and it would not be a shock to see him involved at first team level before the end of the season. Very much in the class of a James Ward-Prowse or an Adam Lallana before him.

Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs are up there with Chelsea and Manchester City at the forefront of youth development in England and, with some wonderful talents in their more youthful ranks set to emerge in the coming years, they’re well set for a bright future. The exploits of Harry Kane and Ryan Mason at club and international level last season show there are chances for those good enough and there will be a lengthy queue of talented youngsters knocking at the door.

U21 Player to Watch: Nathan Oduwa – A slow start to life as a scholar at Tottenham saw him spend a season on loan at West Brom, but it did him the world of good as he had the opportunity to work in an academy famed for churning out some seriously talented forwards in recent times. He got his first taste of senior football at Luton last season in an Under-21 campaign in which he asserted himself both as a goalscorer and a scorer of fine goals, and he has taken the next step this season in catching the eye once again.

U18 Player to Watch: Marcus Edwards – A much-talked about left-footed schemer who shone for England in their European Under-17 Championship adventure this past May, he has now been secured to a long-term deal after questions about his future arose and he can set his sights on making progress. A terrific dribbler with skill in abundance, his personality will grow with each match and he can follow in the footsteps of the likes of Alex Pritchard, Tom Carroll and Josh Onomah as stylish playmakers of recent years.

Under-21 opponents

Something of a barren spell has taken over Everton’s youth ranks in recent seasons as although their on-pitch results have been good (they were very nearly Under-18 champions again last season), scarce few have made it into the first team. Roberto Martinez showed faith in Ross Barkley but not many others and those performing well out on loan have flamed out at Championship level before departing for pastures new. A healthy intake of new scholars promises to freshen things up this season.

U21 Player to Watch: Antony Evans – He may only be a first-year scholar but his 2015 has been nothing short of spectacular as he first helped the Toffees in their bid for an Under-18 league crown before exploding in pre-season with a flurry of goals against strong opposition. An imperious figure with tremendous height and physique, he should see Under-21 action quite early on and it won’t take long at all for him to stick there.

Title contenders for much of last season, their challenge was put to bed in a 4-3 defeat away to Chelsea back in April but they’ll be back once again with a glut of wonderfully talented individuals, many of whom have spent the summer with the first team. There might not be a better club to be at in the upper reaches of the English game for meaningful first-team minutes and, with Raheem Sterling having departed for a British transfer record and Jordon Ibe set to replace him, the pathways are there for all to see.

U21 Player to Watch: Adam Phillips – If he can stay fit it’s time for him to recapture the exciting promise of the 2013-14 season and challenge Jordan Rossiter for the status of the most talented central midfielder in the Reds’ ranks. Two-footed with an eye for goal and a penchant for the spectacular, the Under-17 World Cup in October could be his coming-out party if he can work his way back into the England reckoning.

Manchester City
They fell to Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup Final but Man City are about as good as they come in English youth football right now. A veritable slew of those involved against the Blues have spent the summer impressing on first-team pre-season duty and even if they don’t stick now, they’re too good to be ignored for much longer.

U21 Player to Watch: Manu Garcia – Any one of ten or twelve players could quite conceivably have been listed here but the diminutive Spanish midfielder takes the honours as his star continues to rise. Technically flawless, he meshed brilliantly with compatriot David Silva in July action and has set City tongues wagging for what might be to follow.

Manchester United
For all the talk of United being a spent force at youth team level (and there has been some, both from within their own ranks as well as outside), they claimed a fourth Under-21 league title in six years and were right in the mix for the Under-18 championship as well. Critics will point out that they used several established senior players en route to winning the BU21PL but they were well within their rights to as far as the rules go and their young prospects will have received a bonus education in the process.

U21 Player to Watch: Timothy Fosu-Mensah – A gargantuan figure in the heart of their team, the former Ajax man-child settled smoothly into English football, bossing things from either the heart of the defence or a deep midfield role. It would be a considerable surprise if he doesn’t make a first team debut this season.

Under-18 league champions, Under-21 second division champions, and England’s fifth representative in the UEFA Youth League this coming season. Things are looking very rosy at Middlesbrough’s Rockliffe academy and, with the first team continuing to chase the promised land of the Premier League, everyone is pulling in the same direction to produce the best players they possibly can.

U21 Player to Watch: Harry Chapman – A central name in their Under-18 success, the nippy forward went on to represent his country for the first time last season and now moves into the Under-21 ranks where he will presumably continue to terrorise opposing defenders with his devastating straight-line speed in possession.

They too were involved in the Under-21 league title race last term in what was an exceptionally close league and it was they who severely dented Chelsea’s title charge with a 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light in April. Duncan Watmore scored the goal that night on his way to being named Player of the Season and as he now moves into Dick Advocaat’s first team, the stage is set for the next batch to step up and carry on where he left off.

U21 Player to Watch: Daniel Wright – A reliable midfield presence who has been a regular part of England’s Under-17 squad for the past year, expect him to start well as he looks to book his place in the Under-17 World Cup squad before pushing on upon his return to establish himself at Under-21 level.

Under-18 opponents

Arsenal had a nightmare at Under-18 level last time out, winning just seven of their 29 league matches to finish bottom of the pile overall. Academy Manager Andries Jonker and his staff appear to have recognised the deficiencies within their ranks however as they look to play catch-up with a recruitment drive to bring in some of Europe’s finest talents, particular in attacking areas.

U18 Player to Watch: Donyell Malen – Procured from Ajax after a protracted transfer negotiation, he’s a significant addition to their ranks and will bring power, pace, attitude and goals to Frans de Kat’s Under-18 team.

Aston Villa
Not many teams will have experienced a stranger Under-18 season than Aston Villa did last season. They finished third in the Southern section through 22 games but were only able to put up a goal difference of +1 despite scoring 49 goals in those matches. That was in large part due to 12-2 and 8-3 defeats against Chelsea, and a third (3-1) defeat to them in the Merit group at the end of the season showed that whilst they’re generally heading in the right direction, they struggle against physical attacking teams willing to overload the final third. A hefty intake of 14 new scholars could see similar freak results happen as they settle into their full-time surroundings.

U18 Player to Watch: Josef Pastorek – A Czech forward acquired during his Under-16 season, he should bring a more skilled and nuanced element to a youthful attack that will be without the 20+ goals of Rushian Hepburn-Murphy from a year ago.

Brighton & Hove Albion
The Seagulls secured Category One status a year after the launch of the EPPP and have made considerable strides since doing so. Their training complex is state-of-the-art and, despite sharing a catchment area with several bigger clubs, they are increasingly represented at England Under-15 and Under-16 camps, suggesting a bright home-grown future for an ambitious club.

U18 Player to Watch: Luis Garcia – The tricky playmaker from the Canary Islands joined after a successful trial spell as an Under-16 and will offer something different in a bid to help Brighton take the next step in becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Having reached the Final of the 2013-14 FA Youth Cup and come within moments of upsetting West London rivals Chelsea, Fulham would have gone into last season optimistic for what was to come. Unfortunately, nothing much went their way at any level last term and there were several bumps in the road at youth level that saw coaching changes and the departure of one or two highly-rated younger talents. However, Steve Wigley’s return to the Under-18 ranks leaves plenty of reason for excitement ahead of the new campaign and a strong intake of home-grown talent promises much.

U18 Player to Watch: Dennis Adeniran – He spent much of last season playing Under-18 football and he did so with aplomb, weighing in with his share of goals and assists whilst continuing to refine some of the raw areas of his game. Stepping up to full-time status now, he should go from strength to strength.

Swansea City
The Category One newcomers slot into the Southern section of the Under-18 league and they do so having won the Under-21 league at Category Two level last season whilst giving a good account of themselves at the younger age group. They were taught something of a lesson during a 6-0 FA Youth Cup humbling by Chelsea but, in the long term, they will be a much stronger academy for their newly-acquired exposure to top-level developmental football.

U18 Player to Watch: Liam Cullen – A star of Wales’ 2014 Victory Shield success, the 16 year-old Cullen has long been tabbed as the best player to emerge from Swansea’s academy in a long, long time. Skilled and dazzling with the ball at his feet, he’ll find himself very much at home playing Category One football.

West Ham United
The self-styled ‘academy of football’ haven’t had a great deal to shout about in recent years but it’s getting a lot better; from Reece Burke’s breakthrough into the senior ranks last season and the emergence of Reece Oxford as a potential Rio Ferdinand of the future, the Hammers are developing their fair share of talent. Terry Westley, Mark Phillips and the rest of the academy coaching staff will continue to work hard to provide new first-team coach Slaven Bilic with talent befitting the club’s status ahead of their move to the Olympic Stadium next summer.

U18 Player to Watch: Joe Powell – Another first-year scholar with plenty of exposure to playing at higher levels, Joe split his time between Under-18 and Under-21 football last season and will do so again this term. He has exquisite technique and both scores and assists in equal measure, and will only get better as his physique matures to match his technical and mental attributes.

Finally, absolutely anybody interested in youth football should also be following @youthhawk on Twitter and making a regular part of their daily browsing. It’s the one-stop shop for everything you could possibly wish to know about the next generation in English and European football.