Andreas Christensen played the full ninety minutes for Chelsea in their surprise FA Cup defeat at the hands of Bradford on Saturday. He did well regardless of the result, as he did in the League Cup tie at Shrewsbury earlier this season.
Remarkably though, he was only the second academy player to start an FA Cup tie against an opponent from the third tier or below in the last ten years at Chelsea. Scott Sinclair was the other in a fixture against Huddersfield towards the start of that decade, but nobody else has had so much as a sniff of a look. Ben Sahar, Michael Woods and a few others have had cameo substitute appearances whilst your experienced youngsters like Robert Huth and Kurt Zouma have been involved having graduated/never been a part of the academy, but that’s your lot.
And perhaps quite rightly too, for few teams can claim to match Chelsea’s record in the competition during that period. The ends justify the means but the stark realisation of the ending of a run by a team 51 places below the Blues in the English pyramid begs more than a few questions about the structure of the first team squad and the futility of perhaps even having an academy at all.
Jose Mourinho has rotated his team most heavily for domestic cup ties this season. He did so at home to Bolton and away to Shrewsbury in the League Cup and again at home to Watford in the FA Cup before doing so again this past weekend. On each occasion he watched as his secondary options toiled to get the job done. The defence creaks more often without the guiding hand of John Terry. The midfield is wide open without the unfathomably long reach of Nemanja Matic, and the attack – quite understandably – is not nearly as potent without Eden Hazard or Diego Costa.
This despite considerable investment in each department. Zouma will some day make a terrific starting centre-back but his partnership with the out-of-sorts Gary Cahill is inconsistent at best. The midfield lacks defensive nous if both Mikel and Matic are absent (admittedly a rare occurrence) and further forward both Mohamed Salah and Andre Schurrle have struggled to contribute whilst Loic Remy simply hasn’t been given the opportunities to do so.
In the wake of scraping past Shrewsbury in October, Mourinho revealed his frustration with his squad options, noting that he expected them to “to raise the level to create problems” and, in the absence of any such impression, “it (was) easy to choose my team for Saturday”. Now, nobody’s ready to throw the baby out with the bath water and cast the strugglers aside but, three months later, the same issues persist.
If players aren’t good enough, they’re typically replaced. The logistics of change en masse during the January transfer window are troublesome at best so it’s entirely understandable to hold off on it until the summer, when a new group can be assembled, but in the mean time a big question hovers over the situation.
If they’re not getting it done, do they need more first-team minutes to play themselves into form or should Mourinho turn to his well-stocked pool of prospects?
The former doesn’t seem especially forthcoming. Chelsea have rotated their first-choice team less often than any notable contender at the top of the Premier League and they have done superbly to manage the physical demands of the campaign on the most important players. Not nearly enough credit has been given to the coaching and medical department for what may yet prove the single-most important issue in the title race, but it hasn’t left much room for others to get a look in.
If they’re not going to get to play as often as is required, Mourinho runs the risk of below-par performances like the Bradford debacle. The short-term alternative is to entrust a handful of youngsters with more meaningful opportunities such as the one afforded to Christensen, but – even at their own apparent cost – this has never been likely, as the statistic of the last ten years we started out with shows.
Mikel’s premature departure from the fray with a head injury posed a conundrum for Mourinho as to how to cover his shielding presence in front of the back four. Amongst his substitutes he had Nathan Aké, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Cesc Fabregas. Obviously and predictably he opted for the latter despite Aké being in the first team squad specifically to provide depth and cover in that role, but the Dutchman watched on in his winter coat as the axis of Fabregas and Ramires proceeded to help contribute to a most stunning collapse.
You might say he was erring on the safe and therefore correct side by opting for world-class experience over the inconsistency of youth, and by playing to win rather than to not lose he was being aggressive. You might also say he failed to recognise that neither player has impressed in a defensive capacity at any point in their Chelsea careers and that the usually pragmatic boss was caught out tactically as a result. Your perspective determines your view of the situation.
And what of Aké? Regularly praised for his attitude, his training and his displays when on the pitch by everyone that matters, he wasn’t trusted to get the job done against League One opposition. With absolutely no disrespect intended to what is a very good Bradford team, if he’s not going to play then, when exactly will he play?
Indeed, when will anyone? Debuts have come for six academy players in Mourinho’s second era but only Christensen has made a second appearance, and that came this weekend. Thirty-odd players flung far and wide across the globe are vying for attention from Eddie Newton and Steve Holland in the vein hope of getting into Mourinho’s group as the club appears firmly committed to the notion that prospects can only be properly evaluated around the age of 22 and with significant first-team football to their name elsewhere.
It’s all well and good using that as a baseline to appraise the readiness of your produce but what if it’s a method that has been proven almost a complete failure? Supporters of the theory will point out that scarce few of those who have come and gone are holding down a place at a club of Chelsea’s calibre and they’d be right, but it misses the point. Players go out hungry to experience the adult game and are desperately keen to impress. More often than not they do, but the pathway doesn’t exist upon their return.
They go out again, and often again and again. Each and every time they return to find the door shut, they lose a little motivation and their development stagnates just a little more. Expecting a youngster to overcome disappointment and strive even harder to succeed is one thing, but asking them to persist with it for five years of what will be a limited career is plainly unfair.
Ryan Bertrand is still a Chelsea player; he’ll be 26 at the start of next season. He took in seven loans before getting the most serious look of any Blues youngster of his era. He played in and won a Champions League Final. He added versatility and consistency to the squad without ever looking exceptionally good or bad. He won England caps. And still he watched on as a cool £20m was spent on Filipe Luis in the summer, effectively ending his Chelsea career.
If he didn’t stand a chance throughout his mid-twenties despite answering near enough every question asked of him, who does? The standard required at Chelsea is as high as anywhere in the world and there can be no doubt that the utmost demands must be made of potential squad players, but if you don’t give them the chances, will you ever truly know or are you playing the percentages knowing that there’s an expensive safety net of a signing around the corner if needed?
Would Chelsea still be in the FA Cup if Aké had been preferred to Fabregas and kept the defence protected? Would they have scored more goals if Jeremie Boga were selected ahead of Salah? The answers to those questions aren’t important but the bigger picture certainly is. Chelsea have spent most of the last two years atop both Under-18 and Under-21 tables domestically whilst performing as well as anyone in continental competition at every relevant age level.
Those on loan have contributed to all manner of successes from the Champions League Final all the way down to the Isthmian Premier League playoffs and in excess of 120 goals last season, with nearly 50 this. The majority of them answer the call at every turn and the picture never changes. Perhaps it shouldn’t either; with the resources available and the talent able to be procured for immediate return, and the very visible demands of the job, it’s easy to go out and replenish the squad in weak areas like that. It’s easy and so everybody does it.
Youth development isn’t easy; it never is. It’s easy to talk a good game and say that blame can be directly attributed if a Baker, a Brown or a Loftus-Cheek never make it to international football. It’s easy not to care about that when looking back on the most successful managerial career of a generation. It’s a lot harder to put your trust and your job security in a project and wait for it to come to fruition, even if you’re working with the finest available resources of their type.
The proof will ultimately be in the pudding and it certainly won’t come overnight, but the historical signs do not point towards a happy ending to this story. There were two Chelsea academy graduates celebrating on the Stamford Bridge pitch at full time on Saturday but they were both clad in purple and amber. Billy Knott and Filipe Morais are just two of hundreds who had to adjust their dreams after moving on from academy football and at least they got their day in the sun, albeit in unlikely circumstances. How many others will have to settle for that instead of the dream?