The FA Youth Cup returns in earnest this Wednesday as Chelsea begin the defence of their crown once again and, having won both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 editions, are seeking to become the first club to win three in a row since Manchester United claimed five in a row at the competition’s inception in the early 1950s.
It promises to be a tough ask, not least because a considerable number of last season’s heroes have since moved on to bigger and better things. It happens to every club, of course, but Dominic Solanke – who would have been eligible to play again this time around – is instead pitting his wits against Eredivisie defenders at Ajax, whilst Jeremie Boga and Izzy Brown have joined him in the adult game, and Brad Collins, Ola Aina, Charlie Colkett, Charly Musonda and Kasey Palmer all find themselves too old to feature in the country’s most prestigious Under-18 competition.
It’s therefore perhaps testament to the depth of quality at the Chelsea academy that they go into this year’s edition as favourites once again. A tricky-looking Third Round tie at home to Huddersfield Town – who are a better team than their 6-1 humbling at the Fourth Round stage last season suggests – gives way to a potential trip to Manchester United or Queens Park Rangers in mid-January, and it will be a keen test of character for those moving up from playing bit-part roles to now taking centre-stage as well as those dipping their toes into the Youth Cup waters for the very first time.
The UEFA Youth League has served as something of a precursor for the group overall; three overage players (Palmer, Aina and Colkett, plus the goalkeeper Collins) have supplemented a squad that will otherwise take on the Youth Cup defence, and they more than held their own. A group containing FC Porto, Dynamo Kyiv and Maccabi Tel-Aviv – just like the first team – navigated their way to an unbeaten record including four wins and fifteen goals, and a place in the last sixteen in February. As they pick up greater exposure to knock-out football they’ll in turn grow in stature, in confidence and in personality, and with a little bit of luck along the way there’s no reason they won’t be fighting for silverware come Spring time once again.
Collins’ place in goal is likely to be taken by Jared Thompson, although Nathan Baxter did a lot to aid his cause with a string of highly-polished performances early in the season when Thompson was sidelined through injury. They’re both first-year scholars but Thompson was ahead of the curve by comparison, making his Under-18 debut as a 15 year-old and being a first choice in goal for England at Under-16 and Under-17 levels. He’s a commanding leader and cuts a composed figure when dealing with the ball, and has built a growing reputation as a regular penalty-saver too, which may come in handy along the way.
Baxter, meanwhile, had to wait until the final game of last season before making the step up to Under-18 football and has been something of a late bloomer. At Chelsea since the age of seven, he was thrust into action early this season with Thompson out and played very well indeed, making several top-drawer saves and giving the coaching staff plenty of decisions to make. It’s fairly safe to say that, whoever ends up starting between the posts, the Blues look well-set here.
They’re also in a very strong position with their defensive options. Jay Dasilva, Jake Clarke-Salter and Fikayo Tomori were mainstays of last season’s champions and they all return for a final season of youth team football, with Clarke-Salter a candidate to captain the side. Two of them went on the first-team’s post-season tour of Asia and Australia and they’re all well-versed in Under-21 football already. Scarce few of their rivals will be able to call upon such quality to start with, let alone have the depth in reserve and rotation should it be required.
Chelsea have the stingiest Under-18 defence in the country and have only conceded twice at home in the league all season. A big reason for that has been the performances of first-year scholars Josh Grant, Trevoh Chalobah and Joseph Colley as well as second-year Sweden international Ali Suljic. They’re a versatile group, capable of playing at full-back as well as centre-back and in a back three as well as a traditional back four, as coach Joe Edwards has used on a semi-regular basis over the last eighteen months. Throw in the extremely dependable Cole Dasilva at full-back (either side), the willing Richard Nartey and the exciting vibrancy of schoolboy Dujon Sterling and you have a wonderfully-gifted group from whom picking four starters will be unbelievably hard. What a problem for a coach to have.
A couple of them can also feature in a more advanced position, which may help Joe Edwards and Jody Morris come to a decision. Chalobah can anchor in midfield whilst Jay Dasilva has been used in a similar position by Adi Viveash at Under-21 level this season, whilst also having plenty of experience in a more advanced role on the left wing, or at wing-back in their alternative 3-4-2-1 formation. They’ll have to compete with plenty of in-form midfielders though in a group that has undergone the biggest transition from last season to this.
Understandably, there will be some drop-off from a trio of Colkett, Musonda and Boga. There are a good few top-flight first teams around Europe who would love to field such riches in the middle of the park but the responsibility now lies on the next men up to pick up the baton and take their own burgeoning talents to the next level. Kyle Scott figures to be integral in this side as he takes over Colkett’s role as orchestrator and the primary link between the positional units. His technique and awareness is fantastic and he demands high standards of himself and those around him, being willing to take responsibility onto his shoulders and carry the team forward. He was involved in much of the Youth Cup run last season and that alone will place him in good stead to become a main focal point this time around.
Fellow second-years Ruben Sammut, Mukhtar Ali and Isaac Christie-Davies have each taken the next step this season as well and provide stability to the core of the team. Sammut was used at the business end of things last season as a defensive-minded presence in a very attacking team. He’s robust in the challenge, tactically astute and is entirely at home mopping up in front of his defence. That leaves Ali and Christie-Davies to affect the play going forwards; they’re each at their best as roaming box-to-box, number eight types, and have weighed in with half a dozen goals each so far this season. They might lack the explosive dribbling and skill of a Musonda or a Boga but they manage games well and have the right mentality to be very handy in this squad.
Luke McCormick projects to be a backup option in Sammut’s role (if Chalobah is otherwise occupied) whilst Mason Mount is the real wildcard in this group, for all the right reasons. He too missed the first three months of the season with a knee injury picked up in the summer but since his return to fitness he’s been almost untouchable in Under-18 football and took to his Under-19 promotion in recent weeks with aplomb, giving a fine account of himself against Porto last week. Able to operate as an eight or a ten (behind the lone forward), he carries the ball with a constant threat, uses it well with a fine range of passing, and has chipped in with three goals and four assists in his last six appearances. He’s a year younger than the Sammut/Ali/Christie-Davies trifecta but his form and maturity over the past few weeks has him firmly in contention, and it doesn’t do any harm when you can produce this sort of finish either:
The advanced (and wide, should the formation use them) attacking positions promise plenty. Charlie Wakefield, Miro Muheim, Jacob Maddox and Harvey St Clair have combined for twenty-five goals this season so far (plus almost as many assists) and form a frightening combination of strength, skill, raw pace and the ability to score from anywhere. They’ve also shown the capacity to feature deeper as wing-backs to devastating effect and it’s a real shame that one of them will have to miss out. It stands to be the younger St Clair and Maddox at this stage but, again, with talents like him waiting in reserve, it’s quite a nice problem for Edwards and Morris to have.
Hubert Adamczyk provides cover on both flanks whilst the aforementioned possibility of Jay Dasilva operating on the left or Sterling on the right might be used in situations where they require a more defensive presence out wide whilst still retaining a strong attacking potency.
Tammy Abraham played a deputising role to Dominic Solanke last season yet managed to equal his astounding 41-goal haul and he’s now front and centre, possibly as captain, looking to do damage again. He’s already grabbed fourteen more this term and will be integral to any aspirations of a three-peat. Iké Ugbo’s twelve youth team goals mark him out as a fine option from the bench and the pair could feasibly start in the same way that Solanke and Abraham did last season, with one or the other (most likely Ugbo) playing out wide.
Viveash used many of these players in the 3-4-2-1 formation against Porto last week and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it used in this leg. Here’s how it might look on paper:
Whilst the same personnel in a more standard 4-2-3-1 might look similar to this, with Wakefield and Muheim playing inverted wing roles as they have done to positive effect over the past few Under-18 matches:
And what of Huddersfield, their Third Round opponents? Tony Carss’ side were simply outmatched against a team that would go on to be Under-19 Champions of Europe last season, certainly not a disgrace, and many of that same team will return for another bite at the cherry. Their Under-21s are top of the table on a twelve-game unbeaten run whilst the more youthful Under-18s have recovered well from a slow start to go four without defeat.
Strike Rekeil Pyke is an intriguing mix of athleticism and attacking instinct whilst the slight figure of Jack Boyle belies and skill and goalscoring ability from attacking midfield. Defender Jacob Hanson can move forward and play as a striker too and has been on the verge of breaking into the first team squad whilst Regan Booty and Jamie Spencer lead from the heart of the midfield. Harry Clibbens, Akeel Francis, Cedwyn Scott and Sam Warde have been in good form for much of the season and will make life as hard as possible for Chelsea.
So there you have it. The talented coaching duo of Edwards and Morris mount their own first defence of the Youth Cup trophy having overseen a successful defence of Adi Viveash’s final victory as youth team manager and have as much flexibility and ability as any club in the country with which to go about their task. It’s a more youthful and less experienced squad overall but one not without its great many merits and one that will certainly grow with each passing match.
The first of those is this Wednesday night against Huddersfield at Aldershot’s EBB Stadium. Entry is priced at £3 for adults and £1 for concessions with all tickets available on the door. Kickoff is at 7pm and it will be televised live on Chelsea TV. Don’t miss it.