Academy Season Review: Under-21s

It seems as if we have the same conversation year after year on the Under-21 front.

Questions about the quality and effectiveness of the Premier League structure abound relentlessly with prognostication from all-comers as to the direction things should be taken, whilst frustration sets in for Blues fans, players and staff alike at a perceived lack of opportunities to progress into the first team at Stamford Bridge.

So, whilst it may be May 2016, those same issues lead the way again at the end of another season. Forewarned by manager Adi Viveash back before a ball had been kicked, it was a year of transition as a group of senior pros trying to take control of their careers were joined by a budding group of inexperienced yet willing youngsters as the middle ground – your Dominic Solankes, Andreas Christensens and Jeremie Bogas – all flew the nest in search of professional development on loan.

A front-loaded schedule in which eleven of thirteen matches before Christmas were at home produced mixed results and left more questions than answers heading into a 2016 fixture list requiring a lot of travel, but those questions were answered in impressive style as the group matured, founds its way and embarked upon a five-month unbeaten league run. Tammy Abraham took steps towards senior football and was rewarded with a debut, as was Academy Player of the Year Fikayo Tomori who bolted through the pack at a rate of knots to join him in a fabulous personal season.

Shorn of half a dozen players who, by the end of this season, had proven themselves capable of playing to a high standard in top European leagues, Viveash was circumspect about his team’s chances on the eve of an opening-day trip to Liverpool:

“It’s a very different group this year; very young – extremely young – and it’s going to be a challenging season no doubt. The Under-21 league is getting harder, the quality is going up with (the addition of) promotion and relegation, no disrespect to West Ham and Fulham but Reading and Middlesbrough are better sides that have come up.

I do think it’s going to be a challenging year this year and we’re going to have to learn on our feet. There’s going to be a lot of development but a lot of coaching as well and that’s the job, but hopefully we’ll see quite a lot of improvement as the season goes on. I think it’ll be more of a twelve-month project rather than seeing results very quickly.”

Results did arrive quickly in the form of a win at Liverpool led by Charly Musonda, described by his manager at full-time as the ‘best player in the league’ and who would quickly reinforce the fact that he was ready for the big time. With the door firmly shut at Stamford Bridge, he joined the exodus in January by heading to Real Betis, where he became an instant hit.

However good he was before the move though, Chelsea’s form was up and down through the autumn. A second win over Liverpool was inspired by Palmer’s hat-trick in an early sign of things to come, but three defeats on the spin included a reverse at the hands of Benfica and one Renato Sanches, who had yet to make his senior bow lest even entertain the idea of a €35m move to one of the world’s biggest teams.

That in itself tells a story about football at this level though. Guus Hiddink, speaking at his final pre-match press conference of the season, was at pains to once again state his case for patience, that the step up from academy football was a big one and that not everyone is ready for it. That much is true but it also eschews room for nuance, for open-mindedness and for progression.

The games programme will always leave room for criticism for those who want to use it as an excuse, but it just as easily provides freedom for forward-thinking managers to let their players take the next step. Musonda and Sanches showed it can be achieved, just as Marcus Rashford, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Sheyi Ojo and countless others in the last two years have done.

Fankaty Dabo, fresh off his fourth season playing at this level, expanded upon the more progressive view towards the end of term:

“It’s always difficult (staying at this level and not moving up) in a way, but you get on with it because you enjoy the challenges. You deal with and you hope for the best and when you get in the big stadiums and on the main stage you show what you can do. I’m buzzing for Jake (Clarke-Salter after his senior debut) because it reflects on us as a group; you always hope it’s yourself but when it’s someone else you’re still buzzing because it’s all the hard work you’ve put in and it reflects on all of us.

When we train with the first team, you can see the step up in level, so it’s tough going up but it’s not all of you at once. It’s a tough step up but you’re always being helped by the first team players that you’re around; it’s a difficult step but it’s achievable. (Nathan Aké and Andreas Christensen) have been with us in the Under-21s, you see them step up into the first team and then go out and do well and you can see it’s achievable.”

Empowered by the right manager in the right circumstances, there should be no reason why the majority of players deemed good enough to earn a professional contract at Chelsea should not be able to influence the first team picture. That doesn’t necessarily demand that the entire team is suddenly supplanted nor does it mean that they instantly become first choice in their positions, but when Marco Amelia, Papy Djilobodji, Falcao et al block already-crowded pathways with contributions amounting to nothing, serious questions have to be raised about whether the club is doing everything it can to make the most of the excellent work being done at academy level.

Feeling short-changed by their lack of options at home, particularly with the advent of B Teams within the league structure never likely to be a realistic proposition, Chelsea have notoriously turned to the loan system to fill in the gaps and, whilst we’ll look in greater depth at the pros and cons of that system later in the week, that too only works to a point.

Loan moves must serve a defined purpose rather than be seen as a default next step for players in that 19-22 age group void where careers often go to die. Christensen has excelled in Germany this year and for most clubs would now be ready to return to his parent club to challenge himself yet further, but at Chelsea he’ll likely be asked to spend a second year in Mönchengladbach to refine himself at a lesser standard. That’s not being disingenuous towards Borussia or the Bundesliga, but Chelsea pride themselves on aiming to feature at the very top of the European game and demand their players can handle that.

By keeping players in the empty stadiums of Under-21 football or in the constant churn of the loanee lifestyle, they’re merely being conditioned to develop at a slower rate and at a level below both their potential and Chelsea’s requirements. Viveash, Andy Myers and their staff can only do so much and it’s glaringly obvious that they’ve done a stellar job with the outgoing generation, just as they will with the incoming one of Ruben Sammut, Charlie Wakefield, Isaac Christie-Davies, Mukhtar Ali, Jacob Maddox and more. They all flashed signs of promise in their early steps up to this level and will build upon that when things get back underway in July.

These are players who only know success. Under-21 football is the point at which they have to neatly marry up technical excellence with professionalism and a winning mentality to prepare them for their careers as adults, and by this time next year we’ll see tangible steps having been made to that end. Michael Emenalo has already hinted at loans for Abraham, Clarke-Salter, Jay Dasilva and Charlie Colkett, and they’ll all find themselves playing at an appropriately high standard of football, yet one lower than if they were to be given a proper chance of succeeding at home in blue.

Hopefully, we’ll see Antonio Conte more open to academy integration than any of his predecessors but nobody’s holding their breath.