The standard has been set.
When Jody Morris took the reins from Joe Edwards this summer and took charge of Chelsea’s Under-18s, ensuring the club’s recent and proud record in the FA Youth Cup was right up there with any short-term aspirations. It’s not just that the Blues have won the last three editions, becoming the first team in more than sixty years to achieve such a feat, it extends beyond that.
They’ve won four of the last five – losing the other one – and five of the last seven, with just three finals in the past decade not featuring West London’s finest. On December 13th, the latest crop of academy hopefuls at Cobham take to the pitch in their Third Round tie at home to Cardiff City knowing they have the responsibility to run with the baton and get over the line first, rather than risk being remembered the ones who dropped it.
In a realm of the industry where a common refrain that result come second to the longer-term development of each individual is heard on a weekly basis, the FA Youth Cup provides a welcome opportunity to go out and simply win. It’s the sole best-on-best Under-18 competition in the land; whereas the league campaign can undulate according to the demands of the development lifestyle, the prestigious knockout tournament is a focal point to gather around and pit your best against someone else’s.
It’s inarguable that Chelsea haven’t been the best over the past five years. Winning 41 of their past 50 outings in the competition and averaging close to three goals per game, they have established themselves as the team to beat year after year and, with half a dozen key contributors from the 2015-16 vintage returning for another crack at glory, they enter the Third Round as deserved favourites.
It promises to be an interesting, if slightly different, campaign however. Recent triumphs have been built on the foundation of the goalscoring exploits of Dominic Solanke and Tammy Abraham but, with both having moved onto bigger and better things, the class of 2016-17’s strengths lie elsewhere. Sure, they have the potential to match that firepower, and both Iké Ugbo and Martell Taylor-Crossdale will be vital to any chances of a fourth consecutive win – but this is a group with perhaps the best defensive personnel in the country, with a creative and dominant midfield, and tactical versatility the likes of which few can compare.
The opening month of the season saw a few bumps in the road – or rather on the road – as home victories over Fulham and Swansea City in August were countered by disappointing defeats at Southampton and at Norwich City. They’re unbeaten in eleven since then though, winning nine whilst drawing away to Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, and only conceding more than once in just two of those contests. Formidable at home and increasingly confident on their travels, they’re on their joint-best run of form entering the Youth Cup in the academy era.
Morris has favoured a 4-diamond-2 formation for much of the year to date, moving away from the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 and only rarely delving into the bag of tricks that is the 3-4-2-1; a similar approach to that of the first team yet one which pre-dates the arrival of Antonio Conte by more than two years down at the academy. It was with the latter most of those setups that Edwards and then-assistant Morris roared to victory last time around and, although it remains a very potent and appealing option, the diamond midfield – often becoming a tight box – will kick things off.
Jamie Cumming has started half of the league fixtures in goal so far, and has looked very impressive in doing so too. Keeping four clean sheets at a rate of better than one every other game, he might lay claim to the starting gloves in the cup but Marcin Bulka got the nod in the dress rehearsal at Arsenal in early December and projects to be the starter.
Bulka, a 6’5” summer arrival from Barcelona’s satellite academy in Poland, has taken a little time to settle into his new surroundings but comes with remarkable pedigree and a rare mix of physical size and technical comfort. He should only flourish with more experience, although Cumming will push him all the way. Jared Thompson is the most experienced eligible stopper, with last season’s first choice Nathan Baxter out on loan, but has played second fiddle to Cumming so far and has work to do if he is to force himself into the reckoning.
A flat back four will be anchored by a pair of centre-backs who have been plying their trade at Under-23 level for most of 2016. Trevoh Chalobah looks set to emulate his older brother Nathaniel in targeting Youth Cup success and will be joined by Swedish prospect Joseph Colley. Both are just seventeen but are uncompromising opponents to go up against; strong, quick and very happy to play the first pass out of the back.
Chalobah in particular has looked very comfortable at a higher level and has trained with Conte’s first team on a number of occasions over the last month, whilst Colley has more often split his time with Morris’ youth team but remains a quality player on his day. Richard Nartey and Marc Guehi provide ample and capable cover, as does Josh Grant, who captains the squad in the league but is favourite to nail down the left-back spot, injury notwithstanding. A natural leader with a number of similarities to Jake Clarke-Salter (albeit a right-footed version), he limped off early in that Arsenal match and, should be not be fit to face Cardiff, Cole Dasilva would likely step in and take the spot his brother Jay held for the cup three-peat.
Cole is a less explosive version of his older sibling but is equally as assured, capable of playing off either foot, and impactful in all areas of the field. With a diamond midfield, both full-backs will be given licence to get forward often, which is where we get to talk about the Dujon Sterling factor. As a schoolboy last term he was the decisive player in the Quarters, Semi, and Final, scoring or assisting goals in the home ties on each occasion and generally proving unstoppable on the right side.
Blessed with remarkable physical assets for a boy who turned 17 in late October, his ability to combine them with quality decision-making, technical excellence, and the ability to play basically anywhere on the pitch makes him the player to watch this time around. Often used as a wing-back in the Victor Moses mould, both Edwards and Adi Viveash have also leaned on him as an auxiliary centre-forward at times, presenting Morris with a host of options for his game-changing talent.
Reece James will prove an excellent understudy, performing in a similar capacity in league fixtures, where he remains an ever-present. Every other defender already mentioned can also play at right-back in a pinch, so there’ll be relatively little to worry about on that front.
Two games behind James in Under-18 appearances so far has been Luke McCormick, who should anchor the midfield in any shape adopted. His is a story of persistence and a fine example of a slower development curve; initially given permission to seek a scholarship elsewhere, he returned to Chelsea late in the day to eventually sign and work hard at his craft. Last year’s Youth Cup run allowed him to put together a string of league outings, where he was able to establish himself as a no-nonsense, tough-tackling midfield destroyer with the ability to control play from deep.
He’ll play an important role as he’s really the only player in the squad made to do that. Chalobah could step forward in an emergency and Conor Gallagher has some of the same skills, but has mainly been used by Morris as a shuttling midfielder on the right of the diamond. His boundless energy, ability to win possession and then use it sensibly, and full commitment to the cause has helped bring some defensive stability to a team that had previously lacked it and, as and when the diamond becomes a box, slots in alongside McCormick as the shield in front of the back four.
That might prove rather useful with Mason Mount – this year’s captain – and Jacob Maddox in the side. Despite competing with older and more experienced colleagues, the pair thrust themselves into the spotlight last season and became undroppable in both the Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League teams. Still physically slight and not particularly quick, their intelligence and awareness sets them apart, and they have a terrific understanding when playing together. They’re tasked with unlocking defences and chipping in with goals, something they’re both very capable of.
Behind them, George McEachran leads the way in providing cover in the number ten role behind the strikers, as he, Tariq Uwakwe and Juan Castillo provide left-footed balance in the middle of the park. Uwakwe and Castillo have mainly played on the left of the diamond, with Dutchman Castillo also at home at full-back or on the wing, but with three of the four positions effectively filled, they’re each up against Gallagher for a place in the team right now.
Harvey St Clair has partnered Taylor-Crossdale in attack for much of the season and, whilst he’s played well there, it’s not really his position, nor is he a number ten. Very much best attacking from wide areas, he figures to be an impact substitute with Ugbo coming back down from Under-23 level to spearhead the attack in his final year of eligibility.
Taking over from Solanke and Abraham is no easy task but, with 24 goals last season and 9 already this, he has the raw numbers to follow suit. Strong and hard to move off the ball, he should free up more opportunities for the explosive Taylor-Crossdale to add to his league-high 13 goals. Ugbo is more of a Solanke whilst Taylor-Crossdale possesses some of Abraham’s traits; the hope is that they hit it off in the same way their predecessors did.
Charlie Brown has scored half a dozen goals from the bench this season at a better rate per ninety minutes than all bar Manchester City’s Joe Hardy and has that poacher’s instinct about him, whilst this year’s Under-16 wildcard could be Callum Hudson-Odoi. Last season it was Sterling; in 2013-14 it was Solanke and Clarke-Salter, and a year prior it was Aina. Schoolboys are given the chance to play their part and the ridiculously skillful Hudson-Odoi has begun to flash his ability over the past month or so.
All bar one of the last thirteen Youth Cups have been won by Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool and, along with Manchester City and Tottenham, the winner will likely come from one of them. The luck of the draw determines much along the way but, crucially, Chelsea have beaten every single one of them comprehensively en route to trophy after trophy and, until anyone else shows otherwise, they’re the standard-bearers.
The quest for four in a row begins on Tuesday evening at Aldershot’s EBB Stadium as they host Cardiff City in a 7.05pm kick-off. Tickets are priced at £3 adults and £1 for concessions, the match will be broadcast live on Chelsea TV – as will every round – and, like always, you can be sure to get the best coverage here at TheChels.net and on Twitter @chelseayouth.