The final international break of 2016 has given us a fortnight without academy action at Chelsea and, therefore, provided us with a useful opportunity to reflect upon the first three months of the campaign so far.
It’s been an interesting one on several levels; one which has seen the Development squad enter senior adult competition for the first time, whilst both they and the Under-18s have found it tough sledding at times in the league, particularly away from home where a recent youth team win at Brighton accounted for the first victory on their travels for either group this term.
Throw in coaching changes at both levels, squads which are both young and relatively inexperienced, and you’ve got a rather different situation to recent years, which have bordered upon the spectacular at times. There’s still a lot of football to be played this season, no doubt, and silverware is there to be won, but 2016-17 feels different.
As is their wont, the academy aims to be in a state of perpetual development in all facets of its day-to-day life. The installation of a new permanent indoor facility at Cobham this autumn is an obvious physical manifestation of that progress but, so is the coaching staff, and there were significant changes in the hierarchy ahead of the season when Jody Morris stepped up to replace Joe Edwards as Under-18 manager, with former youth team captain Ed Brand joining him as his Assistant.
Andy Myers’ season-long loan to Vitesse’s backroom team, meanwhile, created an opportunity for Ian Howell to join forces with fellow Swindonian Adi Viveash in looking after the newly-titled Development Squad. An adjustment to competition rules meant Under-21 football was out, with the age group extended upwards in favour of a broader window of development, and – most significantly – sixteen academy sides were permitted to enter the Football League Trophy and pit their wits against League One and Two sides in a highly-controversial measure not at all well-received by those who had it foisted upon them.
Chelsea’s participation was far from certain; initially declining along with most of the country’s leading academies due to fixtures being scheduled around international breaks. A compromise was reached to allow the Blues to play their first two matches at more convenient junctures, but defeats to Swindon Town and Exeter City ensured theirs would be a brief foray and no more. Last week’s marathon penalty shootout win over Oxford at Stamford Bridge saw them bow out with a smile on their faces, but the real value of their participation – cliché though it may be – hasn’t been in the results, but rather in the lessons learned from going up against senior pros.
Speaking after the second of those defeats, Viveash noted that, as much as anything, the competition “gives a real eye-opener to the players into where they are. A lot of them think they’re in certain positions where they should be playing football, but are they good enough to play league football?”
Certainly, some amongst his group stepped up and handled the challenge better than others, with Iké Ugbo and Dujon Sterling – not seventeen until a fortnight ago – chief amongst them, but others were perhaps slower to get to grips with the demands of going up against opponents years older than them, and that in turn gave Viveash food for thought:
“I’m saying to them ‘are we playing at being a player or do we really want to be a player?’ Those are questions we ask every day and those are the answers they’re getting, what it takes to be a league footballer.”
The manager himself will have taken some hard-learned lessons away from the three matches in terms of team selection, tactical approach and in-game management, with the young Blues often made to pay for their lack of conviction early on before staging impressive late, almost-but-not-quite comebacks, but the overarching impression is that it was a worthwhile venture and one they would like to pursue again:
“This is what we want our young players to experience. Three games is going to be a massive benefit and teams will look at them in a different light if they do well against league opposition. Some came out with tremendous credit…others will maybe have to look and see what their next path is and maybe it’ll take a little bit longer.”
The win against Oxford saw Kurt Zouma and Marco van Ginkel, each returning from long-term injury, add some much-needed experience to a squad which came into the season as the Premier League 2’s youngest by some margin. An opening weekend draw at Sunderland saw 16 year-old Sterling join five 17 year-olds, and it’s been that way ever since.
They’ve had their ups and downs; a 4-1 win over Liverpool saw three of them on the scoresheet, but with one remaining away game in 2016 at Manchester City to come, they could well go into 2017 without a win away from home. Eight of their twelve leading appearance-makers last season have gone off in search of successes at the next level, and losing the likes of Tammy Abraham, Kasey Palmer, Jake Clarke-Salter and Charlie Colkett would impact any team, so to be sitting comfortably in mid-table at this stage has to be looked upon favourably when viewed through that prism.
The Under-18s have endured similar frustrations at times themselves, but thanks largely to their imperious home form (they are unbeaten at Cobham since April 2015), Morris’ boys have found their way to the Southern league table summit just in time for their assault on a fourth consecutive FA Youth Cup.
Their early-season form was uncharacteristically inconsistent; wins over Fulham and Swansea at home were countered by defeats from winning positions at Southampton and Norwich, but a seven-match unbeaten run since that 5-4 reverse in Norfolk has built positive momentum, culminating in a rewarding 3-1 win on their travels to Brighton.
Second-years Luke McCormick, Josh Grant and Harvey St Clair have lent their experience to the group but it’s been first-year scholars Martell Taylor-Crossdale, Tariq Uwakwe, Reece James and George McEachran who have caught the eye equally as often, with Jamie Cumming also establishing himself as first-choice in goal despite plenty of competition. Taylor-Crossdale’s eleven goals lead all players in the league whilst Uwakwe and McEachran have earned England Under-18 and Under-17 call-ups respectively, and if James doesn’t follow suit early in the new year it would be grossly unfair on a right-back who has been as impressive as anyone so far, earning a maiden Development Squad appearance against Oxford last week.
Morris hinted after the recent home win over Leicester that he feels there is more to come from his team and, with the likes of Ugbo, Mason Mount, Trevoh Chalobah and Joseph Colley returning to the fold for the Youth Cup, the ‘going over’ he expects them to give somebody could arrive sooner rather than later. The chase for four in a row will undoubtedly take priority as the season goes on, but a strong league campaign will be all the more important in light of last year’s first-team failings and the failure to qualify for the UEFA Youth League. The responsibility for that will be given to some of those first-years as well as emerging Under-16 talents like Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has sparkled in his five outings so far.
Collectively though, there has been a tangible sense of reality over the first three months of this season, both on and off the pitch. Extending back into the closing stages of last season to some extent, there has been a discernible tweak in playing style and an acceptance of a more direct approach when required; moving the ball more urgently from back to front and operating more vertically. The fundamental pillars of technical education remain unaffected and the daily work put in on the training ground remains well-attuned to the highest of standards but, as Howell noted after a 2-2 Development Squad draw at home to Derby, it’s increasingly a case of playing according to the demands of the match:
“We needed a better end product and better decision-making in the final third. ‘We can dominate teams with our possession but at this present moment we’re probably not as free-flowing or free-scoring as a team as we’d like to be. Scoring goals is a huge part of the game so we just need to keep working with the players on the training pitch in terms of their decision-making, movement and runs in the final third and the 18-yard area.”
It’s an area of the game almost every youngster comments on when they go out on loan and discover the realities of their chosen profession, so it comes as no surprise that the academy is trying to factor a dose of that into their programme. Viveash and Morris have been there and done it at every level of the English game and know what it takes to climb every rung of the ladder, and it falls upon them now to impart the lessons they’ve learned along the way on the next generation. It’s not a marked deviation from the successful foundations laid over the past decade but rather the latest adjustment in the pursuit of excellence.