Development Squad: Reflections on the 2016-17 Season

Neatly juxtaposed alongside the euphoria and excitement that typically comes with a Chelsea Under-18 season is the reality of the challenge the same players face when they make the step up into Under-23 Development Squad football.

The journey isn’t linear and the jump isn’t the same as it is from Under-16 to Under-18 football. They’re now playing against opponents often well into their 20s, occasionally against seasoned pros returning from injury or merely seeking playing time. Their environment changes; training grounds give way to cavernous and empty stadiums, Saturday mornings are exchanged for weeknights, and a 35+ match youth team schedule can be reduced to 20-something fixtures with weeks at a time between outings.

It’s a hard adjustment for anyone to make, let alone those in a Chelsea squad that in 2016-17 was the youngest fielded at this level of football in the last eight years, from the old Reserve League to the Under-21 League and now the newly-christened Premier League 2. This season, their involvement in the EFL Trophy against first-teams from Swindon, Exeter and Oxford took it to a new level, with the opportunity to learn increased exponentially.

In his third and final year in charge of the group, Adi Viveash’s steady tutelage, focus on the bigger picture, and unwavering perspective, was as important as ever. Cognizant of the requirements to bring along an even younger group of players than last season – one that saw him kick off the campaign at Sunderland with a 16 year-old and five 17 year-olds in his matchday squad – his careful navigation of often choppy waters whilst continuing to challenge the team, and indeed himself, was as impressive as ever.

The EFL Trophy experience is a case study in and of itself. The challenge of facing a cohesive team of senior pros, no matter how seriously or not they were taking the controversial competition, was new to everyone at Cobham. No sooner were they in it than they had been dumped out after a 2-1 reverse at Swindon and a 3-2 defeat at Exeter that was not nearly as close as the final scoreline appeared.

Speaking afterwards, Viveash questioned whether his boys were ready to play at the levels some of them clearly felt they were capable of attaining at that point in time, opining that the competition gave them something of a rude awakening in discovering what it takes to be a professional footballer. “Some came out of it with tremendous credit over two games, others will maybe have to look and see what their next path is, and maybe it’ll take a little longer than they think.”

To give praise where it’s due, the team responded perfectly to both the setback and the question at hand. They reeled off a season-best seven games unbeaten across three competitions, including an English record 13-12 penalty shootout victory over eventual EFL Trophy finalists Oxford, in a dramatic and often farcical night at Stamford Bridge.

Buoyed by the inclusion of the experienced Kurt Zouma and Marco van Ginkel in their ranks before Christmas, they picked up a lot of positive momentum heading into the winter break, yet managed to become even younger in the new year as the duo, plus Jay Dasilva, Fankaty Dabo, Fikayo Tomori and Mukhtar Ali, either returned to the first team squad or went on loan.

Stretched thin beyond any reasonable standards, the likes of Brad Collins, Kyle Scott, Ruben Sammut, plus 17 year-olds Trevoh Chalobah and Mason Mount, had to take on bigger leadership roles, and they thrived in doing so. Results were understandably a mixed bag, but the group dealt admirably with facing Arsenal, Southampton and Liverpool sides all featuring household names, and the overall individual development was reward enough come the end of the season.

Iké Ugbo’s 13 goals accounted for more than half of his 25 across all age groups, actually outscoring Tammy Abraham by comparison at the same level, but it was his all-round game that shone brightest from January to May. His ability to hold the ball up with his back to goal, playing as a lone forward against two centre-backs, and link the play with his midfielders and wide players was unrecognisable from the start of the season. He finished the term looking very much ready to move on and test himself in the real world of men’s football.

For that is really what Viveash, assistant Ian Howell, and the Development Squad coaching staff are diligently working towards. The days of treating the club’s second team as a proving ground for first-team involvement are long gone. The ascent of the Premier League into not just one of the world’s foremost leagues, but by far and away the richest competition there has ever been in the sport, has morphed the development cycle into something altogether different; something even those that have worked in the industry are unsure quite how to approach.

Manchester United’s academy director Nicky Butt described the Premier League 2 experience as “crap” and little more than another money-making exercise, whilst Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have been less than effusive in their comments about it. Viveash diplomatically suggested that this year’s programme was the best he’s had in his time at Chelsea but, without the UEFA Youth League, a 28-game slate really wasn’t enough, and on top of that, the six matches that provided the most value came in knockout competition where almost everyone on the opposing side had played the majority of their football in 2016-17 against men in senior leagues.

Manchester City made a public hullabaloo about playing an Under-17 team in the academy league and an Under-19 team in the Under-23 league, but Chelsea have been doing that for approaching a decade now, with everyone else following suit. The quicker players are exposed to the next challenge, the quicker they can prove themselves capable before approaching the next juncture in their careers. An expansive loan programme has earned the club thousands of column inches of criticism and, although there is quite obviously room for improvement, it’s the best avenue available to them.

A title and Champions League challenge is no place for a callow and inexperienced 18 year-old; those that do find themselves at home in that environment are the exceptions to the rule, and often end up there through happenstance as much as direct planning. Chelsea’s dogmatic pragmatism and ability to throw money at any problem means they’re inherently unlikely to take those risks and, without a B Team environment in which to bring their prospects along, they have to find suitable ways in which to do the same job.

Consider it this way: a US high school athlete has a four-year career topping out at 18 before he or she goes onto the collegiate ranks, where they’ll typically spend anywhere from three to five years before turning pro. The average age of an NBA or NHL draftee is 21, an NFL rookie comes in at 22.5 years of age, and a MLB hopeful is bordering on 25 (all statistics taken from studying drafts between 2006-16), and that’s before they’ve actually proven themselves ready to take on a full workload at the top level.

Chelsea’s approach tries its best to imitate those pathways. For high school, see the academy leagues; for college, see Under-23 football mixed in with time out on loan getting high-level experience. Michael Emenalo has repeatedly stressed that the club sees the breakthrough age at 22 or 23, which correlates with the average age of an academy debutant in the Premier League. Rightly or wrongly, this is how they intend to conduct their business, but it deserves a more nuanced analysis than ‘they’re just hoarding players, something MUST be done’.

Viveash now exits the club after nine extremely successful years in which his influence spread far and beyond the results table. His humanity, empathy and personality made him a perfect teacher, and he’ll likely continue to do that at his next club, wherever that may be. He’s to be replaced by Joe Edwards, a coach at every level of the academy since being passed over for a scholarship during his playing days as a teenager. After a year out of formal coaching in order to complete his UEFA Pro Licence, he’ll be reunited with many of the players he won back-to-back FA Youth Cups with, and will hope to take the best bits of Viveash’s approach and weave them neatly in alongside his own ideas.

He’ll have the UEFA Youth League to look forward to for the first time, but he’ll also have just as young a squad as his predecessor, if not younger still. Even the 18 year-old Mount and the soon-to-turn-18 Chalobah seem ready to move on, challenging the Cole Dasilvas, Josh Grants, Jacob Maddoxs and Dujon Sterlings to lead from the front. It will rarely be as eye-catching as it was when they were in Under-18 football, but it doesn’t mean they’re losing their way. It means they’re on their way.