It’s all felt a little different for Chelsea’s Under-18s this season.
The biggest and clearest difference is their premature exit from the FA Youth Cup; having won five in a row and seven of the previous nine, their Third Round exit at the hands of Manchester United was their earliest elimination from the competition in a decade, and has naturally raised questions from more casual observers as to why that happened.
Throw in the fact they’re not top of the league table either, plus their defence of the Under-18 Premier League Cup ending after the group stage, and it’s easy to get the impression that this has been a disappointing season so far. Hold your horses though.
The successes of previous seasons are the exception. A treble followed by a quadruple is not easily achieved nor is it easily repeated. Five Youth Cup triumphs in a row has only happened twice in sixty years. Last season’s perfect storm saw the graduation of an immensely-talented group of players now too old to play youth team football, while several of those who are still eligible have moved on to bigger and better things.
The bar has been raised. It is forever being raised at an academy that continues to set the standard on and off the pitch in England. So, when the first half of the 2018-19 season goes as it has, murmurs creep in that those standards have slipped. Yet Andy Myers’ team have lost just once in the league as the calendar turns its page to February; as many as Jody Morris’ team lost last term, and one fewer than at the same stage of in 2016-17.
After thirteen matches last season, Chelsea had 32 points. This season they have 30, but find themselves chasing down a Tottenham team that remains unbeaten in the league, and an Arsenal side that has only lost to their title rivals, once each. The Blues had been set to face the pair of them back-to-back over the past fortnight, but both matches have subsequently been rescheduled for later in the season, denying them the opportunity to close the gap and put themselves back on top.
Their Under-18 League Cup dethroning also came at the hands of Manchester United, when they lost their group decider while rotating heavily against a team more closely resembling the excellent side that would knock them out of a more prestigious cup later that same month. Even then, though, their exit was only confirmed by virtue of goals scored; as one of three group-stage runners-up finishing with six points and a goal difference of +4, the Blues were edged out by Stoke’s 11 goals, 6 of which came in their decisive win at home to a Reading side featuring seven schoolboys.
There are no excuses though. While Daishawn Redan, Tino Anjorin, Billy Gilmour and Tariq Lamptey were recalled from Development Squad duty for the Youth Cup, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu remained with the first team rather than help take on United, and Jonathan Panzo departed for Monaco. They might have made the difference in the 4-3 defeat that saw them yield the famous trophy for the first time since 2013, but to what end? Hudson-Odoi and Ampadu ably demonstrated their ability to play at a much higher standard, and that being the end-game of every academy, it would only have served their own ego to play them at the behest of the next generation assuming that responsibility. This is what academy football is about.
That next generation hasn’t been bad at all. They reeled off eight straight wins in all competitions through the autumn and into the winter, an especially impressive run during a first half of the season that saw them play nine of fifteen matches away from home. Their remaining slate looks more favourable by comparison; they only have to leave the South East twice, they welcome league leaders Spurs to Cobham in late February, and have a fighting chance of winning the Southern section of the league for the fifth year running.
They will need to improve if they’re to realise that ambition though. Last summer’s crop of first-year scholars were at a particular disadvantage compared to their predecessors (and, indeed, their successors to come next season) in that just two of their number were a part of the club’s full-time in-house education programme. The adjustment to everyday life at Cobham is a substantial one; throw in a demanding fixture list with title rivals able to call upon a deeper and more experienced squad, and things get harder still.
Anjorin’s stellar form – seven goals in as many games – saw him rightly promoted to Under-23 football, and left behind him the challenge of how he too was to be replaced. The regular front three of Marcel Lewis, Thierno Ballo and George Nunn have flashed the ability to rotate and press in a manner reminiscent of some of the best forward lines at any level of football, but must find the consistency to take their games to the next level. Ian Maatsen has been a force at left wing-back from time to time and has earned early opportunities at the next level too, and Jack Wakely’s ever-present run as captain has brought about a loan to Basingstoke Town in order to more fully prepare him for the physical demands that are yet to come.
Marcel Lavinier, Clinton Mola and Karlo Ziger have made sure but steady progress, and there have been promising signs from first-years Henry Lawrence and Sam McClelland too. The first offerings from a particularly gifted Under-16 crop have emerged in the form of Lewis Bate, Valentino Livramento and Dion Rankine, and it would be surprising if more of their number didn’t make a breakthrough between now and May.
Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t truly matter whether they defend their league title this season, nor does it matter that their Youth Cup run is at an end. Winning silverware is one of the academy’s core objectives, but it is neither their vision nor their mission. Those targets are to establish themselves as a prolific developer of professional talent, both at Stamford Bridge and in football in general, and they continue to do that.
There is burgeoning talent in this Under-18 team, unfairly written off in some quarters in a challenging season that has also not seen them afforded the same exposure as those that had gone before them, for the Chelsea TV operation appears to be on its last legs. There is work – good work – being done, and it continues in their next league outing on February 23rd at home to Swansea City. They could be top of the table in the week that follows. Wouldn’t that be nice?