In any ordinary year, you might look at this Chelsea Under-18 team as being just as dominant as many of their predecessors were. They’re FA Youth Cup Semi Finalists due to host Manchester United for the right to play in yet another Final (with a decision on whether the competition continues or not still pending) before Covid-19 intervened, and with just two defeats and three draws in the league, they were no worse than Jody Morris’ all-conquering quadruple winners of 2017-18.
They would have had to win their last six matches to keep up, and to see off Fulham and West Ham, two teams that have challenged much stronger and for much longer than anyone was able to do to Chelsea in years gone by. And perhaps that has lent a feeling of uncertainty about the squad this season; when the league was put on hold in early March, Ed Brand’s boys sat third in the table, four adrift of leaders Fulham, and with a game in hand on both teams above them. Win that, against Reading, and it would have set up a near title-decider away to their West London rivals in the penultimate game of the season.
That match and the rest of the run-in will unfortunately never be played, but this is an Under-18 team that deserves plenty of credit in its own right, and it has already produced quality players that have taken the next step. Morris’ stunning 17-18 campaign was built on a nice distribution of experience relative for the level of competition; 49% of all appearances were made by second-year players (those turning 18 during the season), 41% first-years and 10% by schoolboys. Brand’s team is younger by comparison; his first-years accounted for 49% of all matches played, 43% went to second years and 8% to schoolboys. Even allowing for a slight increase in second-year representation in the two matches left in a potential Youth Cup triumph, this was a team standing up to scrutiny at a younger overall age.
It’s also not as top-heavy a squad; not even close. The 17-18 vintage finished with Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James, Tino Anjorin, Conor Gallagher, Marc Guehi, Tariq Lamptey, Jonathan Panzo, Juan Castillo, Clinton Mola, Daishawn Redan and Dujon Sterling among their number, all players who would rapidly go on to make a mark in senior football while still teenagers, and their manager went straight off to take Derby County to within one win of promotion to the top flight. Anjorin returned to captain this year’s Youth Cup team, but made only four appearances at youth team level, and in Armando Broja and Ian Maatsen, the other senior faces in the team aren’t quite as advanced as their predecessors.
Not that they should be knocked; Broja’s progress in particular has been a sight to behold, in going from very much a backup option a year ago, to making his Chelsea debut under Frank Lampard the last time we saw meaningful Premier League football. His sixteen goals and aggressive mentality helped to power the academy’s longest unbeaten start to a season in more than 60 years, part of a bigger picture that saw the Development Squad (the best equivalent of the old Reserve team) and youth team both unbeaten at Christmas for the first time ever.
Things got a bit harder when action resumed in 2020, as they dropped points at home to Arsenal after leading 2-0, before finally succumbing to defeats away to West Ham and Aston Villa in successive league fixtures, and exiting the Premier League Cup at the Semi Final stage up at Stoke City. In contrast, they produced rampant wins against Bradford and Wolves in the Youth Cup, and found level footing again in February with a run of wins and clean sheets that looked set to take them into the home straight with a chance of winning a domestic treble.
Instead, with the games programme now cancelled, we’re left with memories and an earlier-than-expected opportunity to reflect on affairs. It rarely got better than November’s win at Tottenham, when they were in rampant form, racing away to a 5-0 half-time lead that deserved to be twice as big. They almost exclusively played the 3-4-2-1 shape favoured by most academy age groups, but with the flexibility to change exactly how the team operated from match to match while retaining the overall philosophy of playing their way.
Sometimes Marcel Lewis would become a second striker from the attacking midfield positions, but on other occasions he would come a lot deeper, making it a three-man midfield and almost more of a 3-5-2 shape. Wing-backs would occasionally invert to play inside rather than out; Dion Rankine could be used both out wide and through the middle, or Bashir Humphreys might play in central defence one week and in midfield the next. Much like the Development Squad, the coaching job done week to week and the broader body of work in the academy to educate tactically versatile and intuitive footballer was increasingly evident the longer this season went on.
It might not have been as overwhelmingly dominant a season as some of those from the last five years, but it was persistent, generally consistent and comprehensive. Jake Askew kept a clean sheet in more than half of his appearances in goal as the team built their success on a strong and reliable defence, ably marshalled by captain Sam McClelland, and nineteen different goalscorers found the back of the net at least once. They trailed in just six of 25 matches and, for as often as they might have liked a quicker tempo or to play with a bit more incisiveness in attacking areas, there were twice as many examples of them firing on all cylinders and blowing teams away. On top of the Tottenham performance, they beat Swansea 8-0 away from home, bossed Brighton and Leicester, and had the fight to go to Blackburn and Newcastle on unfamiliar cup trips up North and return home as handsome victors.
Lewis Bate, Levi Colwill, Xavier Simons, Tino Livramento and Bryan Fiabema have already made appearances for Andy Myers’ Under-23 group, and figure to move up permanently this summer along with a small handful of others as another strong batch of Under-16s graduate to full-time scholars. Sam Iling-Junior led the way with twelve appearances in total before doubts over his future crept in, but Harvey Vale, Charlie Webster, Jude Soonsup-Bell and Luke Badley-Morgan dipped their toes in the water ahead of taking the plunge into the deep end this summer.
That age group were national champions this season, as indeed was every academy age group down to U13. Had we seen 2019-20 through to completion, there’s a strong chance Chelsea would have finished top of the pile at every level. The work continues, but the future is as bright as ever.