It’s been a month since Chelsea last played an academy fixture; their 6-1 thumping of Manchester United meant the Development Squad signed off a successful 2020 top of the Premier League 2 table in defence of the title they won after an unbeaten, pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign.
They were due back last week, as were the Under-18s after a month off themselves, only for the first fixtures of the new calendar year to be postponed after a Covid outbreak at the Cobham academy. The site is set to reopen this week, with those testing positive required to isolate for a minimum of ten days, meaning they may not return until nearer to next weekend at the earliest.
The status of all fixtures – including the Under-17 Premier League Cup tie against Fulham this Wednesday – is therefore uncertain, but the temporary hiatus gives us an opportunity to take stock of where things are at the halfway stage, and what to look forward to in the months ahead.
Andy Myers’ boys remain top of the PL2 pile despite seeing their return to action delayed, holding a one-point lead over Blackburn Rovers after 11 of their 24 scheduled matches had been played. Competition is rife though; Tottenham moved within two points (having played an extra match) this past Friday, while Man City have a game in hand on everyone and can thrust themselves into contention with maximum points from their forthcoming outings.
The Blues owe their position to a resurgence in their last four matches of 2020; before then, their form was decidedly mixed, winning just four of ten matches in all competitions, exiting the EFL Trophy at the group stage, and finding it hard to match the consistency that took them all the way months earlier. Admittedly, back to back league defeats on Merseyside to Liverpool and Everton came a time when they were without one or two players, while others were finding form or fitness, but November’s impressive comeback away to Man City from 2-0 down – led by the returning Billy Gilmour – lit a spark under them.
It set off a run of three successive December victories, all at home after more than 50 days without such a fixture (and more than two months without it being at their new Kingsmeadow venue), scoring eleven and conceding just four along the way. With Tinos Anjorin and Livramento, Lewis Bate (the December PL2 Player of the Month), Myles Peart-Harris, Marcel Lewis, Henry Lawrence and others firing on all cylinders, they were able to remind everyone just what they were capable of, with an FA Cup tie against Morecambe on the horizon with ambitions of first team debuts all round.
As it was, only Anjorin featured against the Shrimpers, but with the January transfer window well in effect, one or two might have eyes on taking the next step and proving themselves at a higher level. That’s natural at this time of year, as are permanent departures for those ready to break out and seek pastures new. Charlie Brown departed for Milton Keynes last week while Jack Wakely has trialled at both Leicester and Brighton as he works towards his next contract.
That means some of Ed Brand’s youth team will be given the chance to move up and test their mettle at Under-23 level. Jude Soonsup-Bell’s prolific form in front of goal saw him do just that before Christmas, and a well-taken goal on his first start at that level, still aged just 16, will see plenty more minutes coming his way. Dion Rankine and Bryan Fiabema have bridged between both teams so far this term and will move more towards full-time involvement with Myers as the season goes on, while Ben Elliott and Harvey Vale might not be far behind. Xavier Mbuyamba, meanwhile, is fit and ready to play following summer knee surgery, adding to a strong group of central defenders that also saw Sam McClelland return to the fold more recently.
Many of those players will lead the charge in the UEFA Youth League when it starts in March. Owing to the pandemic, this year’s edition will be an abridged one, played as an unseeded single-legged knockout tournament, finishing as usual in Nyon over a long weekend in May. That means Chelsea will be drawn against an Under-19 team from any of this season’s Champions League group stage participants; from Real Madrid and Barcelona down to Ferencvaros and Istanbul BB. The straight knockout rules add an intriguing dynamic to affairs and the Blues have proven themselves as one of the best in Europe when the pressure is on over the last decade.
For Brand’s Under-18s, meanwhile, the picture is a bit different. A disappointing run of results have left them well off the pace in the South league table, where they are ten points behind leaders Crystal Palace, albeit with at least two games in hand on many of the teams above them. What will give them reason to believe, though, is that they’ve played just 9 of their 24 matches, and have plenty of football ahead of them to turn things around, and will play every team above them before all is said and done (including Arsenal and Tottenham twice).
They’ll do so with a team that will get increasingly younger. Half of Myers’ Development Squad could still play youth team football, and they will in the FA Youth Cup (where Chelsea await the winners of Cambridge United vs AFC Fylde in Round Four, although the competitions is suspended until the end of the national lockdown), but the league campaign is handled by the first-year scholars and schoolboys, many of whom have already begun to make an impact. That means more Lewis Hall, Leo Castledine, Ronnie Stutter and Brodi Hughes in the second half of the season, it means more minutes for Edwin Andersson, Jimi Tauriainen, Malik Mothersille and Derrick Abu, and it means that Joe Haigh, Josh Brooking, Charlie Wiggett and Bashir Humphreys will try to make a case to move up to the Dev Squad themselves.
Their collective fates lie in their own hands, and the Under-18s have shown they can beat anyone on their day this season. As these young players get older, get more comfortable in their surroundings, and hopefully as the grip of the pandemic loosens and allows them to return to more familiar environments, their talent will flourish on and off the pitch.
There’s plenty to look forward to at all levels at Chelsea between now and May, particularly in the academy, and you can keep up with all of it here at TheChels.net and on twitter @chelseayouth.