For a club that sits second in the all-time winners’ table and has lifted the trophy in six of the last ten editions – including five in a row – it seems far too long since Chelsea actually laid their hands on the FA Youth Cup. Reece James captained the 2017-18 vintage to a record-equalling success under Jody Morris but, not only has that success dried up more recently, the Blues then suffered early exits in two of the three years since.
Sure, in 2019-20 they lost at the death to Manchester City in a final delayed by six months and moved to a neutral site at St George’s Park due to the pandemic, but that was sandwiched between a Mason Greenwood-inspired elimination by Manchester United and a disappointing Fifth Round reverse last season, when a mistake by Lucas Bergström saw Everton sneak through 2-1 at Kingsmeadow.
It also meant that, for the first time in a long time, players passed through the youth team without adding a winners’ medal to their collection, and that will have been a strange feeling for youngsters who have grown up hoping to emulate their predecessors, many of whom have gone on to do outstanding things in the world of senior football and particularly at Chelsea. Some of those left disappointed last year will be back again this term, however, and they’re backed up by a crop of first-years who have certainly played their part in the Under-18s’ return to league title contention too.
Ed Brand’s boys are currently top of the South table at their age group on goal difference from Southampton (and Leicester, who are three points back with a game in hand), but the manner in which they’ve gone about their business this season gives plenty of reason to be excited and optimistic for this year’s Youth Cup run. They’ve scored 49 goals in 14 games, a rate of better than four per game, and have spread those goals around 14 different players and every outfield playing position. They’ve been a little leaky defensively – 24 goals conceded in the same number of matches – but that in itself is an improvement from last season and their full-throttle attacking style usually tips the balance in their favour.
Brand, like his fellow coaches at the academy (and those that have gone before him) has switched between 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1 (and variants of) this season, using the former more recently but will quite happily go with whatever suits the players available and the demands of the match. Chelsea quite deliberately do not implement a development programme that mirrors the playing style of the first team as some clubs do, preferring instead to offer their young prospects a comprehensive education in playing style, creating the sort of versatility that allows the likes of James to play in central defence, at right (wing) back or in midfield for Thomas Tuchel, or that sees Callum Hudson-Odoi deployed as a wing-bac one week and an attacker the next. The ability to adapt not just game-by-game, but within each match itself, has been a hallmark of the academy teams in recent years and it will continue to be.
It makes projecting a ‘youth cup team’ a little harder to do, but what you can do is identify the core players who will feature if they’re fit. Harvey Vale, Charlie Webster and Jude Soonsup-Bell are Dev Squad regulars who should be among the first names on Brand’s team sheet, with Vale and Webster potential candidates to captain the team. Alfie Gilchrist could also be considered for the armband, having led the Dev Squad once already this season, and he should be in line for a place in a defence that might also include Luke Badley-Morgan, with Prince Adegoke in goal ahead of Sami Tlemcani after some excellent performances so far this season. First-years Lewis Hall and Brodi Hughes have established themselves under Andy Myers despite only turning 17 in the autumn and it would be a big surprise were they not involved, though it will be interesting to see whether Hall is deployed as a left-back or in central midfield.
From there, you can pick your favourite players to complement them. Edwin Andersson has been in outstanding form and can claim that he has made at least one goal contribution in every start (9) so far – playing on either flank or at either wing-back position – while Tudor Mendel-Idowu can say the same in scoring four goals and assisting five others in his last four outings. Malik Mothersille is the team’s leading scorer with 11 goals in as many games, and then there’s Leo Castledine with four goals in his five games and some particularly impressive pressing from the front.
Silko Thomas is another who has played for not just the Dev Squad and Under-18s, but also the Under-19 UEFA Youth League side, and brings a versatility to perform in any wide role, but so do Zain Silcott-Duberry and Derrick Abu, while Richard Olise can do all of that and also play as part of a back three to a high level. Josh Tobin and Billy Gee have joined him in central defence many times this season and, despite being midfielders by trade, have done a sterling job in that capacity. Sam Rak-Sakyi is coming into form in midfield and Louis Flower always affects matches in attack when he’s on the pitch.
The options are seemingly endless and that’s without including the injured Ronnie Stutter, Jimi Tauriainen and (recently recovered) Alex Kpakpe, or a host of eligible schoolboys like Ted Curd, Somto Boniface, Michael Golding, Kaiden Wilson, Reiss Russell-Denny, Tyrique George and Ato Ampah, who have already made their presence felt when stepping up an age group. Whichever way you slice it, Chelsea have one of the deepest and strongest squads in the country once again, and should rightly be considered among the tournament favourites.
They begin their 2021-22 journey against Leyton Orient, who beat Leatherhead and Newport County in Rounds One and Two to get to this stage. They blew Newport away last month in a 6-1 home win that saw Reon Smith-Kouassi lead the way with a brace before Daniel Nkrumah added a hat-trick. Former Charlton schoolboy Harrison Sodje is among a group of capable defenders who protect goalkeeper Noah Phillips (younger brother of Cardiff’s Dillon) while Jephte Tanga and Charlie Pegrum stand out in wide areas. Indeed, Nkrumah and Tanga have made their first-team debuts in the EFL Trophy and there is a clear pathway at Brisbane Road for the rest to follow.
The winners already know they’ll be heading to Vicarage Road to play Watford in Round Four and, while Orient know the odds are stacked against them, they do have enough about them to cause some problems for Chelsea. The Blues have been notoriously ruthless in Third Rounds past, however, beating Barnsley 8-1 last season with big wins against Huddersfield, Cardiff, Scunthorpe and Dartford among others in previous campaigns.
Tickets are widely available for the match at Kingsmeadow, which kicks off at 12 Noon this Sunday 12th December, and are also available on the day.