Change is frequent in youth football but, even by recent standards, Chelsea have really pushed the boat out this summer. A tumultuous transfer window has seen several talented young players depart Cobham in search of progress and pathways elsewhere, leaving an ever more inexperienced and fledgling group of players following in their footsteps.
And who’s to say that those very players won’t have seen what Marc Guehi, Tino Livramento, Lewis Bate, Myles Peart-Harris and Dynel Simeu did these past couple of months? There are more questions than answers about the ability to ‘cross the road’ at a post-Frank Lampard Chelsea, and where that quintet opted to change course, many more may follow. Alternatively, you might like to think that others will see Levi Colwill and Armando Broja signing new long-term deals with a determination to make it come what may, and be just as inspired to do the same.
Whatever happens in twelve months’ time will be informed by the progress those going out on loan, leading the Development Squad and moving through the Under-18 ranks make during the 2021-22 campaign. To demonstrate the scale of the upheaval, only two of the eleven players that started the first Dev Squad match of last season remains at the club – Lucas Bergström and Thierno Ballo are still around, while Henry Lawrence, Ian Maatsen and Juan Castillo have joined Colwill in finding loan moves (and George McEachran is set to follow), while Luke McCormick departed for Wimbledon in a permanent exit like Simeu, Livramento and Bate.
Even among the subs, Peart-Harris switched to Brentford, Jonathan Russell has moved to Huddersfield, Pierre Ekwah headed across London to West Ham, and Marcel Lewis is now with Union SG of the Belgian top flight. For that many members of an 18-man matchday squad to be elsewhere less than a year later reflects the scale of the challenge Andy Myers and his coaching staff face in the build-up to a new PL2 calendar. That challenge became harder during a pre-season where his squad was decimated by injury and precaution in a post-lockdown environment where testing and close contact isolation continue to wreak havoc on anyone’s best-laid plans, and more than half of his strongest squad have been unavailable for a slate of friendlies that have produced mixed results.
They began positively with wins over Stoke’s Under-23s and an experimental Portsmouth first team before defeats away to non-league outfits Woking and Boreham Wood and a final 4-0 warm-up win at home to Southampton’s much-vaunted B Team. 34 year-old Jimmy Smith was a regular feature in midfield despite officially retiring in June and returning to the academy he first joined aged seven in a new non-playing capacity, while a couple of trialists have been involved in a bid to emulate striker Jayden Wareham, who penned a two-year deal in May after impressing for Woking.
Wareham has bagged a couple of goals over the summer and adds competition to an attack that will also utilise Jude Soonsup-Bell, Bryan Fiabema and George Nunn, who also continues to spend time at left wing-back, a position the club has had issues filling in the last year and a half due to exits and injuries. Another successful non-league trialist was brought in during the spring in Declan Frith, but he too has been injured this summer, leaving Myers with a need to be creative and consider alternatives. Harvey Vale played there a little for the Under-18s as a first-year scholar and finished 20-21 very impressively for the Dev Squad and should be a regular there moving forward, whether at wing-back or in his preferred role as a central attacking midfielder.
He’ll face competition from Ballo and Joe Haigh in that area of the pitch, though they all complement each other in their ability to do different things, and they can all coexist in the same team as well. Ballo has floated between centre-forward and central midfield since returning for pre-season (and might yet find a loan of his own) while Haigh is returning fresh from a highly productive Under-18 season and has the potential to really impress in the weeks and months ahead.
That Chelsea finished their last friendly outing with a midfield pairing of Smith and trialist Bradley Ryan is sub-optimal to say the least, and it’s in that area of the pitch that Chelsea’s fortunes will largely be decided. Ben Elliott looks fit and ready to go again after emerging from more than two years struggling with injuries; if he can show some of the form he produced as one of the country’s best 14 year-olds then it will be a huge help. Xavier Simons is back from nine months of injury and rehab himself and can be a driving box-to-box force when up to speed (but has also played some centre-back in recent games), while Charlie Webster should get more opportunities to step up after finishing last season as an Under-23, though rather predictably he too has been injured during the off-season and is a little way behind in his return, only getting back on the pitch this past weekend.
Uncertainty reigns supreme in defence too; Josh Brooking saw plenty of minutes at right wing-back in those friendlies because Dion Rankine has been unavailable, while Silko Thomas deputised and continued to flash moments of quality too. Xavier Mbuyamba only featured in the last friendly against Southampton, despite a considerable Instagram presence, leaving Sam McClelland to lead a group of centre-backs that also include Bashir Humphreys and second-year youth team player Alfie Gilchrist, who has been the most impressive defender from his intake and will be among those on the fringe of an early-season promotion through the ranks.
There are no such problems in goal though, with Bergström, Ethan Wady, Karlo Žiger and Teddy Sharman-Lowe all figuring to be in contention for minutes or moves as appropriate to their needs. Sharman-Lowe, an England Under-17 international, spent the first half of last season with former club Burton before returning to Chelsea to recover from a long-term injury.
Truthfully, the group looks a defender and a midfielder light, while they have a lot of goals to replace with so many players moving on and the likes of Tino Anjorin (6 goals and 4 assists in 10+1 games last term) moving on to bigger and better things, and whether they look to recruit from elsewhere or accelerate the development of their younger players remains to be seen. They aren’t typically active recruiters at this level, while the post-Brexit transfer rules make it much harder to be expansive in the market, and so a noticeable increase in the number of players being invited in from non-league football is a trend to keep an eye on.
Ed Brand’s Under-18s endured their most disappointing campaign in a decade last time out, struggling under the weight of Covid scheduling (having one match in two months over Christmas then finishing the year with six consecutive away games and two months without a home fixture), player availability and their youngest team in some time to finish 7th (of 13) in the Premier League South table, twenty points adrift of back-to-back regional champions Fulham. Perhaps most alarming was their home record; they won just four games at Cobham, losing seven, more than the previous five years combined.
Not that anyone in the academy building is using the pandemic as an excuse though; every team faced their own obstacles, and some were more successful in overcoming them. As the domestic transfer market becomes even more competitive and traditional rivals like Arsenal and Tottenham are joined by the likes of Fulham, Brighton, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace in being contenders for major honours, the bar has been raised, and the Blues are looking forward to developing Vision 2030 under the continued leadership of Neil Bath and Jim Fraser.
Brand’s squad is refreshed by ten new first-year scholars and a handful of promising Under-16s, who join an intriguing group of second years that will rarely see the likes of Soonsup-Bell, Vale and Webster play league matches (they’ll be Youth Cup mainstays) but have come along quite well over during 2021 and will be aiming high this time around.
Prince Adegoke and Sami Tlemcani were both unavailable for long stretches of last season, pressing the 18s into using seven different goalkeepers in 27 matches, and it was 15 year-old Ted Curd who eventually asserted himself as first choice by the season’s end. The senior duo should get more action this time around but Curd was deserving of those starts and has been involved over the summer too, as has fellow schoolboy custodian Max Merrick.
Gilchrist will offer experience and quality at the heart of a defence that will also see fellow second-years Derrick Abu and Luke Badley-Morgan provide flexibility in being able to play centrally or in a full/wing-back role; in Abu’s case on either flank. Brodi Hughes evokes thoughts of a young John Terry in his approach to defending, while Josh Tobin has shown the ability to play in a back three as well as his more recognised role as a holding midfielder, bringing quality on the ball, aggression in his approach, and natural leadership that makes him a candidate for the captaincy.
Thomas and Alex Kpakpe (another who has seen his journey derailed by injury and illness) are good options in the wide roles, with incoming scholars Zain Silcott-Duberry and Richard Olise (brother of Crystal Palace’s Michael) entering the scene with England youth international pedigree and an assured approach to playing just as capably on one side of the pitch as the other.
Brand having an abundance of options in the middle of the park contrasts quite considerably with Myers’ depth in the Dev Squad, a situation that only serves to remind everyone that those who impress early and often will have the chance to kick off. Webster leads a cast of young first-years who have all played for England at various age groups and each bring something different to the party. If it’s control and elegance you want, Billy Gee is your man. If you prefer a driving box-to-box option with a keen eye for goal then Leo Castledine will appeal, as should Lewis Hall, who shares many a similarity with the year-older Vale. Sam Rak-Sakyi has a midfield profile that hasn’t been common in academy-developed players of late and models his game on N’Golo Kante, and then there’s Tudor Mendel-Idowu, who carries an array of attacking tools in his arsenal.
Since the academy favours a 3-4-2-1 shape (that pre-dates both Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte if you’re still asking), those players will also get the chance to play in the front three, where they’ll meet competition in the form of Nordic pair Jimi Tauriainen and Edwin Andersson to begin with. Settling into a new country under pandemic restrictions without being able to return home and/or see family and friends is a particularly hard thing to do for teenagers, and it stands to reason that we’ll see the best of them both in the year ahead. The Swedish Andersson is a confident winger who likes to run at his opponent while Tauriainen of Finland is a tall and upright left-footed schemer with a powerful shot and the presence to attack from seemingly any position.
Ronnie Stutter joined from West Ham as a much sought-after Under-15 forward and can lead the line or play wide without a problem, with exceptional pace and running in behind in the stylistic vein of a Timo Werner or a young Michael Owen. Malik Mothersille spent the second half of last season earning more experience on a youth loan with Derby County, where he scored three goals and looked increasingly good with each outing. A summer with the Dev Squad yielded a pair of goals against Portsmouth and he looks like a real threat now.
The forward line is completed by Louis Flower, who scored twice against Wolves in the final of a pre-season tournament hosted by Manchester United and won by Chelsea, and who (like Stutter) is happy as a nine or in one of the wider roles. An exceptionally hard worker off the ball, he displays an intelligence for the centre forward’s role not always evident in players of his age, and can regularly be seen dropping deep to link up before running off the last man into space in behind.
It’s a squad high in potential and versatility but as young a group as Brand has had in his time with the Under-18s as manager or assistant. Three of the new scholars were born very late in the school year that dictates their academy age groups and Castledine won’t turn 16 until a week into the new season, which begins on Saturday 14th August at Cobham against West Bromwich Albion.
Myers’ men get things off and running two days later away to Tottenham Hotspur at Stevenage’s Lamex Stadium, and you can keep up to date with everything all season long here at TheChels, on Twitter @chelseayouth, and watch this space for other mediums coming your way in 2021-22. Academy football is back and it promises to be just as much fun this time as ever before.