What Now For The Academy?

It didn’t last as long as anyone wanted, but the Frank Lampard era at Chelsea came to an abrupt end on Monday, throwing the immediate future of the club at all levels into a brand-new era of uncertainty.

As Thomas Tuchel prepares to enter the fray, we’re forced to take a step back and ask what it means for everyone, but particularly the academy, which has faced often insurmountable challenges trying to create a better pathway into the first team setup at Cobham. They struck gold when Lampard, Jody Morris Joe Edwards, James Russell, Chris Jones and Eddie Newton took charge in the summer of 2019, for they all cut their coaching teeth on the other side of the road at the club’s Surrey training ground. They were all ‘one of their own’ and, transfer ban or no transfer ban, the road ahead was clear.

Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori and Callum Hudson-Odoi all became important members of the squad, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek a sixth in returning from a long-term injury layoff. Marc Guehi, Tariq Lamptey, Tino Anjorin, Ian Maatsen and Armando Broja all made their debuts in the 2019-20 season as Lampard handed out eight maiden appearances to academy youngsters, the most any Chelsea manager has ever issued in a single campaign.

Every single one of Lampard’s 84 matches in charge saw at least one academy graduate included in the starting eleven, by far the longest streak of the Roman Abramovich era, and a run that requires you to go back several decades for one that trumps it. Where many of his predecessors talked the talk about the next generation, he walked the walk.

Unfortunately, that alone proved far from enough to earn him a prolonged stay of execution, and so we’re back at square one again with Tuchel’s appointment. The German tactician will be asked the same question as Maurizio Sarri, Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho and others about his intentions for one of the world’s leading home-grown production lines, and his answer is likely to be much the same as each of those in turn, but this time the genie is out of the bottle. The graduates have proved they can play at the top level, and the next generation below them had a pathway full of hope and opportunity that has potentially been slammed shut in their face. Joe Edwards appears set to remain on the coaching staff but, as an outsider to Tuchel’s circle, his influence may be heard but not listened to.

In the short-term, expectations will be tempered by the fact that a change of manager was made to improve results and improve chances of Champions League qualification. Lampard himself only used Anjorin in FA Cup wins over Morecambe and Luton, such was the pressure, and so a Fifth Round trip to Barnsley is unlikely to yield much more than that. The squad regulars, the Mounts and Abrahams and James’ of the team, they’re established, they’re ready to go, and have the ability to continue to drive the club forward right now.

It doesn’t matter what Tuchel did at Mainz, Dortmund or PSG; every club has a different way of operating and a different perspective on youth integration. What matters far more is what Chelsea have opted to potentially return themselves to; a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, a succession of new managers with little time or inclination to embed themselves in all areas of the club, working with the expensively-assembled newcomers while watching the best of the next crop rolling off the production grow ever-more frustrated with their lot. Supporters who found themselves upset when Jamal Musiala left for Bayern Munich and Callum Hudson-Odoi almost followed him would do well to check how many other Blues youngsters share the same representation. It’s 2021 and young players are ever more prepared to take their talents elsewhere rather than waiting around to find out what the future holds at their current clubs.

In a dream world, a fantasy scenario, Tuchel picks up the baton from Lampard and carries on from where he left of, and he could very well do that. There is enough anecdotal evidence in his career path to at least wait and see and offer him the benefit of the doubt. History tells us to expect something else though and, in making this particular change, it also informs us of the board’s ultimate priority. We might be asking the same questions of another manager in 18 months’ time.