A year ago, we reflected on an academy season that, while not going exactly to plan, still featured plenty of positives among the negatives, and we speculated what the road ahead would look like in an era where competition in youth football is stronger than ever.
This year, we must ask many of the same questions, particularly at the end of a journey that saw the Development Squad avoid relegation to the second tier of Premier League 2 football by the finest of margins, but also because Chelsea are moving into a new era of ownership, and the landscape is going to change yet again. If last summer was an opportunity for evolution, this off-season might well see something akin to revolution.
We’ll get to that, though. By way of a summary, Andy Myers’ Under-23 team didn’t enjoy the best of times, bowing out of the EFL Trophy in the Round of 16 (though that represented progress over the past two campaigns at least) while sinking deeper and deeper into a fight to survive among the top fourteen teams of their age group in the country, doing so with just two minutes (and seven excruciating added on afterwards) left in the 2021-22 season.
His Under-19 charges didn’t fare much better in the UEFA Youth League either, finishing a clear second best to eventually Semi Finalists Juventus in the group stage, setting up a playoff for the right to reach the last sixteen, one in which they were humbled and embarrassed 5-1 away to Genk. It was the second time in succession they’d failed to reach the knockout stages, with a cancelled 20-21 edition in between, leaving their last trip to Nyon for the Final in 2019 a distant memory, and the last time they brought the Lennart Johansson Trophy back to Cobham in 2016 now considered ancient history.
Ed Brand’s Under-18s did put some silverware into that famous academy trophy cabinet, claiming the Under-18 Premier League Cup for the second time after previously winning it in 2018, with a hard-fought 2-1 win away to Fulham earlier this month. It was deserved reward for a season that promised so much but ultimately fell short under the weight of a backloaded fixture list that coincided with the club’s sanctions and plenty of other pressures besides. Speaking post-match at Craven Cottage, the coach remarked that “a lot has happened this year at Chelsea that has been out of our control, but I am thoroughly delighted that we’ve shown character and tremendous bravery to continue showing their capabilities on the pitch. It’s a testament to the group.”
At the peak of that strife, they were four minutes away from a return to the FA Youth Cup Final, only to find themselves travelling back from Nottingham trying to work out how they’d just lost 3-1 to Forest, while a league title challenge that looked very much on at Christmas eventually saw them finish seventh, sixteen points adrift of champions Southampton, as they won just three of their last eight fixtures.
That was an improvement from twelve months earlier when, although they finished in the same place in the table, they did so with one fewer team in the league and were twenty points short of eventual title winners Fulham. Nevertheless, it’s quite a departure from winning four successive regional crowns, back-to-back national titles, and losing almost as many league games this term (seven) as they did in that run (ten, excluding playoff stages). Those comparisons are dangerous, though, as they lead to an expectation that Chelsea will simply wipe the floor with everyone that they come across, running away with things year after year, producing an endless supply of potential first-team talent and winning every trophy they enter into competition for.
Standards should be high, of course, and everyone at Chelsea has the loftiest of ambitions, but the landscape of academy football in 2022 is much different to how it looked ten years ago. Then, the Elite Player Performance Plan was in its infancy, agreed in 2011 and about to be rolled out ahead of 2012-13. The Blues were well-placed to hit the ground running with Neil Bath one of the principal masterminds developing the scheme that would reshape talent development in England, and they did just that, enjoying a strong run that saw them finish as Youth Cup runners-up to upstarts Norwich City. Next year, they won the first of a record-equaling five in a row, and the rest became history.
Now, though, everyone else has had enough time and – importantly – money, to catch up, and the scope for Chelsea to pull away from their rivals is naturally reduced because EPPP itself has remained pretty much the same as it was when it was initially conceived. The initial 22 Category One teams – the supposed best of the best – has grown to 28, while two more (Bolton and Swansea) have departed the scene, meaning 30 of the country’s top 45 clubs have at one time or another been regarded as elite. Aside from the debates about whether reforms are needed to refine things again (ahead of a summer when more teams will seek to join that not-so-exclusive faction), in very simple terms, everyone else has more room to pick up the slack and catch up with the best than the best have had to pull away again.
And perhaps that’s right; you won’t find Chelsea complaining about it, and they will continue to put in the work to produce Champions League-winning quality players like they have been doing, but it does offer a high-level explanation as to why their fortunes have changed so much in the last couple of years. Comparisons might well be made to Manchester City, who have won back-to-back PL2 titles and are challenging for a third consecutive national Under-18 triumph, and perhaps that’s a fair comparison to explore.
City recruit heavily, that much is no secret. Chelsea do too, but the two clubs have trended in different directions in that area over the last few seasons, and it’s certainly been some time since Chelsea could claim to have a €10m signing in the 23s like City did with Brazilian winger Kayky this season. Maybe more interestingly though is that City are well-known to adhere closely to the Premier League’s prescribed training guidelines, which recommends six-week blocks focused on different aspects of training and development throughout the course of a season and a player’s two-year scholarship. Chelsea are less inclined to follow that to the letter and it’s certainly worked in their favour over the years, while it’s hard to argue that whatever City are doing right now isn’t doing them any harm in success in their junior ranks.
Yet we mustn’t forget that Chelsea are reigning Under-16 national champions (City won the U16 equivalent of the League Cup) while the Under-13s, 12s, 11s and 10s have all tasted success on the national stage and beyond in 2021-22. They provided the most players to England at age groups between U16 and U21 inclusive for the seventh consecutive season. Six graduates continue to play significant roles under Thomas Tuchel while in loanees Conor Gallagher and Armando Broja they have some of the most sought-after young talent in the top flight, let alone the likes of Declan Rice and Tino Livramento, who are no longer under the employ of the Blues. This is not an academy in crisis; far from it.
The break between seasons might provide an opportunity for the academy to refresh things on the coaching front anyway. Both Myers and Brand have been in their respective posts for three years now, and Neil Bath has previously spoken on record about ensuring continuous progression for staff as well as players, with three-year cycles for age-group leads being about average. Indeed, nobody has spent more than that long in charge of the youth team since the mid-1980s, while Mick McGiven’s lengthy run guiding the then-Reserves ended in 2006 and the same has applied at that level ever since too.
What those changes look like is anyone’s guess, but the academy is blessed with a plethora of options. Myers has been ably assisted by Jon Harley and the highly rated Jack Mesure, while Brand has been supported by Andy Ross, who stepped up from the Under-16s when James Simmonds left on learning secondments to first Wimbledon and then Sogndal, where he’s working with former loan department mentor Tore Andre Flo. Simmonds’ eventual return will add to the depth of possibilities that also include current Under-16 leads Andy Boughey and Hassan Sulaiman, while it’s impossible to ignore the fact that John Terry has been working at Cobham for much of this season and still harbours high-level management aspirations. It feels like the right time for a reshuffle at any rate.
On the pitch, expect an influx of talent into both age groups to help kick-start things. The Under-18s will welcome the club’s biggest-ever intake of first-year scholars in July and thirteen of that cohort have already had experience at the higher level ahead of time. The Class of 2020 (Abu, Adegoke, Andersson, Badley-Morgan, Gilchrist, Kpakpe, Mothersille, Soonsup-Bell, Tauriainen, Tlemcani, Tobin, Thomas, Vale and Webster) will move onto Development Squad football full-time, now graduating from youth team level – some of them having long since done so – and watch for the club to recruit semi-heavily for reinforcements to join them.
They’ve not exactly been quiet in their desire to do just that over the last year. Dylan Williams joined from Derby in January and immediately showed his quality, while a deadline day deal to acquire Mason Burstow from Charlton will mature into a Chelsea career this summer after he remained on loan at The Valley upon penning his Blues contract. A series of trialists came and went without leaving much of a mark down in Surrey but, with top division status secured, look for a number of additional players to come in and add competition to a group that will benefit from it, in recognition that the requirements to be competitive at the very top have changed.
For, while a relegation battle was not on anyone’s agenda, there is no appetite for a repeat situation in 2022-23. Yes, the Dev Squad’s performances were largely better than the results they achieved, and Myers was right when he repeatedly spoke of the group’s work rate and commitment to turning things around. And he was right in saying that “(results) can be seen as a reflection of our season, where certain things just haven’t gone our way”; there were half a dozen occasions alone where they dropped some or all the points on offer in the last fifteen minutes. Poetic perhaps, then, that they bailed themselves out of trouble with two goals in the same closing stages on the final day then.
However, the sustainability of an operation that not only continually pushes high-level talent out on loan while still eligible for PL2 football, but has such a high churn rate, will eventually have a sizeable impact. Almost 60% of minutes played in 2020-21 disappeared last summer, and not just through the expected loan exits of Levi Colwill, Tino Anjorin et al. Whether Lewis Bate, Myles Peart-Harris and Tino Livramento would’ve stayed around another year or not is up for debate, but losing Dynel Simeu, Charlie Wiggett, Pierre Ekwah and so many others behind them ripped the core out of the team and made a tough challenge even harder before a ball had been kicked this season.
This isn’t to be used as an excuse for winning just eight of 31 matches since, but to provide context. They finished pre-season with a midfield of trialist Bradley Ryan and recently retired Jimmy Smith, pressed into action having returned to Chelsea at the end of his professional career intending to move into a scouting role. Preparations were hit by injuries and Covid; a planned friendly away to Rangers saw the squad depart Scotland almost as soon as they’d arrived due to positive tests in the camp. It was that sort of run last summer and, rather than building momentum, it felt like they were playing catch-up on and off the pitch from the get-go.
Players will always go on loan. Some will go on loan again this year, several for the first time. Some will stay for half a season and then consider their options. We’ll find out quickly whether 21-22 was an aberration or a harbinger of things to come but, given everything we know about Chelsea, it would be a surprise and a disappointment to everyone were they not to see a significant uptick in fortunes when things get going again come August. Just as nobody rested on their laurels when they were experiencing the highest of highs, there is no complacency over the current situation. They’ll take a deserved break and then get back to business; the business of developing high-level talent. Considering there were several matchdays across England this season where you could identify a Cobham graduate in well over half of all matches played in the top two tiers, not to mention the excellence of overseas exports like Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham and Jeremie Boga, they know what they’re doing.