Those who have closely followed the progress of Chelsea’s youngsters will have found reasons to smile over the first few weeks of the season.
Nathaniel Chalobah has earned his first senior England call-up, Tammy Abraham has netted his first Premier League goal, and Kurt Zouma has impressed after his return from a serious knee injury. There’s only one problem with all of this. None of these players are turning out for Chelsea. Chalobah has signed for Watford and Abraham and Zouma are on loan at Swansea City and Stoke City respectively.
All these players, highly rated though they may be, have been forced to look elsewhere in their hunt for regular first team experience. It is a damning fact that not since John Terry became a regular for the Blues has an academy product broken through and established themselves in the first team.
There exists a strange paradox here. Chelsea’s youth sides have enjoyed unprecedented success recently, winning the FA Youth Cup for the past four years. Yet the pathway to the top then seems to suddenly stop. Talented young players who have impressed at youth level find playing opportunities with the first team at best is limited, and, more often than not, impossible. Invariably they are packed off on loan indefinitely, while the club spend huge sums of money on proven internationals for the first team.
There is a growing sense of anger among Chelsea fans that talented young players who have been with the club since their childhood are being sold to make way for expensive foreign recruits. This summer Nathan Ake and Nathaniel Chalobah left the club for good for a combined £25 million, while Dominic Solanke left for Liverpool for a fee due to be decided by a tribunal.
Chalobah was with Chelsea for 12 years but made only one Premier League start for the club. He explained why he made the difficult decision to leave the club for new pastures:
“Chelsea was all I knew, the club I loved and supported. But I had to put myself in the best position and that was to go out there and get opportunities to play games. It’s a tough place, Chelsea, and sometimes you can get a bit carried away with being there and being on the brink, almost there [in the team]. But it’s very hard with established players ahead of you. For the youngsters it is a lot harder to get into the team. Now I can say that it was a good decision.” Nathaniel Chalobah
For Chalobah the tough decision has paid off immediately with a first call-up to the England senior squad in August.
loan deals galore in Chelsea academy
As well as those young players who left for good, there was also the usual farming out of youngsters on loan. A quick glance down the list of players on loan on the Chelsea website reveals a staggering thirty four players this year.
Some players like Kurt Zouma are being loaned out for experience before it is hoped they can nail down a place in the first team. But there are many more others who stand little to no chance of ever gaining a place in the first team.
Take Lucas Piazon for example. He is experiencing his sixth season away from the club on loan at Fulham. They are the fifth team he has played for since joining Chelsea, and in that time he has made a grand total of one appearance for his parent club.
Alongside him at Fulham is Tomáš Kalas, another product of the Chelsea academy who has also worn the colours of five different clubs while technically still remaining a Chelsea player. He at least has double the number of Chelsea appearances as Piazon, with a grand total of two to his name.
Or what about Todd Kane, who recently turned twenty four and finds himself at Groningen in Holland this season, his sixth loan club. He joined Chelsea at under-8 level but has never appeared for the senior side. Such cases has led some to criticise the system as consisting of stockpiling talented young players, who are then loaned out for a few years before being sold on to generate a tidy profit.
Arsene Wenger has been a particular outspoken critic of the system:
“It is one of the big problems in the modern game,” he told Arsenal’s official magazine. “You’ve invested a lot of money into players because we’re paying more and more money, and then at the age of 20 you don’t usually get much money for any of the players, so the reflex is to stockpile the players. That’s not right.” Arsene Wenger
Chelsea’s hunt for overnight success thwarts youth production
Jose Mourinho once claimed that the Chelsea academy should be shut down if it did not produce first team players. But there is a suspicion that those running the club see the academy’s role as something more than that. For them it is a win-win situation. If a young player develops into a first team regular they will have bolstered the squad on the cheap. But if they fail to make the grade they can be sold on and turnover a healthy profit for the club.
On his return to Chelsea for his second spell as manager, Mourinho claimed that he would have failed if Lewis Baker, Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke did not become Chelsea and England regulars. That was in 2014, and none of those players are even close to achieving that goal. In that sense Mourinho can only be considered a failure when judged by his own standards.
The case of Mourinho illustrates a further point. The Portuguese has often attracted criticism at clubs for his “short-termism”. His critics claim that he focuses on short term success while not laying out long term foundations. The argument goes that he generally buys proven internationals rather than introducing young players to his sides.
Yet this “short-termism” failure of vision could be applied to the club as a whole. The revolving cast of managers has had a detrimental effect on the promotion of young players. This desire for overnight success means that young players are rarely given their chance on the biggest stage.
Managers are too scared to take a punt on youth when they are never more than one bad run of results away from the sack. In those conditions it makes more sense for managers to stick to tried and tested players rather than risking the young players.
Such a high turnover of managers also produces the problem that different managers bring with them different ideas about football and which players fit with those specific ideas. Accordingly players fall in and out of favour swiftly. To take one example, Josh McEachran was highly rated by Carlo Ancelotti.
In 2010-11 season, McEachran made 17 first-team appearances. But after Ancelotti’s sacking he fell out of favour with those managers that followed. In the next four years McEachran made only five more appearances. It is no coincidence that Chelsea had four managers over those four years. The upheaval meant that he never got a chance to push on with his career.
McEachran is in many ways the poster boy for Chelsea’s lost generation of young players. A Chelsea fan, he joined the club’s academy at the age of seven. For a while during that breakthrough season under Ancelotti he seemed like the next big thing in English football, a midfielder slender in stature but with precocious ability on the ball. He seemed destined to take the step up to the first team.
But he was farmed out on loan to five different teams over the next few years. Finally in 2015, the player who was once hailed as the next star of English football was sold to Championship side Brentford for a paltry £750,000. He is now showing signs of why he was so highly rated for the club, but there remains a lingering sense of what if.
More recently, Antonio Conte has spoken of young players lacking the patience to stay and develop while they fight for their place, while also taking a swipe at players’ agents.
“Sometimes young players think that they can play easily in the first team but that’s not true. I repeat, now every single player wants to play regularly. They want to play in every game. But I have to pick 11 players. Not only me, every coach.” Antonio Conte
But with Chelsea’s record of developing young players over the past decade and more is it really surprising that young players are beginning to think they may be waiting for a dawn that may never appear?
Perhaps all is not doom and gloom. The recent impressive performances of Andreas Christensen at the heart of Chelsea’s defence proves that it is not impossible to survive the infamous loan system. He has been hailed by the club as an example to the rest of Chelsea’s youngsters, and one can almost sense the relief that finally a player has progressed from the youth team, through the loan system to the first team. Whether Christensen proves to be the first of many or the exception to the rule remains to be seen…