Throughout the Roman Abramovich era, Chelsea have often been criticised for their inability to bring young starlets through to the first team, despite their constant cherry-picking of young prodigies from across Europe.
Jeffrey Bruma, Gael Kakuta, Michael Woods and Michael Mancienne are perhaps the most prominent names to have failed establish themselves at Stamford Bridge, despite all being touted as future stars from an early age. Every club has their fair share of protégés who don’t make the grade, but with Ryan Bertrand the only youth talent to claim a significant place in the Blues’ senior squad since John Terry, it appears the West Londoners’ problems are systematic, and a symptom of Abramovich’s trigger-happy ownership.
In the last decade, the Russian has ushered in and subsequently axed nine different managers, so it’s understandable that few have had time to integrate youngsters into their first teams, with immense pressure on the board room to consistently provide results and silverware. Similarly, few are willing to take a punt on a young buck, regardless of potential, when they have tried and tested Premier League performers at their disposal.
The after effect has been that a strong contingent of the Blues’ squad are regularly sent out on loan every year to gain first team experience away from Stamford Bridge. Nothing unusual there, but strategy falls short when players return to West London to find themselves still as far away from senior action as ever, regardless of whether or not their loan tenures were successes or failures.
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But there are now signs that Chelsea’s malfunctioning conveyor belt of young talent is finally starting to deliver. Last weekend, Belgium international Kevin De Bruyne made his long-awaited announcement of arrival to the Premier League with a Man of the Match display against Hull, recording three shots on goal, two key passes and one assist for his first domestic appearance in Chelsea colours. The midfielder’s inclusion comes after a sensational loan season in the Bundesliga, where he finished up with ten goals and nine assists in 32 appearances for Werder Bremen.
Similarly, 20-year-old Romelu Lukaku is set to have a big impact at Stamford Bridge this season after netting 17 Premier League goals on loan to West Brom last term. The striker is yet to score for his parent club in twelve competitive appearances, but regardless, he could emerge as Jose Mourinho’s main man this year, especially if the Portuguese’s pursuit of Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney turns out to be an ill-fated venture.
The 6 foot 3 striker offers the kind of service Didier Drogba provided throughout Mourinho’s previous tenure in the final third, and many have tipped Lukaku to be the Chelsea gaffer’s go-to man for the heavyweight fixtures. Either way, there’s no doubt the Belgian’s direct style and immense physique offers the Blues a significant ‘Plan B’, and even if Lukaku is unable to maintain his form from last season, it’s more a question of when not if the Blues forward will begin to deliver in West London.
And there are further Chelsea prodigies on the horizon that are on the cusp of breaking into the first team. Nathaniel Chalobah impressed throughout on loan at Watford last season, with 38 appearances and five goals from midfield for the Championship outfit, helping push Gianfranco Zola’s side into a play-off final. The Englishman is to be farmed out again this year according to Mourinho, but this time to a Premier League club, and if Chalobah follows Lukaku’s template, he could well be brought into the first team fold in a year’s time. Oriol Romeu too, who has featured for the Blues briefly over the past two seasons, is spending the incoming campaign with Valencia, who will be able to offer him a wealth of playing time and Europa league football.
But whether or not Chalobah and Romeu, in addition to Nathan Ake, Wallace, Tomas Kalas, Lucas Piazon and Josh McEachran, who are also regarded as potential future stars, can successfully transition to the Chelsea first team will largely depend upon the character of Mourinho’s second tenure in West London. The Special One’s first bout with the Blues was an anarchic roller-coaster ride, that continued even after his departure. But now ,self-proclaimed as ‘the happy one’, one of the Portuguese’s main aims will be to provide longevity and structure at Stamford Bridge, with a greater emphasis on turning to young talent rather than the transfer market in order to adhere to the incoming Financial Fair Play laws.
It’s not a style of management Mourinho is particularly known for, but it would be surprising to say the least if one of the most talented managers in Europe can’t successfully turn his hand to nurturing young starlets. He’s already included 20-year-old summer signing Marco Van Ginkel in both of his opening Premier League fixtures after the Dutch international impressed during pre-season, along with Lukaku, De Bruyne and Bertrand, and the Chelsea gaffer had a close look at Brazilian defender Wallace during the Blues’ tours of Asia and America, before sending him out on loan to Inter Milan.
There is one young prodigy however, that Mourinho may be forced to sacrifice. Thibaut Courtois, the first choice keeper for the Belgium national team, has been loaned out again this summer to Atletico Madrid for the third season in a row. The 21 year old, who measures in at 6 foot 6, has continually impressed in La Liga, and last term picked up the Ricardo Zamora award for having the lowest goals conceded-to-games ratio for any ‘keeper in the Spanish top flight, with a coefficient of just 0.78. Courtois has all the makings of a world star, but it would be a huge risk on Mourinho’s part to remove the long-serving Petr Cech from the Blues’ first team, especially considering he’s still just 31 years of age and is one of the most experienced goalkeepers in Europe. At this point, it seems most likely the Belgian will be sold for profit.
But with the exception of Courtois, Chelsea’s young cast are set to blossom under Mourinho, with the Portuguese ready to compensate for a decade’s worth of wasted talent. And the greater emphasis on youth personal could pay off dividends; whilst the Blues and Manchester City have continually been forced to turn to the transfer market as a vehicle for progression, Manchester United have undoubtedly reaped the benefits of providing regular additions to their senior squad from within. It generates an institutional frame-work that guarantees a continuation of success without relying upon a wealth of finance, and an ingrained philosophy and ethos amongst the players integral in value.
Suggesting we’ll see a cohort to rival Manchester United’s famous class of ’92 at Stamford Bridge may be a step too far, but it seems that finally, the cogs of Chelsea’s youth system are beginning to turn efficiently.
Is Chelsea’s youth system finally beginning to produce talent?
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