A case of same old, same old at Chelsea?

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho

When Jose Mourinho made his glorious return to West London in the summer, one of the key buzzwords of his inaugural press conference was ‘stability’. The phrase was not only a reference to a disturbing trend that’s seen Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich hire and fire nine managers over the last decade – including the Special One – but also the requirement to create a greater level of self-sufficiency at Stamford Bridge.

Whilst the Blues’ even trophy haul under the billionaire Russian has been incredibly impressive, the impetus on persistent and unfaltering success has come at the expense of Chelsea’s youth system, with Ryan Bertrand the only Cobham academy product to successfully make a name for himself in the first team since John Terry.

Meanwhile, the stalled progression of the likes of Scott Sinclair, Jeffry Bouma, Michael Mancienne, Fabio Borini, Jack Cork and Nemanja Matic has resulted in the cast of former Chelsea youngsters farmed out to the far corners of European football, before having to move to new horizons to secure any realistic prospect of first team football.

The story of Nemanja Matic is particularly noteworthy. The Serbian international made just two Premier League appearances during his stay with the Blues, before being sold to Benfica in 2011 as part of the deal to bring David Luiz to Stamford Bridge. Last season, he won the Primeira Liga Player of the Year award, an exceptional achievement for a holding midfielder, and he’s now back on Chelsea’s transfer radar. If the West Londoners want their starlet back however, they’ll have to now meet his £37million release clause.

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The stability Mourinho intends to provide is meant to make the transition from budding member of the development squad to first team regular a far more efficient and open process. The Portuguese has often remarked in public about his added emphasis on youth, earlier in the season describing his squad as ‘Young eggs’ that required mothering.

But we are now a good four months into the Special One’s second tenure as Chelsea boss, and we are yet to see him take a risk on a single youngster by warranting him an inaugural berth in the first team – if anything, Mourinho has begun his returning spell with the Blues by re-instating the old guard.

The Chelsea boss is in danger of making the same, continuous, pressure-driven mistakes of his predecessors.

Granted, Eden Hazard and Oscar, both aged 22, undertake integral roles in the starting XI under Mourinho. But the attacking midfield duo arrived in West London after excelling themselves at other clubs, along with new signing Andre Schurrle, aged 23, rather than spending any time in the Cobham youth ranks, and the former pair were given their first shot at first team football under the Chelsea gaffer’s predecessor, Rafa Benitez.

At the same time, several youngsters who impressed last season are now being left out in the cold by the Portuguese.

Cesar Azpilicueta was one of Chelsea’s most consistent performers last season, having joined in summer 2012 after excelling at Marseille and making the right-back slot his own over the course of the campaign, finishing up with five assists from 27 Premier League appearances. The 24 year-old was bursting onto the Spain national team scene and receiving rave reviews all round, but since Mourinho’s return he’s made just three domestic substitute appearances to be replaced by Branislav Ivanovic – a player five years his senior.

Similarly, despite an incredibly impressive 17 goal haul on loan at West Brom last term, Romelu Lukaku finds himself being farmed out to another Premier League club for yet another year. Perhaps the 20 year-old’s situation is more understandable; he’s by no means the finished article, and there aren’t a safer pair of hands to administer his natural progression than Everton under Roberto Martinez. There’s no doubt that come the summer he’ll return to Stamford Bridge a better player.

But in his absence, the Blues manager is relying upon a strikeforce consisting of Demba Ba, Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o, the youngest being 28 and the oldest 32. Considering Chelsea’s veteran forward cast have found just two Premier League goals between them so far this season, it begs the question why Mourinho abstained from giving Lukaku a deserved chance at his parent club, especially whilst everybody at Stamford Bridge is working under the clean slate of the new regime.

Third on the list is Kevin De Bruyne, a Belgium international whom at the start of the season appeared to have the potential to become the poster-boy for Chelsea’s new emphasis on youth. The attacking midfielder joined the Blues in 2012, and spent last year on loan at Werder Bremen where he impressed throughout and notched up ten goals in 32 Bundesliga appearances.

Upon returning to Stamford Bridge in the summer, many anticipated the 22 year-old would get his chance, and he originally featured in Chelsea’s first two Premier League fixtures of the season, against Hull and Manchester United, providing an assist along the way.

But he’s gone on to make just one top flight appearance since, a brief five-minute outing as a substitute against Fulham, and he’s now been overtaken in the pecking order by new £30million signing Willian, perhaps the greatest symbolic example of how Mourinho is committing Chelsea’s age-old errors of splashing lavish sums on established talent rather than letting youngsters develop and achieve their potential.

Statistically too, the Blues are some way short of the divisional rivals in terms of giving youngsters regular runs in the first team. Mourinho has used just seven players in the Premier League this season under the age of 25, averaging 3.5 top flight starts each, whilst the rest of the squad, with Frank Lampard the oldest at 35, have averaged 6.5 starts each. The average age of the registered squad is 26.

Compare that to Arsenal, who have used 11 players under 25 in the Premier League this season, averaging 4.2 starts each, or Tottenham, who have also used 11 players under 25 averaging 3.9 starts each, or Manchester United, who have used ten players under the age of 25, averaging four starts each.

And it’s not as if the Chelsea boss didn’t have the chance to rebuff his squad in the summer with young, unproven talent, rather than spending nearly £70million on new signings. Rather, the likes of Nathaniel Chalobah, Josh McEachran, Patrick Bamford, Jamal Blackman, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Isaiah Brown are some of the most coveted and sought-after home-grown talents in the country – the latter even featured for West Brom in the Premier League last season before his controversial compensation-based transfer in the summer.

Foreign hot prospects Wallace, Oriol Romeu, Christian Atsu and Thibaut Courtois have also been farmed out, rather than brought into the first team fold.

Mourinho’s track record when it comes to young players is equally as concerning. The Portuguese is undoubtedly one of the most talented managers in Europe, a virtual guarantor of silverware. But throughout his tenures at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, he’s rarely shown an interest in encouraging the development of young players, especially those directly from the academy. Those youngsters he has included in his first team squads have often proved themselves prior at other clubs, and arrived in his teams via the transfer market.

For a club with Chelsea’s limitless spending power, the fact that only one youth player has managed to force his way into  the first team and remain there in the last ten years is hardly a burden. But it does suggest a worrying unhealthiness in the club’s infrastructure, and represents a disturbing reality of the results-based decision-making of a monolithic owner.

The problem should certainly not be ignored; Chelsea’s goal is to establish themselves as a European superpower, yet the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus, the old institutions of continental football, have continually maintained their institutional dominance by bringing through players from their youth systems, reaping the benefits of having players in the starting XI that personify their respective club’s unique identities.

Another concern for Roman Abramovich will be the incoming Financial Fair Play laws, providing yet another incentive for the Blues to turn to youth rather than the transfer market. But considering the Premier League broke the record this summer for its  combined total transfer dealings, it’s quite clear that UEFA’s new legislation isn’t being taken seriously by anyone in England just yet.

Is Jose Mourinho making the same mistakes as his predecessors by not giving young players enough chances?

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