For the best part of the last decade, Chelsea have been repeatedly criticised for their inability to nurture young talent. Indeed, skipper John Terry is currently the only academy graduate in the Blues’ habitual starting XI – and he made his competitive debut in a different millennium!
But the club’s youth system – their globe-spanning loan operation included – is finally starting to bare some promising fruits. Whilst Jose Mourinho issued four academy players at least one Premier League outing last season, the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku have sold for enormous profit in the last two transfer windows after being plucked from Europe’s lesser top flights.
Likewise, Mourinho has often paid lip service to the need for a more consistent link between Chelsea’s youth ensemble and the senior string since returning to Stamford Bridge two summers ago.
So with that in mind, Football Fancast have decided to take a look at FIVE Chelsea youngsters – some with the first team, others out on loan – who you should be keeping an eye on next season. Blues stars of tomorrow, keen to make an impression today.
Had it not been for a serious injury just weeks into his Stamford Bridge career, Marco van Ginkel might have become a Chelsea regular already.
Indeed, the Blues acquired the Dutch international in summer 2013 and Jose Mourinho saw enough potential to instantly involve him in first team affairs, issuing four competitive appearances until an ACL injury ruled van Ginkel out for the rest of the 2013/14 campaign.
The 22 year-old spent last term with AC Milan and endured a rather turbulent spell at the San Siro, struggling for fitness and form – with another two-month injury lay off around Christmas time – to eventually make just 16 starts in Serie A.
But he now has his best opportunity yet to impress Mourinho – a season-long loan in the Premier League with Stoke City. The Potters are one of the most stable clubs in the top flight, with a consistent starting Xi and an incredibly astute manager in Mark Hughes.
It’s a habitat that should allow van Ginkel to flourish. And perhaps most importantly of all, he looks set for plenty of game-time, having been signed by Stoke as a direct replacement for now-Sevilla enforcer Steven N’Zonzi.
If MvG has the quality to break into the Blues’ starting Xi any time soon, it will become evident at the Britannia.
Jose Mourinho clearly has big plans for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, issuing him a Champions League debut in December and cameo outings against Manchester City, Liverpool and West Brom in the Premier League.
The 19 year-old perhaps wasn’t the most domineering of performers, seeming rather cautious on the ball and reluctant to press off of it. But in terms of his height, power and simple-yet-efficient style of play, the 6 foot 3 midfielder certainly demonstrated his potential to become a Chelsea regular.
Many were surprised to see Mourinho criticise the England U21 last month, describing his performance in a pre-season friendly against Sydney FC as ‘unacceptable‘.
But with most expecting Loftus-Cheek to receive only more game-time next season, Mourinho’s words have the feel of a manager attempting to galvanize and focus a youngster ahead of what could be a real breakthrough campaign.
How much top flight exposure the Lewisham-born hotshot receives will likely depend upon the intensity of the title race – we know the Special One likes to keep his starting Xis as consistent as possible. But in terms of the auxiliary competitions – the FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League – it’s likely Loftus-Cheek will have a recurring role.
Another Chelsea loanster who will be desperate to impress his parent club next season. Patrick Bamford picked up the Championship’s Player of the Year award for 2014/15 from his 19-goal spell at Middlesbrough, firing Aitor Karanka’s side to last term’s play-off final, but there’s still doubts over how well the 21 year-old can perform in the top flight.
Indeed, a lack of physicality has become the predominant criticism of Bamford throughout his affluent stints in the Football League and will be of particular concern to Jose Mourinho, whose current Blues side is almost defined by its power, height and pace in every department.
So a year-long loan at Crystal Palace should be the perfect test for the increasingly hyped England U21. He needs to prove that firstly, he can cope with the top flight’s physically intimidating nature and secondly, that he has the quality to score goals regularly.
Like Stoke City, Crystal Palace are another club in good health, boasting an ever-improving starting Xi and plenty of momentum from their impressive end to last season under Alan Pardew.
Bamford has a bit of a fight on his hands to claim a starting spot, however; Glenn Murray, Dwight Gayle, Marouane Chamakh and Fraizer Campbell represent experienced, committed and capable competition.
Bertrand Traore is one of the most hotly anticipated youngsters in the Chelsea squad, having rejected Manchester United to join the Blues in 2010 – although not officially signing for them until October 2013 – and spent the last few years on loan trying to acquire a work permit.
The attacking-midfielder-come-striker grabbed 14 goals and five assists in 33 Eredivise appearances for feeder club Vitesse Arnhem last season, ranking him eighth in the division’s scoring charts, and earned himself a starting role in Chelsea’s pre-season opener against New York Red Bulls earlier this month.
Vitesse gaffer Peter Bosz believes Mourinho is ‘crazy‘ about the 19 year-old and intent on fast-tracking him into the Chelsea first team as soon as possible.
So with Traore now eligible for Premier League action after successfully acquiring a work permit last month, he’s expected to enjoy a cameo role, at the very least, in Chelsea’s senior squad next season. He’s already been handed the number 14 shirt – inherited from January departure Andre Schurrle.
No player under the age of 21 was involved in senior affairs at Chelsea last season as much as Kurt Zouma, who eventually made 26 appearances across all competitions following his Blues debut against Bolton Wanderers in September.
The issue of finding a long-term successor to John Terry is of only increasing importance, with the veteran centre-half now 34 years of age, and although Jose Mourinho has made no secret of his interest in Everton’s John Stones, Zouma seems equally – if not more – capable of one day filling his skipper’s almighty void.
Indeed, the France international’s most defining characteristic is his incredible athleticism, blessed with the shoulders of a linebacker, the leap of an Olympic high-jumper and recovery pace that defies his 6 foot 3 frame. But he’s also a very intelligent defender and a natural leader, captaining the French across various youth levels before receiving his senior debut in March this year.
Zouma stepped in for centre-back Gary Cahill on a spate of occasions last season as the England international struggled for form, alongside a few appearances in defensive midfield, and it’s likely we’ll see more of the same next term from a 20 year-old seemingly growing stronger by the game.
Should he continue to impress, we might even pick up a collector’s item; Mourinho feeling confident enough in Zouma to rest Terry for a game or two – which is pretty much the highest praise a Chelsea centre-half could ask for at this moment in time.