Since strolling their way to the Premier League title with three games to spare, the notion of Chelsea starting a trophy-laden dynasty – capable of replicating Manchester United’s dominance of the 1990s – has received plenty of airtime and column inches. It’s a hot topic that’s crossed the path of the king of British punditry Gary Neville and BBC Sport’s chief football writer Phil McNulty.
Some of the foundations to do so are already in place. One being a world-class manager in Jose Mourinho, capable of outfoxing any counter-part in world football, and another being the fact the core of Chelsea’s team, the likes of Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic, Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa, are still of optimum age. Overall, the starting Xi won’t require major changes for some time, barring the ever-impending retirement of captain John Terry, and only a spectacular fall from grace or another bust-up with Roman Abramovich will force Mourinho out of west London any time soon.
But if there’s one ingredient missing, it’s a thriving clan of academy-created one-club men. All the greatest sides had them; Manchester United had the Class of 92, the Barcelona side that destroyed European football under the tiki-taka oversight of Pep Guardiola had Carlos Puyol, Xavi, Andres Ineista and Lionel Messi, and German World Cup-winning cohort of 2014 included Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, who lifted the Champions League with Bayern Munich the year previous.
In comparison, the only academy product who had any noteworthy impact on Chelsea’s successful title bid this season was, of course, John Terry – who made his debut for the Blues in a different millennium. Even the only other academy product to have made significant headway in the Blues first team during the intermittent period – defender Ryan Bertrand – was sent out on loan to Southampton at the start of the season and subsequently flogged to them in January.
Which is exactly why introductions like Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who made his Premier League debut against Liverpool last weekend, will become more important than ever to Chelsea over the course of the next few years. Of course, this is nothing new to Blues fans; they’re only too well aware of the glass ceiling that persists between Chelsea’s academy set up and the senior string.
Arguments as to why – the fact virtually every game is a must-win for Chelsea, the fact managers often aren’t around long enough at Stamford Bridge to even glance at what the academy might have to offer, the fact most young players at most tops clubs struggle to make the step up from youth to Champions League football – aren’t for now.
But there’s something remarkably different about Chelsea’s academy in comparison to five or six years ago, when the prodigious likes of Gael Kakuta, Michael Woods, Jeffrey Bruma and Michael Mancienne, to name a few, struggled to break through before amounting to very little.
Since 2010, the Chelsea academy ranks have claimed four FA Youth Cups, the 2011 Premier Reserve League (national) title, the 2014 U21 Premier League title and the 2015 UEFA Youth League title, having previously gone without a trophy from U14 ages upwards since 1994, so clearly there’s a lot of talent within the set-up who, perhaps most importantly of all, have proved themselves as natural winners.
Likewise, there’s greater synergy between the youth and senior teams than arguably ever before at Stamford Bridge – something Loftus-Cheek pays specific homage to. A central midfielder measuring in at whopping 6 foot 3, he’s the epitome of a Mourinho player; monolithic in physique and simple yet effective in style.
Whilst the Portuguese has felt the need to turn to the transfer market to find players of his specific demands since returning to west London, he now has genuine options from the academy. Nathan Ake, Andreas Christensen, Tomas Kalas and Isaiah Brown, all measuring in at above 6 foot and equally adept in a variety of different positions, are of a similar mould and more natural suitors to Mourinho’s physical, pragmatic style of football.
Of course, the Premier League debut of one academy product doesn’t suggest Chelsea have finally solved the riddle of youth-to-senior-transition that’s plagued them for years. Likewise, it doesn’t suggest the Blues are on the verge of creating a footballing dynasty through a cohort of self-created young talent.
Yet, the more successful Chelsea become in terms of silverware, the more stable they become in comparison to the chaos between Mourinho’s two spells in charge, the greater understanding the likes of Hazard, Fabregas, Matic and Costa develop over the course of the next few years, the easier the Blues will find it to give young players chances at first team level.
If all of the aforementioned comes into fruition – and if Chelsea’s youngsters pass the all-important sink-or-swim test – we could see a Blues dynasty comparable to Barcelona’s, Bayern Munich’s or Manchester United’s emerge. The debut of Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a small yet significant step in that process.