With the Premier League’s throne now up for grabs, as the monolithic Manchester United find themselves caught in a journey of rediscovery, Chelsea possess the potential to become England’s most dominant footballing force.
They have the financial backing, the talent, the experience and now the history to do so, but compared to the previous incumbents there’s one ingredient missing – one-club men, sourced from academy level to become decade-spanning stalwarts of the first team, providing that intrinsic-yet-indefinable sense of identity.
I have no qualms with Chelsea’s value-adding loan machine. The fact Chelsea have more players on the books at other clubs than in their 25-man Premier League squad certainly comes with a hint of capitalist macabre, but if the object of the FFP laws was to challenge top teams to remain financially proficient whilst preserving success on the pitch, the west London club have unquestionably unearthed the formula for others to follow.
Some of the figures are genuinely staggering. Kevin de Bruyne for example, signed for £7million in January 2012, yet just 18 months and three appearances for Chelsea later, he was sold to Wolfsburg with an £11million mark-up, having attracted a variety of suitors during a year-long loan with Werder Bremen. Likewise, two productive Premier League loan spells saw Chelsea make an £18million profit on Belgium international Romelu Lukaku.
But if one concern persists, it’s the notion of a culture developing at Stamford Bridge that makes it considerably easier for Jose Mourinho to cash-in on young loansters than offer them a path to first team football.
Lukaku’s move to Everton this summer remains a key example, and Ryan Bertrand is another case to bear in mind. With the England international now requesting to stay at Southampton permanently, the last academy product to truly make a name for himself in the Chelsea first team remains John Terry. His debut was way back in 1998; it almost feels like the Blues have forgotten the difference one-club men can make.
So why are one-club men so important? What do they provide that imports can’t? Well, if you develop a batch like Manchester United’s Class of ’92, you can go on to dominate for the best part of two decades. Admittedly, cohorts of such quality, volume and duration don’t come around too often – otherwise every club in world football would be at it.
Yet, the intrinsic characteristics are continuity, longevity and value-for-money. Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were at the heartbeat of Manchester United’s successes under Sir Alex Ferguson, and in my opinion, their absences have been as fundamentally debasing as the Scot’s retirement. They gave United a sense of identity, a connection with the fan base and the local community, whilst reaping the benefits of synergy with the national team.
That institutionalised United as the Premier League’s most dominant force, a mantle Chelsea are more than capable of taking.
Once again, quality remains the ultimate stumbling block; the likes of Josh McEachran, Michael Mancienne and Carlton Cole, who were all tipped for greatness after winning the Young Player of the Year award at Stamford Bridge, never came close to meeting the standards of the first team.
Having only emerged as a European power over the course of the last decade, disparity of quality between the academy and the senior squad is an inevitability. Although Chelsea’s record at junior level has been exceptional in recent years, claiming eight trophies from the U13s upwards since 2010, the club is still learning how to transition these successes to Premier League and Champions League standard football – Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool on the other hand, have enjoyed a considerable head start.
Chelsea’s current crop however breeds enormous optimism for the future. The likes of Nathan Ake, Lewis Baker, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Isaiah Brown are on the peripheries of the senior squad after winning last season’s U21 Premier League title. John Swift, currently with Rotherham, is a known favourite of Jose Mourinho’s, whilst Burnley loanee Nathaniel Chalobah is already receiving Premier League exposure at just 19 years of age. Patrick Bamford too, although not a genuine academy product, is quickly developing a profile as one of the sharpest strikers in the Football League.
There’s more than enough potential for a number of these players to become career-long servants at Stamford Bridge and upon doing so, Chelsea would be taking a step closer to institutionalising themselves as the Premier League’s tacit monarchy. But for that process to take place, the Blues must overcome their most detrimental habit; a perpetual insistence upon recruiting from outside the club instead of within.
If Chelsea can find their equivalent of the Class of ’92 – not necessarily in terms of quality, but certainly durability – the next twenty years of Premier League football will be remembered by royal blue.