Why Chelsea continue to let their academy down
Many Chelsea fans thought their entry into the Europa league will be a blessing in disguise. The Stamford Bridge faithful felt that the participation in Europe's secondary competition could allow the Blues to give valuable game time to their academy starlets. However last week's game against Vidi FC left many disappointed as neither of Callum Hudson Odoi or Ethan Ampadu featured for Maurizio Sarri's team. Both the teenagers are yet to play a single minute for the senior side this season despite arguably being Chelsea's best players in pre-season. Most were left wondering if they could not get a minute against the lowest ranked team in the group at home, whether they will ever feature over the season for Chelsea?
Earlier on the same day, Chelsea's academy graduate Masan Mount received a call-up from the England national team. The 19-year-old currently on loan at Derby County made the squad on the back of a strong start to the season in the championship following a successful loan at Vitesse Arnhem. It was certainly a day that exposed Chelsea's failure to efficiently use their academy players over the years.
The integration of young players at Chelsea has been a huge issue at Chelsea. Since former captain John Terry, no academy player has established himself in the first team in the squad. A lot of players have come near the first team squad but failed to find opportunities. Ryan Bertrand made 57 appearances for the club including a start in the Champions League final but was sold after not featuring in Jose Mourinho's plans. Last season Andreas Christensen became a regular starter in central defence but soon lost his place. The wait for a Chelsea academy graduate to become a permanent member of the first team continues.
A wasted golden generation
The talent coming out of Chelsea's junior teams has caught the world's attention. In the past decade, Chelsea has won five consecutive youth FA Cups, two UEFA Youth leagues, four U18 Premier League Southern Champions and two U18 Premier League National Champions. Chelsea's homegrown talent of the past few years has been called the club's "golden generation". So far, the club has barely made any use of it.
What is the reason?
The natural question that arises is why the young players have failed to make. The foremost reason is the lack of opportunities and the managers are directly to blame for it. Over the last few years, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, and even interim coach Guss Hiddink have not given the academy starlets the opportunities they deserve. All three managers have played senior players out of position and kept underperforming players in the side instead of giving a young player a chance.
Chelsea's new head coach Maurizio Sarri has not inspired confidence in the department yet. Both Callum Hudson Odoi and Ethan Ampadu yet to get a minute despite spectacular performances in pre-season is a massive cause of concern. However, one must not forget how little time the Italian has spent with his full squad. While his track record in developing young players at Napoli is worrying, it remains way too early to judge him in the department at the moment.
The problem in integrating young players is a long-term one at Chelsea. Clearly, when an issue remains for such a big time, there are bigger concerns than just the manager not playing them. One of the biggest is that the club has not taken into account the integration of youth into account while appointing coaches. None of Chelsea's recent coaches have a record of promoting academy players at any club.
Possibly the biggest reason behind the failure to give young players a chance is the recruitment strategy. Far too often Chelsea has signed players that have blocked the path of their own academy players. A classic example was the happening of last summer where Chelsea signed Tiemoue Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater last summer which forced Ruben Loftus Cheek to go out a loan and the sale of Nathaniel Chalobah. There is no doubting that the two of them would have done no worse than the two players Chelsea signed for a combined £70 million. These are just one of many examples over the years at Chelsea of outside talent being trusted more than the one already at hand.
While Ruben Loftus Cheek was impressing at Crystal Palace, Chelsea decided to sign Ross Barkley in the January transfer window. It was clear from the day he signed that this was a transfer that could ruin Loftus Cheek's chances of becoming a first-team regular. With Barkley getting a full pre-season with the new manager unlike Loftus Cheek who was at the World Cup, things have only got tougher for Chelsea's academy starlet to make it. Not to forget, Chelsea had Barkley and Drinkwater who failed to make England's World Cup squad on their books while Loftus Cheek who did go to Russia was out on loan.
In truth, Ruben Loftus Cheek symbolizes everything wrong with the youth integration process at Chelsea. The youngster earned a promotion to the first team for the ill-fated 15/16 season where he barely got minutes. In Antonio Conte's first season in charge, the same story followed as Loftus Cheek barely got playing time. In the process, he lost two vital years of his career where his development stalled.
By signing players in his position, Chelsea has made life only tougher for Loftus Cheek in the squad. If Chelsea sign players like Jorginho and Kovacic who genuinely improve the team, nobody will complain. However, far too often that has not been the case at Chelsea.
The root cause of the problem comes down to the short-termism prevalent at the club. Firstly, the frequent changing of managers has done only harm to the youth's cause. Every coach is cautious to play young players at the start and no one has ever got the chance to slowly ease them in. Carlo Ancelotti and Andre Ville Boas did show the intention to the job but never got the time.
As pointed above, recruitment has always been short-sighted. The club keeps signing players for the short run ignoring the demands of the future. The executives at Stamford Bridge have repeatedly signed players in positions which a player from the academy or loan army could fill.
Lastly, the current problem is in the selection of players. At the moment Victor Moses is taking the minutes of Callum Hudson Odoi and Gary Cahill from Andreas Christensen and Ethan Ampadu. It does not take an expert to figure out that Victor Moses or Gary Cahill is not Chelsea's answer for the position. It is evident that both will soon leave Chelsea. However, the momentary preference for experience is hampering the growth of players that could potentially serve the club for more than a decade.
Wake up call
Over the past couple of years, Dominic Solanke left for Liverpool and Jonathan Panzo to A.S Monaco. If Chelsea continues running the way they have, this could only be a start of many academy players leaving the club. The most immediate concern is of Ruben Loftus Cheek and Andreas Christensen.
The most pressing is 17-year-old Callum Hudson Odoi. The youngster's current contract expires in 2020 and he is yet to sign a new one. If he continues to not get any playing time, its hard to see him the new deal as youngsters are getting smarter day by day.
Jadon Sancho's move to Borussia Dortmund has set an example for everyone. The former Manchester City youth player is of the same age and batch as Hudson-Odoi. Last season, Sancho made the brave decision to play his trade in Germany. Last week, he was rewarded with a call-up to the English national team after an incredible start to the season.
Sancho has shown that if English clubs are not willing to give their youngsters a chance, there is always the option of playing abroad. Do not be surprised if looking at a player of his same age featuring for the national team, Hudson-Odoi decided to make a similar move if he continues to struggle for minutes at Chelsea.
If Chelsea ends up losing Hudson-Odoi, it is surely a mistake they will live to regret. Anyone who has regularly watched him play at youth level and pre-season are aware that Odoi is a generational talent who is destined for greatness. Over the past few years, the decision to sell the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, and Mohamed Salah has come to hurt Chelsea. However, if a player from their own academy goes on to achieve similar or better things, the pain will be all the more. But that might just be the wake-up call, the club officials need
They are good enough
First and foremost, Chelsea needs to change their attitude towards young players. They need to believe players are "good enough" and not the opposite. If Ethan Ampadu can shine in an international match for his country, there is no reason to believe he cannot do the same for the club.
The most important thing is for Chelsea to give their academy stars a chance. Every player deserves a fair run rather than being judged on an odd appearance here or there. If a player cannot prove himself after getting enough opportunities then Chelsea must surely move on. If Chelsea can give big money signings like Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko endless opportunities despite regularly failing, why can't the club give the same to their own academy players?
A lot of these players have been at the club since the age of 8 or 9. They have grown up in and around the club and in most cases are genuine fans of the clubs. One thing that everyone can be sure about them is that their commitment levels to the badge will be greater than most. The club owes them a chance to prove themselves. Sometimes all they lack is an opportunity to prove their worth.
Also, the youngsters are a great way of saving money in transfer fees for the club. Instead of looking at them as a revenue source through loan fees and future sales, the club should view them as assets who can save money by not having to spend huge cash on acquiring first team players.
Why has any past academy player not made it big?
Yes, it is true that none of Chelsea's past academy graduates have gone to other clubs and become big names but that does not mean they were not good enough. For a lot of players like Josh McEachran, Chelsea wasted the formative age of their careers by barely giving them minutes or at loans where a player was not really going to develop. One must remember playing for a club like Chelsea around world class players and a high-quality coach is a different environment to what happens at lower division clubs.
What needs to change?
The most important thing is for the club to have a roadmap in how they plan to accommodate academy players into the first team. Something which is visibly not there at the moment. The first team head coach, academy director, youth team coaches, and the club officials should be on the same page for that to happen. For that to happen, the club needs to sign a director of football on a priority basis. It is surprising that Chelsea is yet to find a replacement for Micheal Emenalo despite almost a year passing since his departure.
Like the manager, even fans need to show more patience with younger players. Every fan needs to realize that no player is a finished product at such a tender age. At a young age, performances are bound to be inconsistent. Fans and media must avoid castigating after every mistake they made like Andreas Christensen was last year. Not every player is a Lionel Messi or Kylian Mbappe that take the football world by storm right from the start.