Speaking about the academy at Chelsea.F.C can be a bittersweet experience at best. For those who’d like to look at it as ‘glass half full’ – a complete overhaul of the academy since Roman Abramovich’s takeover and continued subsequent investment into it means that all’s going quite well. Those who sit at the higher echelons of the club see reason for investment even if the success rate isn’t the highest yet. The work that Chelsea is putting into academy development is highly regarded around Europe and indeed, around the world. The club’s training ground at Cobham has rightly been touted as one of the best facilities to train at, and its wide network of scouts means that Chelsea has access to the best talents around the world.
Peter Kenyon, the former club chief, had boldly proclaimed in 2005 that the club would produce one player per season for the first team squad. That fairly unrealistic expectation hasn’t quite yet materialized. However, the academy could do better. It should not be seen as an outright failure because there are signs of progress every year. But it cannot be called a success yet either.
It is essential that the philosophies of the first team and the academy are in sync for the academy to breed players for the first team, and it is here that Chelsea has failed to find a harmony. There is an evident clash in policies that dictate the first team (‘Trophy First’ mentality) and the academy (Patient development). Even the footballing styles of the squads are markedly different – The first team, as has been highlighted by the recent Champions League win, at best demonstrates defensive steel and resilience instilled at its core by Chelsea’s beloved, Jose Mourinho. Whereas the Youth and the Reserve teams exhibit a more technical, expansive kind of football, thanks to ideologies put in place by Chelsea’s many Dutch connections and Roman Abramovich’s ‘supposed’ obsession with Barcelona. While the first team is largely made up of imposing physical players capable of bullying opponents out of play, Chelsea’s youth coffers are full of smaller, technically more capable and aware players.
One of the reasons teams like Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United find it easier to integrate youngsters into their first teams is because their philosophy transcends across all levels and makes stepping up a lot more smoother. At Chelsea, so far a youngster came up playing a certain way, only to be told to adapt to a different mentality when it is time to step up to the first team. This, coupled with a revolving door at the manager’s cabin and mismanagement at the highest level, means that the route to the first team becomes a lot more difficult for the hopefuls. However, it seems like steps are being taken to establish coherence and one look at the players the club has brought so far – Marko Marin and Eden Hazard, shows that Chelsea are looking for players who bring imagination and flair to the table. This bodes well for the youngsters who will come through and knock at the door.
Chelsea’s youth players who like to play with the ball at their feet, indulge in the odd trickery, interchange and combine in quick one-two’s are more likely to find their feet playing alongside Mata, Hazard or Hulk(?) rather than, with all due respect – Kalou, Malouda or Anelka. Having said that, changing the way the first team plays is just one step of many. There is a structure in place at the club which should start proving its efficiency very soon, should all go well for the first team in the coming years. For, stability and sufficient success are key elements necessary for the youth structure to follow through with quality products.
Let us take a look at the men who helped establish the structure at Chelsea at first -
As has been mentioned earlier, the club’s Dutch connections have hugely helped it with regards to establishing the academy philosophy. That is possibly the only similarity that Chelsea shares with the club everyone in Europe seeks to emulate with regards to youth – F.C.Barcelona.
Piet De Visser – The man credited with scouting Luis Ronaldo is a personal adviser of Roman Abramovich’s and is said to be scouting for the Chelsea since 2005 in an unofficial capacity. Having played for Dutch clubs De Zeeuwen, RCH and Zeeland Sport, De Visser then went on to coach several clubs before ending up at PSV Eindhoven as head scout. Notable and documented contributions to Chelsea include having recommended the signings of Arjen Robben, John Obi Mikel, Salomon Kalou and most recently was quoted saying he scouted Kevin De Bruyne for two years before Chelsea signed the player. His most significant contribution to Chelsea would be the recommendation of the often wrongly maligned ex-footballing director, Frank Arnesen.
Frank Arnesen – Arnesen is a Dane by heart but Dutch in the head. As a player, he most notably played with Dutch clubs Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, winning the 1988 European Cup with PSV. It is reasonable to suggest that the iconic Dutch clubs had a huge bearing upon his footballing mentality and he brought his decade long experience in scouting (with PSV as technical director), not to Chelsea but Tottenham first. Chelsea secured his services after paying a reported fee of 8m pounds as compensation to their North London rivals.
Bringing in the Dutch Flavour
Much of the youth footballing philosophy has been implemented by Frank Arnesen since he took over as technical director at the club. The club predominantly uses a 4 – 3 – 3 formation today. As mentioned above, the recruitment strategy of acquiring technically smarter, smaller players was brought about by Frank Arnesen and he also had to ensure that the ideology was transferred across well to the coaches who were already at Chelsea when he arrived. One can say that he has been successful to a certain extent because the club slowly but surely, produced three marvelous squads at Youth Level. One that reached the finals of the Youth Cup, and two others that eventually won it. While individual development takes precedence over winning silverware at the youth level, the success nevertheless demonstrates that there is phenomenal potential within the club. The U-15 group coming through at Chelsea now has players who have been at the club since 2005, making them the first batch to completely develop their footballing talents the ‘Arnesen’ way.
Frank Arnesen however deemed his work complete when he and his trusted lieutenant, the 38 year old head scout Lee Congerton, left for Hamburger SV in search of a fresh challenge. And in hindsight it may yet prove to be true, for the club might yet reap rewards of his work in the coming years.
Like the manager’s position at Chelsea, the technical director’s position is never too far away from controversy. Post Arnesen’s departure, the club was linked to Louis Van Gaal, Txiki Begiristain (Former Barca) and even Guus Hiddink for the post of technical director. The job however ended going to Micheal Emenalo, whose CV pales in comparison to the other illustrious candidates linked to the post.
Micheal Emenalo – For a club aiming to rule European Football, Emenalo’s appointment simply doesn’t add up. He hasn’t had a distinguished playing career as such, was involved in Obi Mikel’s hugely controversial transfer from Lyn Oslo and reports that his last coaching assignment was to coach an U- 12 girls team, before taking up work at Chelsea did nothing to alleviate fears of the Chelsea faithful. However, to suggest that he would have worked his way up merely by exerting charm or influence would be churlish at best. And so far, the club has done well with regards to player recruitment since his appointment. Maybe they wanted a man who could continue Arnesen’s work, perhaps Chelsea.F.C didn’t want somebody who would try to change too much. Does that mean a yes man? Time will tell.
Mike Forde – Joined Chelsea in 2007 from Bolton as Performance Director and came in with his credentials well established as one of the main men responsible for Bolton cementing their status as one of the Premier League teams and was also responsible for selling Bolton’s ambitions as a club, to Nicholas Anelka, who at the time was looking to leave Fenerbahce.
Neil Bath – Having joined the Chelsea schoolboys as a part time coach in 1993, Neil Bath has been at the club for almost two decades now and deservedly holds his post as Academy Director today. He is the man responsible for overlooking all of the work that goes on right from the age groups of eight and up to the reserve team.
A call-out goes to the coaches – Dermot Drummy (Reserve team manager) and Adi Viveash (Youth team manager). There are a plethora of other names that contribute to youth development at Chelsea.F.C performing many other roles; you can find them here.
An introduction to the academy cannot be complete without speaking about its players, so to conclude, we shall take a quick look at five highly regarded prospects from the current youth cup winning Chelsea team.
Jamal Blackman – The nineteen year old shot stopper also plays with the England U- 19 team and is already 6ft 5in tall. Despite his height, his reflexes are extremely sharp and his positioning is improving by the day. He has been called up to train with the first team on several occasions and goal keeping coach Christophe Lollichon mentions his large wingspan as one of his key strengths. Plenty of patience (a la Ryan Bertrand) would be key for the young keeper as Chelsea do possess significant depth and quality in this position.
Nathaniel Chalobah – The Captain of the youth team is also a regular at reserve level and is used to playing well above his age group. His positional sense and calm style of play remains his strongest attributes, although he is prone to lapses in concentration on occasion. Chalobah is equally adept at playing center back or as a defensive midfielder because of his quality on the ball and is earmarked as one of the finest prospects to emerge through at Chelsea in recent times.
Stamford Bridge Calling?
Todd Kane – The right back is blessed with boundless energy and loves to venture forward at every given opportunity. A quick search on Youtube would reveal that Toddy Kane also loves to take his shots and score some truly spectacular goals. Like every full back his age, he needs to work on balancing his attacking instincts with his primary defensive commitments, but there is potential there for Chelsea to work with.
Lucas Piazon – A Brazilian signed from Sao Paolo, Lucas Piazon ended his campaign by winning the ‘Young player of the year’ award at Chelsea. Piazon is unlike your typical Brazilian player. His style is more European and he has a highly refined technique. He looks similar to Kaka but plays a style that is closer to Chelsea’s Juan Mata. He’s also a player who unflinchingly works hard for his team and seems to be able to make the right decisions when required. Lucas’ reward for a good season was to gain a spot on the first team bench on the final day against Blackburn at Stamford Bridge, a highlight upon which he’d hope to improve in future.
Islam Feruz – Singed from Scottish Club Celtic after much furore, Feruz settled into Chelsea with relative ease and scored 12 goals in 21 appearances for the Youth Team. They call him the Scottish Wayne Rooney because of his stocky build and electric pace, also Feruz has the finish to boot. The comparisons to Rooney however are primarily because of style and not ability. At this stage, the idea is simply to develop and placing unfair expectations would be unfair.
Written by Vignesh Iyer