by Tom Lees - 4th December 2015
Since Roman Abramovich completed his takeover of Chelsea Football Club in June 2003, the club have come under scrutiny and critique regarding their use, or lack of, the young talent within their academy system. A system that has been heavily financed without anything really to show for it, the last academy prospect to actually progress into a regular first team role was John Terry.
The club has gone to extreme lengths to bring in quality youth players to the younger sides, the transfer of Gaël Kakuta almost cost the club a transfer embargo. A player who wasn’t given a chance in the Chelsea first team and now has a contract with Sevilla. Also famously Ken Bates took Chelsea to task regarding their ‘poaching’ of Leeds starlets Michael Woods and Tom Taiwo in 2006. These deals cost Chelsea £5m in compensation in order to appease Bates. Neither player would go on to represent the first team and now ply their trade for Hartlepool and Falkirk respectively. So what went wrong with these players, were Taiwo, Woods and Kakuta just not up to scratch? Poorly scouted? Or just plainly let down by the club?
Well Gaël Kakuta would find himself sent out on loan to Fulham, Bolton, Dijon, Vitesse, Lazio and Rayo Vallecano before Chelsea eventually allowed him to leave permanently this summer. His season with Rayo was highly successful and it must have been disappointing for the player to still not be given a chance upon his return to London. The careers of Woods and Taiwo perhaps highlight the bigger issue, when looking at the third Leeds player that Chelsea tried to sign at the same time, Danny Rose.
Not long after Woods and Taiwo left, Tottenham came in to take Danny Rose away from Elland Road. Spurs would go on to utilise the loan system correctly and offer the player the first team football required to develop, Danny Rose is now an England International. Chelsea did not utilise the loan system properly, did not offer first team football and both Woods and Taiwo would drop into the lower leagues unnoticed. A case of ‘what could have been’ for both players. A tale that, once highly touted midfielder, Josh McEachran also knows only too well.
So how are Chelsea misusing the loan system? Well according to the clubs Wikipedia page, they currently have 33 players on loan at other clubs, this doesn’t come across as loans with a plan, more a scatter gun approach to find players somewhere to play. What benefit do any of these loans have for the players involved, history shows that even if a loan is successful that the player is not then given a proper chance in the first team, instead expensive players honed elsewhere take up the roles in the squad. Romelu Lukaku, Victor Moses, Daniel Sturridge and Patrick Bamford are all examples of this. The only real example of a recent loan success story was that of Thibaut Courtois, this was not a standard loan, as the young keeper would spend 3 successive seasons at Atlético Madrid. Ironically Atlético are the club that Chelsea should look to as an example of how to properly utilise the loan system.
A few years back Atlético Madrid earmarked their top 3 youngsters coming through the system, Saúl Níguez, Javier Manquillo and prize jewel Óliver Torres. All three had played the odd game for the Madrid club, but head coach Diego Simeone would have educational plans for them away from La Liga. Saúl Níguez would spend a season at Rayo Vallecano, here he learnt the necessary duties required by a Simeone side, team work, maximum effort and covering the shortcomings of the Rayo defence. It may have seemed a thankless task for the youngster as the side leaked goals, but upon his return to Vicente Calderón he was immediately thrust into the first eleven in the Madrid derby. Óliver Torres spent the 2014/15 season at FC Porto, becoming the focal point of the Portuguese giant’s midfield, learning to use his extreme talents in a high pressure environment. Óliver Torres shone at Porto, then like Saúl before him, upon his return to Atlético he was put straight into the first team. Javier Manquillo is proving to be a longer project, originally loaned to Liverpool his game time was cut short due to a change in tactics, this season he has instead been sent to Ligue 1 to earn further experience with Olympique Marseille. Manquillo will no doubt be pushing for Juanfrans right back spot upon his eventual return to Madrid. Here’s the key in these moves, when they return after success, they go into the team, and this is not something that happens at Stamford Bridge.
It’s not as if the talent hasn’t been there either, since 2010 the youth teams have claimed the Premier Reserve League National title, Barclays U21 Premier League title, 4 FA Youth Cup success’s and the UEFA Youth League in 2015. Top prospects such as Nathan Aké, Andreas Christensen, Lewis Baker, John Swift, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Dominic Solanke have not been given the minutes they deserve. Ruben Loftus-Cheek looked like he could have been the one, but was publicly criticised by manager José Mourinho and since then his chances have been limited. Loftus-Cheek incidentally first came to the public’s attention when he signed a £1.7m a year contract at the age of just 17.
So does the manager have to shoulder the blame for this, I appreciate that other managers have come and gone at Stamford Bridge, but José Mourinho is the only one with the personality and backing to enforce a change in ideology within the setup. André Villas-Boas attempted to make changes and was quickly hounded out. Can Mourinho bring through the youngsters and set them to the next level? Of course he can, he’s a world class coach. Will he do it? History tells us no. The open criticism of Loftus-Cheek shows us that Jose is not really looking at developing players, rather than focussing on short term success. In my opinion if the player had been backed rather than pushed away, he would probably be in line for an International call up by now. Of course that club success has come with the Premiership title in 2014/15, but continued success requires a plan. Chelsea are no longer the biggest spenders in the league, buying ready-made stars is harder than ever, competition for the World’s best is tough and Chelsea can’t always shop at Waitrose at José once quipped.
Mourinho has also recently made a bold statement regarding three of the clubs young prospects, in July 2014 he was interviewed by a National newspaper and claimed that if Lewis Baker, Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke do not play for England, the blame would fall on him. A grand thing to say, sure to boost the confidence of all three players in question. Incidentally these players are all currently on loan at Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivisie. A club that annually homes a number of Chelsea loanees, but the success rate is minimal. Recent seasons have seen Wallace, Josh McEachran, Sam Hutchinson, Christian Atsu, Cristian Cuevas, Lucas Piazón, Bertrand Traoré, Gaël Kakuta, Tomás Kalas, Ulises Dávila and Patrick van Aanholt gain experience for Vitesse, none of whom went on to succeed at the Blues. Will it be a different case for Baker, Solanke and Brown, a betting man would say no, it probably won’t. Is this Mourinhos way of progressing their careers, or is he passing the buck to Vitesse.
People will argue the point as to why change a successful structure, last season brought back silverware, why risk failure with a bunch of unproven kids? Well as I write this Chelsea sit 14th in the Premier League, 5 points above the relegation zone, this is the ideal season to make big changes. I’m going to go off on a little bit of a tangent here, but this current Chelsea remind me in a way of former wrestling promotion WCW towards the end of their tenure. A strange comparison yes, but hear me out.
WCW in the mid to late 90’s spent big money to take the top talent from rival promotions WWF and ECW, to put on a quality product and win ratings. This was achieved, the roster was full of quality performers, a number of experienced big names and exciting crowd pleasers that put bums on seats. However, towards the end of the 90’s and early 2000’s the problems began to rise, the old names were still in the spotlight, earning too much money and having far too much influence of the direction of the business. Younger, more exciting talent was held back until they would eventually leave to ply their trade elsewhere. Discontent would grow throughout the roster, a few poor management decisions came and went, private disagreements came out in the public eye, fans stopped tuning in as the quality of the product dropped and they ended up going out of business in 2001. Similarities can be drawn with the goings on at Stamford Bridge, old heads having too much say, public disputes that should remain private, young stars being held back, old stars keeping their spot despite poor performance. It’s uncanny, all it needs is one of the star names to go full Hulk Hogan and be outed as an alleged sexual deviant with a past guilt of racial abuse… oh wait hang on..
So what do I think should happen? Well I’m going to stick with my WCW comparison, yes I’m flogging that dead horse as much as I can. Experts say that if the Company had built around their top guy, Bill Goldberg, and promoted the top young talents like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho and Mysterio around him, then the business could have thrived. Slowly move out the old heads that could no longer perform and bring the talent through. Chelsea wouldn’t go far wrong in doing that, build the team around Eden Hazard, a genuinely World class talent. Bring through the likes of Loftus-Cheek, Aké, Baker, Swift and Solanke. The fans could get behind it, the players are good enough and there is enough additional class in the likes of Courtois, Oscar and Diego Costa to keep the team performing at the top level.
This of course won’t happen, in the January transfer window Chelsea will spend again and another generation of young stars will be left to try and save their careers before too many year’s drift away. Looking at the Chelsea squad of today, what are the likes of Papy Djilobodji, Baba Rahman, Jon Obi Mikel and Loïc Rémy providing that Aké, Christensen, Baker and Solanke can’t? What is the purpose in having the best youth team in Europe if you have no plan to use the talent within it, it will be interesting to see what happens at Stamford Bridge this season, especially if the club does not qualify for next seasons Champions League. Will it mean a management change, will it mean a philosophy change, and will the next golden generation actually get a chance to shine, only time will tell.