Chelsea’s youth teams have been dominant for several years now, ever since considerable improvements were made to their youth set-up when Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003. So why hasn’t a player from the academy become a first team regular since John Terry?
John Terry, captain, leader, legend. Without doubt the best defender in the club’s history and the most successful captain in the history of the Premier League. He’s also the last player to come through Chelsea’s youth team and progress to being a first team regular. Any number of players who’ve lit up the FA Youth cup or the development leagues have had the moniker of “Next John Terry”, “Next Frank Lampard” but none have delivered the goods. In recent years players such as Josh McEachron, Patrick Bamford, Michael Mancienne and Gael Kakuta have all been labelled as the future of the club, not only has neither player nailed down a first team place but none are even still at the club. The latest crop of young players coming through the system include Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathaniel Chalobah, both who’ve made first team starts this season, but still not on a regular basis.
Surely some of the fault must lay with Mr Abramovich and his need for instant success. The managers Chelsea employ are put under tremendous pressure from the owner to win silverware and so, rather than take a risk giving youngsters a chance, they go out and spend millions on players supposedly ready-made for the first team.
The transfer policy Chelsea has adopted has seen massive fees paid, ultimately for players that haven’t made the grade at the club.
Obviously, some have been a success, but more have been failures. This approach over their transfer dealings has even seen Nemanja Matic move on from the club, as part of the deal to bring in David Luiz, to get more game time in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, only to be bought back two seasons later for £21 million. In similar circumstances Romelu Lukaku, still only twenty-four, has been linked with being brought back to Chelsea for £70m after being sold by Jose Mourinho for £28m in 2014.
Similarly, Chelsea’s need for instant success has seen several top talents move on and completely slip from their grasp. Kevin de Bruyne was bought for £6.7m in 2012 and only made three appearances for the first team before being sent out on loan to Werder Bremen and then sold to VfL Wolfsburg the following season despite impressing for Bremen. After two seasons in Germany Manchester City paid a club record £55m to bring de Bruyne back to the Premier League. Other players arguably sold on prematurely include Ryan Bertrand, now an England international, Romelu Lukaku, as mentioned already linked with a return, and Oriol Remeu who is impressing at Southampton.
This year has seen Chelsea spend £33m on Michy Batshuayi who, despite scoring the goal which secured the league title for Chelsea, has spent most of the season on the bench while Diego Costa plays the lone forward role. Meanwhile Tammy Abraham has been on loan at Bristol City, scoring twenty-three goals for a side who’ve narrowly avoided relegation from the Championship. If Abraham is good enough to score that many goals for a team struggling in a tough league then surely he’s good enough for a place on Chelsea’s bench.
The loan system has its uses and can be extremely beneficial for players learning their trade but, conversely, some players will benefit more from being in and around the first team and learning from the better players they train with every day. Dele Alli is a perfect example of this. After coming through the youth system at MK Dons he was quickly promoted to their first team and after two full seasons playing League 1 football earned himself a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs could’ve sent Alli on loan to a Championship club but instead he went straight into the first team squad where he trained every day with established midfielders such as Moussa Dembele and Christian Eriksen. Alli is now spoken of as one of the best midfielders in Europe, of any age. Would Tammy Abraham have been better suited spending this season with Chelsea and training with the likes of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, one can only wonder as every player’s progress happens at a different pace.
To get the most from the loan system players should be sent to a club of the appropriate level to their ability. One player Chelsea have got this right with is Nathan Ake. Having spent the 2015/16 season with Watford and the start of this season with Bournemouth he’s gained both first team football and Premier League experience. His performances on the south coast convinced Antonio Conte to cut short Ake’s loan deal in January and bring him back to Chelsea for the final few months of the season despite having John Terry and Kurt Zouma as back up to Gary Cahill and David Luiz. Ake might only have a handful of first team appearances for Chelsea but it appears Conte is willing to give him a chance to cement a place in his starting eleven for next season, and considering Chelsea will also have European competition next season, the question is whether Ake will feature regularly for the Blues while he attempts to follow in John Terry’s famous footsteps?