A contribution piece from Pratik Mistry

Negligible integration of players from the academy to Chelsea first team is a burning question and perhaps one of the most debated topics among Chelsea fans on social media. The conflict between the vision of fans and Chelsea board has never allowed this debate to reach a conclusive closure.

Academy infrastructure was improved by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, but the end result has always remained questionable. Since, John Terry’s integration to the first-team, no other player from academy migrated to the first-team with continuity spread over multiple seasons. 

Let us see reasons from the perspective of the fans, the board and the players themselves, which is very specific to operations followed by Chelsea Football Club.

REASON ONE – CONTINUITY AND CONSISTENCY

Continuity and Consistency are two important aspects which every young player should demonstrate at the senior level. A young player initially should be patient and give 100% whenever he has the chance to be involved in the first-team.

Few academy players channelized their vision towards consistency and improvisation on the pitch. John Terry not the most naturally gifted in terms of pace but aligned his positional sense & leadership skills to cover the shortfall in pace. 

ExampleDominic Solanke
Solanke did not want to compete with Diego Costa & Michy Batshuayi for a spot in the first-team. 2015 academy player of year voluntarily opted against renewing his contract. He lacked the willingness to commit against best possible opportunity given by the club as the third-choice striker in the first-team at such a young age.

Conclusion
A young player willing to play for the first-team must focus on capitalising given opportunities rather than dictating terms & conditions of first-team team assurances.

REASON TWO – DEVELOPMENT FOR COMMERCIAL PROFIT

Chelsea loan system works for the professional development of young players in a way which profitable for the club from a purely monetary perspective. Players who perform colossal on loan allows the club to enhance their market value. Top performers on loan are then sold to other clubs on huge profits. This model may look beneficial for generating revenue, but the profit is nullified when the revenue is used in signing average senior players. 

Example – The likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah, Bertrand Traoré and Thorgan Hazard. All players mentioned were nurtured with systematic loan planning and were sold to make heavy profits. These players had proved their metal to fill up positions in the first-team team on which Chelsea did not have impactful players.

REASON THREE – INCORRECT TIMING & LONG-TERM INJURIES

Timing is a crucial aspect which in 90% cases decides that an academy player will become a first-team player or not, with the Chelsea hierarchy being very inconsistent in promoting an on-loan player at the correct time. A player, who spends one or two excellent seasons on loan and is on his peak of form and injury-free, must not be sent on further loans. 

Examples of this are the following –

Marco van Ginkel – captained PSV Eindhoven to win the Eredivisie twice and was at the peak of his form. Chelsea lacked a ‘complete’ midfielder during the period of 2015-16 and 2017-18. Jose Mourinho described MvG as an engine with immense physical power.

“He covers a fantastic area of the field defensively and after that he has this instinct where he wants to go into finishing areas, he wants to score goals. He’s very good in the air.”

– Jose Mouringo on Marco van Ginkel

van Ginkel should have been integrated at the correct time after he recovered from his first knee injury.

Miroslav Stoch – won the Eredivisie on loan at FC Twente in the 2009-10 season, scoring ten goals. He could have been a great asset on wings in the 2010-11 season when we struggled due to the absence of quick and direct wingers. He went on to win the Süper Lig and also is a full Slovakian International.

Jamal Blackman – a 6’6” homegrown, goalkeeper played his breakthrough season in 2017-18 at Sheffield United where the Blades finished tenth and Jamal kept nine clean sheets in 33 games. Chelsea could have made a bold move to make him second-choice GK for 2018-19 season instead of keeping a 35-year-old GK in the team. 

Marcin Bułka – a similar case to Jamal Blackman except for the injury part. Marcin being a vocal keeper could have been an excellent back-up keeper in terms of his leadership skills. The signing of Kepa Arrizabalaga disrupted his trust in club and retaining Willy Caballero further compounded that thought. 

Todd Kane – a homegrown defensively stable right back with good crossing abilities. Kane vice-captained at NEC Nijmegen in the Eredivisie (2015-16) and had 31 appearances before an ACL injury sidelined him till July 2017. Instead of Kane getting integrated as back-up to Victor Moses, Davide Zappacosta was signed in 2017-18, which has turned out to be a less impactful signing.

Lucas Piazon – the 2012 Chelsea Young Player of the Year almost won the Eredivisie with Vitesse Arnhem (2013-14), when Vitesse was in contention from for the title until the last few weeks of the season. With Piazon scoring eleven goals, he should have been one of the wingers for the 2014-15 season behind Eden Hazard, André Schürrle & Willian, instead of signing Juan Cuadrado.

Lewis Baker – the most technically-gifted midfielder in the Chelsea academy, two-footed and a genuine set-piece threat. Baker was the young player of the year in 2014. From 2015 to 2017, he played 73 games for Vitesse and scored 20 goals, winning the Dutch FA cup. In absence of an agile midfielder in 2017-18, we still loaned Baker to the EFL Championship which was the wrong choice.

REASON FOUR – AVERAGE SIGNINGS FOR BENCH/SQUAD DEPTH

Chelsea board believes bench strength will only increase if you sign a senior player. Even if the senior player is average and adequate, there is an argument for that they are squad players available in the academy to complete the bench. It leads to long-term recruitment of £30m, average players who charge high wages, which leads to funds not being available for the manager/coach to make genuine, quality signings.

Examples of this are the following –

Ryan Bertrand – won the UEFA Champions League and Europa League in back-to-back seasons as a first-team player, but was then surprisingly sent on loan for the next two season. In both seasons, there was a scope of him being included as back-up left-back, but César Azpilicueta played as left-back both seasons. Eventually, with the departures of both Ashley Cole and Felipe Luiz, the left-back position became problematic in 2015-16 and Chelsea had to spend a fortune on another average signing in Baba Rahman.

Similarly for Patrick Van Aanholt, who has represented Sunderland and Crystal Palace in the Premier League since 2014 and is now a full Dutch international.

Jay Dasilva – did exceptionally well at Charlton Athletic and Bristol City, before being surprisingly sold to the Robins this summer without getting a chance at the first-team.

Ola Aina – capable of playing at both left and right-back, Aina has genuine pace and proved his calibre on loan at Hull City and Torino before was sold outright to Torino after an option to buy was included in his loan contract. He could easily replace Zappacosta or Marcos Alonso in the first-team.

Robert Huth – a classic case when there was a shortage of centre-backs in the 2006-07 season, after William Gallas’ acrimonious departure to Arsenal. Chelsea signed Khalid Boulahrouz & Tal Ben Haim, whilst letting Huth go.

Tomáš Kalas – had everything to be an accomplished centre-back in the Premier League. Every Chelsea fan remembers him for his brilliant performance at Anfield against Liverpool in the 2013-14 season and with that in mind, he should have become a squad choice the following season for Terry, Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma.

Nathaniel Chalobah – a bizarre decision from all parties involved. Chelsea signed Tiémoué Bakayoko & Danny Drinkwater on high wages and this created unrest in mind of Chalobah, which made him pursue a permanent transfer away from the club.

Patrick Bamford and Jeremy Boga – two attack-minded players that never got a genuine opportunity. Boga without getting a fair shot at the first-team, was sold to Serie A side Sassuolo. His ability to get past people would have helped the 3-5-2 system of Antonio Conte a great deal. Bamford, on the other hand, was scoring goals for fun in the Championship, but he never got chance even as a back-up striker for the first-team.

Conclusion
Transfer funds should only be used for exceptional talents like Eden Hazard. Balanced bench strength can only come from academy players who did have successful loan spells. Signing an average squad player from outside will make young players think that the club does not trust in their abilities.

REASON FIVE – NOT ACTIVATING ‘BUY-BACK’ AND/OR ‘FIRST-REFUSAL’ CLAUSES

Chelsea usually does not include buy-back or first refusal clauses on permanent transfers of talented young players who cannot be accommodated in the first-team. But the club should do so more often as the clauses can be seen as a crucial, strategic option to not lose the player permanently and still allow him time to develop. 

REASON SIX – SHORT-TERM MINDSET, NOT LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE

Since Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea back in 2003, the club has been very successful, winning trophy after trophy, pretty much every season. Because of this, the club has not felt that they needed a long-term plan/project to be put in place and be integrated (until this season) as they expect the success to continue.

The truth is is that no club can guarantee and should expect constant success every season, it’s almost impossible to do so.

REASON SEVEN – LACK OF AN ‘IDENTITY’, POOR LOAN STRATEGY AND IMPROPER USE OF STATISTICAL DATA

Chelsea as a club has never had an identity in terms of a fixed footballing philosophy. With the shifting of coaches, philosophies have always been changed.

Having a long-term philosophy, along with a long-term coach who has the patience of the board and the backing to implement the changes needed, is something that Chelsea have needed for a while. Arguably since the day after they won the Champions League, you could say.

Sticking to a mindset, a philosophy, an identity… across the entire club – from the academy and development squads to the first-team, is something that needs to be implemented into the club and be seen as part of the ‘mindset’ of Chelsea going forward.

This is also needed when sending players on loan (sending them to the right club, not just any club) and also when reading and analysing statistical data at the club’s Cobham training complex.

IN CONCLUSION

With everything that has been discussed and highlighted, the following points should be noted and seen as important for the club (as well as people not directly connected to the club) going into the future…

  • Integration of academy players to the first-team is always different from the vision of a fan, coach and a player.
  • Any academy player must have a strong desire to play for Chelsea, otherwise, it’s best to let them go as soon as possible.
  • Players getting developed on loan must be considered for the first-team when returning from their loan spell away, instead of selling them for monetary gain (but only if the player is good enough to play for the first-team).
  • Any academy player that is showing great signs of development and talent must be integrated into the first-team, no matter the timing or how old they are.
  • Improvised use of buy-back clauses to be done for retention of talent.
  • Statistical training data must be given more importance when discussing and analysing the development of any academy/loan player, but not be seen as the final, definitive source to determine as to whether that player is good enough to play for Chelsea.
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