‘Chelsea wanted the world’s best youth academy… now our competitors are catching up’ – Blues academy chief
Over the past 15 years, Chelsea have been the dominant force in English youth football.
Their youth has won numerous trophies both domestically and abroad, most notably the FA Youth Cup in seven of the past 10 years (and that includes a record-equalling five in a row) and the Uefa Youth League twice, in consecutive seasons.
A large reason for the improvements of the academy came following Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea in 2003, with the owner overseeing the restructure in 2004 – coinciding with the Blues’ gradual move to their Cobham training ground.
The biggest criticism of Chelsea’s academy has been the lack of graduates making the first team. We have witnessed a pattern of young stars from these successful youth sides undergoing successive loan moves before being sold on.
But that pattern has been disrupted. During these past few years, Andreas Christensen, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi became full-time members of Chelsea’s first-team squad, the former two having returned after initially impressing on loan. And the 2019/20 season was a big step for Chelsea, with no fewer than 11 academy graduates involved in the Premier League for the first-team, including the aforementioned trio and a handful of others in cup competitions.
The transfer ban has helped, but it’s the pay-off of years of hard work some of Chelsea’s academy staff have put in at various age groups, and has set the Blues’ first-team up for the future. The man often given the highest praise for the growth of Chelsea’s academy is head of youth development, Neil Bath, who recently received the Premier League’s Eamonn Dolan Award in recognition of his work with young players at the club.
Bath was at Chelsea in 2004, when as part of a wider restructuring under Roman Abramovich – which also involved constructing the Cobham training ground in 2005 – they sought to establish an academy better than anywhere else on the planet.
“The ultimate goal is always to get players to the first-team,” he said at the launch of Chelsea’s new training app Perfect Play.
“When we restructured the whole academy, we spoke about having this vision to have the best academy in the world and we were miles from it.
“But what we wanted to do was break that down, and therefore we started to set ourselves some targets, going ‘OK, how do we get the best seven, eight, nine, 10-year-olds in London and the south east? How do we get the best coaches?’
“Because if we’ve got the best talent, and we’ve got the best coaches, we’re going to make ground. If we win trophies along the way, that’s great, but ultimately, it’s about getting players into Frank’s team.”
In the 2019/20 Premier League season, Chelsea gave playing time to 11 academy graduates, totalling 13,549 minutes. Mason Mount led the way, with 2,872, a tally bettered only by Cesar Azpilicueta and Kepa Arrizabalaga among the entire Chelsea squad. In terms of appearances, no one made more than Mount.
The 21-year-old’s fine season at Chelsea led to a senior England debut, which has since become six appearances and a first international goal during the Three Lions’ Euro 2020 qualifiers.
It is perhaps the brightest period for the England national team for quite some time, as Gareth Southgate has a host of youthful talent at his disposal to complement the more senior members of his squad. Since the start of the 2019/20 season, 23 different players have been used at some point during England’s six games. Of those 23, 11 were 23 and under at the time of the games, including four current Chelsea players and another who spent time in the academy, Declan Rice.
Elsewhere, the likes of Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood have also been impressing in the Premier League recently and are backed for long and successful England careers, as other club’s have raised their game to combat the dominance of Chelsea’s development squad.
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“I think we (England) have gone a long way in a short period,” Bath continued.
“FA, Premier League, clubs and national teams are lot tighter than I can remember. It’s a bit like our own academy, probably 12 to 15 years ago, we restructured and went off, and we knew we were on a journey.
“And in recent years, other clubs have gone ‘oh hang on, wait a minute, Chelsea have gone like that’, and all of a sudden I’m looking around to our competitors and they’re catching up in staff structure and facilities.
“And that makes good competition for the national game.”
It was actually Greenwood who put an end to Chelsea’s domination of the FA Youth Cup in 2018/19, when the teenager scored a hat-trick for Manchester United in a 4-3 third-round win. It was the Blues’ first defeat in the competition for over six years, but the Red Devils would be knocked out in the next round, with Manchester City and Liverpool contesting a final won by the current Premier League champions.
It is Man City who have been Chelsea’s closest competitors at youth level. They lost three consecutive finals to the Blues but were comfortably close as the top two academies in the country during that same period. Despite the defeats between 2015 and 2017, Man City’s squads have included the likes of world superstar Jadon Sancho and Foden alongside a number of young English players still tipped to do good things in the game. Their club youth sides will rival each other to silverware, but the national team are winners across the board.
Bath added: “Recently we’ve spoken about Chelsea academy success, but the FA teams, the national teams have done fantastic in youth development. And ourselves, and other clubs, I remember many years ago when we were playing European tournaments, we never really got into any stages of it, now we’re winning Uefa Champions Leagues at under-19s.
“I think we’ve going in the right direction as a country, it will always be tough. The Premier League is the biggest league in the world, we’ll always have our challenges of getting into the men’s first team, but hopefully there’s more coaches like Frank that are willing to give them the chance.”
New Chelsea app lets you follow training programmes that helped develop Mason Mount
Bath was speaking alongside a number of Chelsea representatives at the launch of Chelsea’s new training app Perfect Play.
Developed with and used by the Chelsea academy, Perfect Play “provides access to professional standard, world-class coaching for all. For the first time, footballers of any ability can undertake training designed by the same coaching team behind many successful Chelsea and England players including Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fikayo Tomori, Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
This means access to the same drills the likes of Mount and Abraham developed their game using. Training games included have been designed to develop abilities including agility, dribbling, passing, shooting, strength and resilience.
“The training programme the academy created gave me the core physical and mental skills that I use every time I play,” said Mount, whose youth ability recently resurfaced with a video of him scoring a free-kick.
— Mason Mount (@masonmount_10) July 26, 2020
Abraham added: “To be able to put that knowledge and expertise into an app is incredible. I wish I had this opportunity when I was younger.”
One of the key figures in creating the app is Sam Page, the under-11 and 12s head coach at Chelsea who trained Mount and Abraham among many others, and also performs a role as the digital player development coach.
“Something that in the academy we’re really passionate about is this idea around being able to offer the expertise and the great coaching that we provide in the elite environment, to aspirational footballers across the world, whether they’re a Chelsea fan or not,” Page said.
“We’re primarily training technical outcome, ball mastering for instance but actually we’re also trying to train perseverance and focus.”
Chelsea are the first academy to have produced their own training app for the public, with product owner Steve Didd saying: “What makes us unique is this advanced player technology that we have, combined with the elite academy that’s at Chelsea, and bringing that together to deliver that experience, there’s nothing else like it as far as we know.”