Chelsea have frequently come under criticism for not using enough young players, and in the past it has been a valid point.
The Blues boast one of the best academies in Europe, with their youth squads winning the Uefa Youth League twice on top of dominating the FA Youth Cup with seven wins from the past 10 seasons. Last season ended Chelsea’s run of five consecutive Youth Cup wins which started in 2013/14 and featured many of the club’s brightest young stars.
But over the years these players have been starved of first-team action as Chelsea have often preferred to look to the transfer market to bolster their squad; a result of the club’s high standards and quest for glory – though not a valid excuse.
With no space for them at Chelsea, young players have often been sent out on various loan spells, another point of criticism for the west London club. Last season, the Blues had 41 players out on loan at one point, with mostly young stars being sent across Europe. Most saw this as Chelsea trying to add value to young players who they had no plans of using before selling for a profit. But 2019 brought a change.
As punishment for breaching rules on signing young players, Chelsea were handed a two-window transfer ban by Fifa in February 2019. The initial ruling said that the Blues would not be able to sign anyone until June 2020, effectively leaving them to work with the players they had at their disposal. For a squad that needed restructuring and with Eden Hazard on his way to Real Madrid, things looked bleak for Chelsea. But it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Promoting from within
Before Chelsea looked at rebuilding their squad, they needed to sort out the man who would pick the team. With Maurizio Sarri opting to join Juventus after just one season at Chelsea, the Blues appointed their all-time record goalscorer Frank Lampard as his replacement.
Lampard, who spent 13 years as a player at Chelsea, brought Jody Morris and Joe Edwards in as his assistants and that was an early sign of things to come. Morris and Edwards were the dynamite pairing for Chelsea in their FA Youth Cup domination with the latter overseeing work at across various youth levels at the club before being promoted under Lampard.
This had fans excited as they had watched certain loanees thriving away from the club in positions Chelsea really needed to strengthen in. And Lampard wasted little time in making a difference.
Lampard’s first competitive XI as a Chelsea manager saw three academy graduates starting, two of whom had been out on loan last season.
Andreas Christensen partnered a returning loanee Kurt Zouma in defence while Mason Mount was part of the trio playing behind leading man Tammy Abraham.
There had been a lot of excitement surrounding Abraham after his 26 goals for Aston Villa last season. But there were also fears as the Englishman took the supposedly cursed no.9 shirt on top of a previous struggle in the Premier League with Swansea City. These fears weren’t helped by his frustrating afternoon in front of goal during a 4-0 defeat to Manchester United but the promise was there for the optimists to see, and Lampard clearly saw it.
Since that day, Abraham has scored 15 goals for Chelsea across all competitions including 13 in the Premier League with only Jamie Vardy (17), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Marcus Rashford and Danny Ings (all 14) managing more.
As the season has gone on, Abraham, Mount and Christensen have been joined by Fikayo Tomori, Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Tariq Lamptey and Billy Gilmour in being handed Premier League appearances – and only the latter has been a brief cameo. Lamptey’s one appearance saw him handed the task of helping Chelsea come from 1-0 deal to beat Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates and having to keep the Gunners‘ attacking talent quiet.
Frank Lampard rules out Ross Barkley exit
In total, the eight players have accumulated 7,011 Premier League minutes this season with only Manchester United (7,076) handing more playing time to their academy graduates. This is already more than Chelsea gave to academy graduates over the previous three seasons (2,875) since John Terry started to be phased out.
Despite dropping out of the team recently, Tomori had become a big part of Lampard‘s defence building a partnership alongside Zouma and replacing Christensen. The England international had previously been hailed by Lampard as Chelsea’s first-choice centre-back.
But one star who has flourished most recently is James, who made his debut late due to injury but has already appeared to nail down the starting right-back spot.
The 20-year-old was also one of five Chelsea academy graduates to start their most recent game, a 1-0 defeat against Newcastle.
Preparing for the future
As well as making the most of their academy graduates so far this season, Chelsea have also started to work on securing the future of their squad.
Perhaps due to the promising performances of the season, the Blues have already tied down various academy stars to long-term contracts. Previously these new deals would often be followed by said players being sent out on loan, ensuring Chelsea do not lose out on any potential investments as contracts run down. And while those kinds of movements are still happening at Chelsea, a big group are staying at Stamford Bridge for now and the future.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was the first to be secured long-term, signing his new five-year deal in early July 2019 as the club looked to show faith in their midfielder whose promising progress last season was cut short due to injury – from which he has only returned to training with the under-16 squad.
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Mount followed shortly after with Chelsea giving early signs that the midfielder would be a part of their 2019/20 campaign having worked well under Lampard at Derby County while on loan last season. Younger stars Jamie Cumming and Gilmour also signed deals until 2023, but this season will prove too soon for them with regards to regular first-team football.
The biggest one, however, came in September with Hudson-Odoi pledging himself to Chelsea until 2024. Hudson-Odoi had been heavily linked with a move to Bayern Munich in January 2019 and, despite an injury, those reports continued into the summer as he had just one year remaining on his deal at the time.
The teenager has had a tough time in recent weeks as expectations were high considering the extent of his new deal, and promising displays last season, but Hudson-Odoi has scored in his past two Chelsea appearances and looks to be in contention for more starts as the season goes on.
Tomori’s new deal was next, with the English centre-back pledging his future to Chelsea until 2024 in December and most recently it was James’ turn to sign a new deal.
Reece James was the first teenager in Chelsea's history to score for the club in a Champions League game.
The new contract is well deserved. 🔵 pic.twitter.com/PSu5JPgo87
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 16, 2020
As previously mentioned, James has worked his way into becoming almost impossible not to pick at right-back with impressive performances upon his return from injury.
The 20-year-old has two goals and three assists for Chelsea‘s first team this season, including two in the Premier League. Both of those came through wonderful crosses to Abraham as the pair already look to have struck an understanding at the top level.
James’ delivery has seen him compared to Liverpool‘s excellent Trent Alexander-Arnold, averaging 1.5 successful crosses per 90 minutes so far this season. But the Chelsea man has also proven himself capable in defence, drawing further comparisons to the likes of Kyle Walker and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Next up for Chelsea will be securing the future of Abraham, whose deal ends in 2022, which is not exactly close but the Blues will want to make sure the Englishman stays theirs, especially if he continues to improve.
Have Chelsea’s transfer plans changed?
Although Chelsea were banned from signing players for two transfer windows, they have since seen their ban reduced to one – meaning the Blues are free to do business this month.
This had Chelsea fans excited at the prospect to adding to their squad, with Lampard particularly lacking back-up for Abraham and suffering from a weakness at left-back. The likes of Jadon Sancho, Moussa Dembele, Timo Werner and Ben Chilwell have all been linked with Chelsea in January.
But, as things stand, no first-team business has been made.
In a press conference on Friday afternoon promoting Chelsea’s work with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, club chairman Bruce Buck told reporters: “Who are we signing? I do know, but I won’t be telling.”
Lampard was quick to brush this off as a joke, insisting nothing is imminent. And would it be a completely bad thing if this was the case?
Sure, Chelsea do need reinforcements if they are to turn into eventual title challengers as they have grown used to being since Roman Abramovich took ownership. But they shouldn’t, and likely won’t, rush into paying the big money some clubs are demanding in January.
Instead, the Blues could take heed from this season and look to promote from within where they can. Even though they did not win the FA Youth Cup last season, Chelsea do still have a number of good young players on their books.