Measuring Youth Success

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Nathaniel Chalobah of Chelsea celebrates scoring a goal during the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 1st Leg match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on April 10, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

It's been fashionable over the last few years to mock Chelsea's attempts at rebuilding their Academy. The Blues famously haven't had a player graduate to the first team since John Terry in something like 1365, and with the amount of money that's going into the youth team that opens up the club for attack from folks with an axe to grind.

One of the favourite tricks used to compare Chelsea to other clubs is by comparing the number of academy products that rise up to the first team. If you play it like that, Chelsea's huge investment has returned a grand total of zero*, which obviously doesn't do very well compared to, say, anyone.

*Apparently Ryan Bertrand doesn't count.

But to do so fundamentally misses the point of having an academy in the first place. Here are the reasons the academy exists:

  1. For the club to get something in return for training and taking care of young players.
  2. For said young players to build themselves a career in football.

Obviously, the two goals are intertwined to large extent - the value of a player is mostly to do with how good they are, as is the their chance of having a long and lucrative career (Ravel Morrison is an obvious case of when other factors intrude). Distilling that to 'playing for the club's first team' is silly, because player sales bring value to a club, and the players themselves don't exactly vanish when they're sold.

So, some questions - is it easier to graduate to the Chelsea first team or the Watford one? And, if a player fails to break into Chelsea's first team, what happens to them?

Is Fabio Borini a failure? Slobodan Rajkovic? Gokhan Tore? Miroslav Stoch? If Josh McEachran can't break through, would ending up at a mid-table team be a failure for him or Chelsea? Hell, even Jacob Mellis, who was fired for setting off a smoke grenade at Cobham, looks set for a reasonably long career. Have the Blues failed him?

How good are the youngsters? Although results in youth-level football aren't that good a gauge of the strength of a side's prospects, Chelsea's recent record in the FA Youth Cup is a reasonably indication that we have a strong, well-trained group of players on our hands, and even if none of them make it to the first team (which strikes me as unlikely) they're in good shape to have long careers in football, which is kind of the point.

Ultimately, the academy is making great progress, and the fact that the Chelsea first squad hasn't seen a new graduate in a long time isn't too big a concern. What would be a worry is if the youth and reserve players were washing out of football entirely. Instead, they're going to the Serie A and the Bundesliga. Call me crazy, but I'm kind of ok with that, especially as it looks as though real progress is being made.

By any sensible measure, we're doing just fine.

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