As another season gets underway this summer, most of us here on We Ain't Got No History are surely aware of the developments going on with the senior squad, with plenty of time spent examining the qualities of a player, and debating about the tactics our
interim manager Roberto Di Matteo might employ in the season ahead to maximize that player's abilities so as to create a potentially title-winning unit.
While the majority of us here are also aware of the burgeoning talent available in our reserve and academy squads, lesser time is spent on looking at these young kids, their current levels of development, and the roles that they could subsequently play should they break into the senior squad. Welcome to this four-part series, where we shall take an extensive view at youth players yet to break into the first-team squad, but who might, with the proper guidance and patience, make the step up within the next 5 years. We shall see their performances in the seasons since they joined Chelsea, and how far they are from entering the first-team squad.
For some time now, Chelsea's academy and youth recruitment network has been amongst the topmost in the world. For the last 50 years or so, prospects from our youth teams have made the grade to the senior level, almost always excelling, and in some cases, even becoming club legends, while others have moved to other clubs, where they have become important players for their respective teams. The likes of Bobby Tambling, Ron Harris, Peter Osgood, Terry Venables, Ray Wilkins, John Terry are all names with which we are all familiar in this community. Every single one of these players have graduated from our academy, and have gone on to create a rich legacy, excelling for both club and country. Since the turn of the millennium, with fresh investment coming into the academy in the form of the training ground at Cobham, better training staff, and several million pounds injected into bringing the best youth from England and the world to Chelsea, an already talented youth system has been given an additional boost. These could be exciting times indeed.
While I shall attempt to write about every bright prospect in Chelsea's youth ranks in these posts, it would be painstakingly difficult to talk about every player currently plying their trade in The Blues' academy and reserve teams. While every player in a squad undoubtedly plays his part in improving the team's overall ability, be it in training or in a match, the players in these discussions are solely those whom I feel could be potentially world-class, or at least capable of playing for Chelsea in the Premier League, in their respective positions, provided Chelsea handles them carefully in the next few years. The only other criteria for selecting these players is that they must lesser than 21 years of age, and must not have made any appearances for the senior team. Players who have been loaned out are also eligible to enter this list.
And now, without further ado, the list of shot-stoppers who might represent Chelsea some day...
No. 1: Thibaut Courtois
Joined: Summer 2011
For many, to call Thibaut Courtois a mere prospect, would be criminal. During an extraordinarily successful loan spell at Atletico Madrid last season, in which he played a crucial role in Atletico's Europa League win, Courtois kept 23 clean sheets in 52 appearances for Los Rojiblancos, topping even Iker Casillas' tally for the season. Add to the fact that Courtois has to contend with an inferior defense as compared to Real's, and this record becomes all the more impressive.
This 20-year-old giant between the sticks, who stands at 6'6'', joined us from Genk last summer for £8 million, as one of the first signings of the ill-fated Villas-Boas era. With Petr Cech still relatively young at 30, Courtois was quickly loaned out to Atletico Madrid to gain invaluable first-team experience, where he quickly displaced the far more experienced Sergio Asenjo as Atletico Madrid's first-choice goalkeeper, cushioning their loss of David De Gea to Manchester United. Throughout the season, Courtois adapted quickly to the Spanish culture, and turned in tremendous performances for them. Have a look at this video montage.
Any half-decent goalkeeper would look good on a highlights reel, but clearly, for someone with such a massive frame, Courtois' strength is his surprisingly good reflexes. Match reports from Atletico's games praise every facet of Courtois' tremendous goal-keeping ability. At 20, the fact that he is one of La Liga's three best goalkeepers in terms of goals-to-games ratio is simply astonishing. At 20, he has managed to keep a clean sheet in a continental final, and that speaks volumes of his big match temperament.
Possibly the only blots in an otherwise superb season would be Atletico's games versus Real Madrid (both were lost 4-1 and he was sent off in the away fixture at the Bernabeu), and Barcelona (5-0 & 2-1). Statistics also reveal that Courtois kept 5 clean sheets in the La Liga without having to make a single save, joint-second in the list with Iker Casillas, and behind Victor Valdes. Being part of a team with some excellent players in Arda Turan and Radamel Falcao and a relatively strong defense with the likes of Diego Godin and Juanfran, Courtois also had to make only 90 saves last season, and this puts him on only 12th in La Liga's list of goalkeepers. The last in that list? You guessed it. Victor Valdes, who only had to face 60 shots at his goal, and who ended up winning the 'Zamora', La Liga's season-end trophy for the best keeper in terms of goals conceded.
While all this reiterates the fact that goalkeepers should be judged more on the basis of the number of saves they make in relation to the number of shots they face, it does not take away the fact that Courtois had a fantastic season for Atletico Madrid. With Cech returning to top form for Chelsea in the last few months of the season and signing a new deal which will keep him at Stamford Bridge until the 2015-16 season, Courtois has returned to Los Colchoneros for another season. He has recently expressed his desire to play for Atletico in the European Super Cup, against us, and given recent statements by him, it seems likely that he will, which will give Chelsea fans a far better opportunity to have a closer look at this young Belgian prodigy.
Possibly the only danger posed to us for Courtois is by Real Madrid, as Jose Mourinho and Atletico's cross-town rivals are eager to sign Courtois as an understudy to Casillas. With the Spanish captain still immaculately brilliant at 31, Courtois would do well to stay at Chelsea and continue his development with Atletico Madrid this season. Another loan for him next season, possibly to a lower-level Premier League club, where he would face far greater goal threats and have a weaker defense in front of him, would do him a world of good, after which he could realistically challenge Cech for a place between the sticks.
No. 2: Jamal Blackman
Joined: July 2001
Few players in the Chelsea academy have made such rapid advances as Jamal Blackman. Joining Chelsea when he was just 8, he has consistently worked his way up the club ranks, and is now the youth team's first-choice goalkeeper. Along the way, Jamal has also been capped by the England Under-16,17,18 and 19s. Jamal was also part of our pre-season tour last season, where he performed reasonably well. He was also entered as our third-choice goalkeeper, for the later stages of the Champions League this season, a competition we ended up winning, which meant Jamal received a medal too. While he was probably picked ahead of Hilario only to free up a non-homegrown spot, there's no denying he's one of the brightest prospects in the youth ranks.
Here's some footage of him playing for the youth team. While the scorelines in these matches indicate that we were rather poor defensively, keep in mind that the matches on show here were versus the Arsenal and Southampton youth, generally considered to be amongst the best youth teams.
Like Courtois, Jamal is an incredibly tall player, reaching 6'5'' by the age of 15. In this video, he makes some great saves from close range, exhibiting some excellent reflexes. His performances for the youth team in the FA Youth Cup this season were instrumental for the team, as it won the competition on the back of some wonderful displays of football.
Jamal's performances have also not gone unnoticed by Chelsea's first team coaches. His performance during the shootout win against Norwich Youth enroute to the FA Youth Cup final caught the eye of goalkeeping coach Christophe Lollichon, who has called him up to train with the first team on several occasions, citing his large reach and huge wingspan as his greatest strengths. Jamal was also an unused substitute in our home game against Arsenal last season.
While clearly not Premier League material just yet, Chelsea would do well to send this highly-regarded talent on a loan to either a Championship or a League One club this season, and in successive seasons, to clubs higher up the domestic rung. Unfortunately for Blackman, he is at a club with a top-class current goalkeeper, and an incredible prospect waiting in the wings. Still, it is possible that with 5-6 years of extensive first-year expensive, he could one day challenge Courtois for a spot in goal.
No. 3: Matej Delac
Joined: September 2010
Signed in the fall of 2010 from Croatian club Inter Zapresic, Matej Delac has always been destined for great things. The ex-Croatian national team manager, Slaven Bilic, once said that, despite his tender years, Delac could possibly go on to become one of Croatia's greatest players of all time. This ambitious claim is not unfounded. In 2009, Delac became Inter Zapresic's youngest first-team goalkeeper, at the age of 17. His most famous performance for his boyhood club was probably when he came on for Inter Zapresic at the age of 16, when their goalkeeper was sent off, setting the record for the youngest player to make an appearance in the Croatian Top Division. Coming on to save a penalty set the tone for Delac's career, who then quickly became Inter Zapresic's first-choice option between the sticks.
After attracting interest from several top European clubs, including Benfica, Delac would go on to sign for us under the watchful eyes of the then-footballing director Frank Arnesen, who apparently went to Zagreb personally to work out the details of the transfer. With Chelsea temporarily banned from making transfers in the 2009-10 season because of the Gael Kakuta saga, Delac began training with Chelsea in the fall of 2009, before penning an official contract in 2010. Delac impressed in the year he trained at Chelsea, despite suffering from poor form early on and a spate of unfortunate illnesses.
In the summer of 2010, after officially signing for Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti decided to send the young Croatian goalie out on loan to Vitesse Arnhem, where it was believed that he would get first-team experience. Unfortunately, Delac did not play a single game that season for Vitesse. After a disappointing year, he would be sent out to Czech club SK Dynamo Ceske Budejovice, a move that was supposedly encouraged by Petr Cech, who believed that Delac was good enough to get ample first-team football. Sadly, that was not the case, as Delac ended up making only 5 appearances all season.
Here's a video showing some of his performances for the Croatian U-18 and U-19 teams. Apologies for the poor resolution.
The fact that Matej Delac has ability is unquestionable, but the clubs that have taken him on loan haven't exactly handled him well. This could be attributed to several reasons, but I doubt it's because he isn't good enough. Ideally, I would have had Delac challenge for regular places in the Chelsea youth team and reserve team in these last two seasons, or sent out to a League One club, where he could have played more football.
While other potential Chelsea goalkeepers of the same age and ability, including Courtois, Blackman and Sam Walker, have spent valuable time either at Chelsea or on loan at another club getting first-team football, Delac has dropped down the pecking order. It would be sad if the lack of first-team football stunts the progress of a wonderful goalkeeping prospect, especially one who, at the age of 18, became Croatia's third-choice goalkeeper for important World Cup qualifiers against Belarus and England, and is so highly rated by several top coaches. Here's to hoping his third season at this club brings him more luck.
Apart from these three, Chelsea do have other talented goalkeepers in their youth ranks as well, including the talented shotstopper signed from Milwall, Sam Walker, in the summer of 2007. Walker has played important roles with the youth team and the reserve team in the past. However, with him approaching 21 this October, his chances of first-team football in Chelsea are looking increasingly limited, with him subject to several loan spells away from Chelsea, at Barnet and Northampton Town. With other goalkeepers at Chelsea in front of him in the line, his best bet would be to continue his development at the excellent facilities at Chelsea before moving on to further his career elsewhere in a few years.
Having seen in quite some detail the progress our young goalkeepers are making, join me in a few days as we shall look at the defensive depth we possess here at Chelsea, examining players like Nathaniel Chalobah, Tomas Kalas, Nathan Ake, and more.
(This being my first FanPost, apologies if it got unwieldy and out-of-hand. I am probably not quite the sports journalist I imagined myself to be.)