I've been waiting until the end of the January window to write this as I wanted to see the community's reaction to any signings/departures before putting this out there. But this is my response/rebuttal to those who feel that Chelsea would be making a mistake to go for elite prospects and very young budding superstars, that we have adequate replacements for Ashley Cole on loan, and to those who feel the academy hasn't had a success since John Terry. Chelsea are too big of a club to trust the future to the academy, world class players are insanely rare, John Terry is not the measuring stick for a successful academy player and the term "adequate" should never be applied to anyone in the Chelsea XI.
For a few years now there has been a lot of...nonsense about academy players and what should be done with them. Two years ago people were convinced that Josh McEachran should be on the Chelsea squad and that at 18 he was going to slot perfectly into a backup role and that Raul Meireles was a waste of a signing This is the same Josh McEachran who is currently on loan at Wigan after having stalled out the past two years. Last summer we heard Chalobah should just play in midfield for Chelsea. He rode the bench at Forest. A few days ago I saw someone wonder why we'd want Luke Shaw when we have a perfectly "adequate" replacement for Cole already on staff.
Ashley Cole for several years was the greatest left back on the planet. He was so good that Ferguson stopped defending against Ivanovic on the right side, left him to cross for days simply because of the overlapping threat of Ashley Cole on the left. Ashley Cole was a truly world class player. You don't get them very often and if you want to stay competitive, you don't replace them with an "adequate" player but try your best to get a world class player, or world class prospect to slot in for them...you know, like United did once Keane and Scholes packed it in. It doesn't need to be a like for like substitution, if we'd replaced Carvalho, Ballack and Drogba with the likes of Neymar, Vidal and Alaba we'd have a very different look and style of play but the quality would still be there. But Chelsea have frankly failed, with many of the next generation of Chelsea stars not being good or at the least not AS GOOD as we hoped and needed them to be. Torres and his inability to find the net, Luiz and his mental mistakes, Ramires and his petulance and inability to score off much other than a chip shot. Mata didn't develop a transition game and there we are in 3rd, 4th, 6th instead of getting to see a trophy festooned in blue on Match of the Day.
Obviously there are very different perspectives on the term world class or star player and what it means. I view it as someone being among the top 30-40 players in the world, game changers who exert a warping effect on a match. In my opinion, Chelsea have two world class players under contract and two or three more that are close to that level and can get there with more consistency. The two I view to be at that level both play between the sticks, and one is likely leaving soon. The three that I view as being close are Oscar, Hazard and Luiz.
That's a damn far cry from where we were just a few years ago. Cech, Cole, Terry, Carvalho, Lampard, Essien, Ballack and Drogba were all operating at or around that level. Malouda quietly put together a year of sheer magnificence, Anelka put 25, 15,16 a season past the keeper and we weren't even the best team in football, though we were very much in the conversation. Bad luck, a slip in Moscow, a Norwegian stool-pigeon and Cristiano Ronaldo's 31 league goals kept us from either of the big two trophies between winning the league in ‘06 and again in 2010. And that was a far superior one to the team we field today.
"Chelsea have never recovered from losing the real Michael Essien. It's probable that our first-choice midfield partnership for the rest of the season will be Ramires and new signing Nemanja Matic, who could do a reasonable impression of the Bison in his pomp if you somehow combined both of their strengths and flushed away the weaknesses. We used to be able to dominate the heart of midfield with one player. Since we've been lucky if we could dominate it at all."
Personally, I view Ramires as the most important player on our team, and have for some time. And I'll grant you that Michael Essien was a singular player and impossible to replace. But Ramires wouldn't have gotten a look in at our midfield when we were running Ballack, Lampard and Essien out on a weekly basis. This isn't disparagement of Ramires, a player I've loved since the first time he put on Chelsea blue, but rather as an alarming look at the state of this team. We have let the class of our team grow old and leave, and we have failed to adequately replace them. Ramires is a vital cog of our team, but he shouldn't be our most important midfielder.
Obviously this Chelsea team is not the finished product. There is a lot of growth to be made by the players that we have and I fully expect us to be much better next season than we are now. We're a far superior team to what we were under FSW but if we want to compete on all fronts we have to pull the trigger on major signings and let the academy prospects force us to put them on the squad through the level of their play. If all of our prospects develop like we hope, we'll be in great shape in 2-3 years. We'll have Oscar, Lukaku and the Hazard brothers bossing the attack, our midfield will be solid with Chalobah and Matic running things alongside Marco Van Ginkel, and the defense will be amazing if new signing Zouma or Kenneth Omeuro steps to the plate alongside hopefully best in the world David Luiz. But we can't count on that to happen, so when a truly game changing prospect or player appears on the market, we need to be very, very interested.
Today the team to beat is Bayern Munich (which we did, incidentally). Let's take a look at that team briefly. Neuer, Alaba, Lahm, Kroos, Martinez, Ribery, Schweinsteiger would all walk into nearly any team in the world and immediately start. And then you have the young stars Gotze and Shaqiri and the perennially good Robben. Lewandowski is on the way to strengthen, they've picked up Alcantara. Their role players are all A- talent at worst. There's a reason they've been to three finals in the past 4 years and are favorites to make it to a third straight this season. If Chelsea want to be in that conversation, if we want to be the team that dethrones Bayern in a year or two instead of City or Real...we can't count on the academy for that.
Raise your hands if you've heard...on this website, from someone on Sky or in a paper that John Terry is the last successful Chelsea player to come up through the academy. I'll nod emphatically that a PFA player of the year, a man who made 4 UEFA teams of the year and captained Chelsea through the most successful period of the club's history is a success. But so is Ryan Bertrand. So are Miroslav Stoch, Michael Mancienne, Franco Di Santo. Even if they're not good enough to become first choice at Stamford Bridge, they're going to have successful football careers, make a lot of money and benefit the club financially. It's really difficult to find a 14-year-old who will turn into a world class player, like finding a six fingered man-tough. And to expect Chelsea to sign a bunch of kids and get a team out of it is frankly...inconceivable.
I love Tomas Kalas and I hope he can stay at Chelsea for the next decade. But only if he's good enough to earn it. Poor Van Aanholt, he's been lights out for Vitesse for over a year now and we may sign someone ahead of him before he ever gets a chance at Chelsea. But these young players and their parents know the goals of a club like Chelsea. They think they're good enough to make the team, they want the best coaches to help them develop and they want the paycheck. It's on them to prove that they're good enough. It's not on the club to do in-house interviews for a season before filling a job opening. If Bamford and Piazon keep scoring goals they'll make the team as a second or third option and force their way to playing time. Courtois will be forcing Chelsea to make a hard choice because he keeps getting better.
Bill James figured out in the 80's that if two rookies in baseball, a 20-year-old and 21-year-old, have identical seasons, then he 20-year-old will go on to hit 61% more home runs over the course of the season. This obviously isn't baseball, but if an 18-year-old Luke Shaw is better than the 23-year-old Van Aanholt - who a lot of us think is good enough to take over for Ash - shouldn't we be doing everything in our power to get that guy signed and playing? I quite like Patrick van Aanholt, and I'll like him if he holds down the Paulo Ferreira fort, or if we sell him for a tidy profit, or if he comes in to back up Luke Shaw, forces him out and turns in Paolo Maldini. But I'll put my chips on 18 year old Luke Shaw, already one of the better players in the Premier League at his position, being a class above Ryan Bertrand or Van Aanholt.
If a prospect never actually makes it through the academy to the Chelsea first team but instead are constantly being sold for profit, and players of Kevin de Bruyne's quality are never good enough for Chelsea, we should all be ecstatic... because it will mean Chelsea are likely in serious contention for every trophy in club football. We can't be content, we can't be complacent, we can't be fine with "adequate". Cristiano Ronaldo came to United a decade ago for £12m and then went to Real for £80m. Prodigy, generational talent, game changer, diving prick. Courtois, Lukaku, Hazard, Shaw, Oscar, Zouma...the precocious players with virtually no ceiling are who we need to sign and keep signing. The players with the physical tools who see the pitch at a very advanced level. Also, pace wouldn't hurt.
Adequate is for backups. Solid is for backups. Adequate players go to Arsenal and help Arsene find his zipper. So bring Jose players like Luke Shaw, Neymar, Varane, Pogba, Neilton from Santos. Sign the Hummelses, Javi Martinezes and Edinson Cavanis who have already made it and sell the quality prospects for £4m, £6m £16m. We'll win everything there is to win. Nathaniel Chalobah becoming the next Claude Makelele is the dream, but if Chalobah plays at Spurs after signing for £12m, that's still a damn fine job done by Michael Emenalo and Co. If the loanees make the club money, have productive careers and we're able to churn out one or two top flight players every single season, we'll get more and more of the very best prospects at a young age and then our odds to find an Iniesta or Vidal will skyrocket. We don't need the academy prospects to all break into the first team, just to do well, make us money and occasionally be good enough for a backup or starting position.
If our 2016 opening day XI looks like Courtois; Azpilicueta, Zouma, Luiz, Van Aanholt; Chalobah, McEachran; Hazard, Oscar, Hazard, Lukaku with the likes of Piazon, Bamford, Kane and Omeuro sitting on the bench and we're title favorites then I take it all back...but I think we'll likely have one of those prospects on the team somewhere, and the rest will likely be still on loan or sold. And that's ok, so long as "adequate" never replaces "Cole". Sometimes you need to make hard choices (Mata), sometimes a player doesn't get a fair shot (De Bruyne) but the standards can't slip or everything we've built on the toil and effort of players like Terry, Lampard, Cech and so many others will crumble. It would be an utter disservice to the club, the fans and the players who are good enough. F[un] adequate, bring me Luke Shaw.