When the U21 Premier League was restructured into the ‘Premier League 2’ this summer, one of the ideas behind it was to help teams find playing time for first-team backups and slightly older players, sort of like the old Reserves teams or other countries’ B-teams would allow. The age limit was raised from 21 to 23 and a provision was included to allow three over-age players, plus an over-age goalkeeper in the starting lineup.
While Chelsea have been fielding rather young lineups instead so far this season — which we’ve seen reflected in the U23’s performances in the league (today was just their third win in 10 games) as well as the EFL Trophy (two losses and a draw) — for Monday’s game, the Blues took full advantage of the new rules.
Thus working as intended, Chelsea were able to give playing time to John Terry, Cesc Fàbregas, Michy Batshuayi and even goalkeeper Eduardo. The third-choice goalkeeper was twice the age of young forward Mason Mount, who was starting in a front three alongside first-team backups Batshuayi and Dominic Solanke. Both Kurt Zouma and Marco van Ginkel started as well once again, just as they have been for the past few weeks. They are looking increasingly comfortable on the pitch following long-term injury layoffs, but while Zouma will soon rejoin the first-team, Van Ginkel’s near-term future looks likely to involve just a loan.
Further benefiting the first-teamers, U23 head coach Adi Viveash set out his team in the 3-4-3, allowing Antonio Conte, watching from the stands alongside a whole host of staff and other players (including David Luiz), to judge the performances of the players first-hand and in the appropriate situation. The starting lineup was completed with Ola Aina playing at left wing-back, Fankaty Dabo playing on the right, and Fikayo Tomori slotting in as the third center back on the left of JT and Zouma.
It was about as experienced as U23s could get, which made Southampton’s half 2-1 lead all the more shocking. In fairness, Chelsea dominated the first-half, as expected, but the visitors scored with both of their first two shots, 19-year-old Olufela Olomola, who was on the bench for Saints in Chelsea’s recent 2-0 win at St. Mary’s, and 19-year-old Josh Sims both scoring in the first quarter of an hour.
Michy Batshuayi squeezed in a goal between those two and showed plenty of good work throughout the full 90 minutes though still managed to find time to miss at least one open goal. (He wasn’t alone: Solanke missed several, while Zouma had a header cleared off the line.)
Michy got his second equalizer of the day three minutes from time and then Marco van Ginkel won it for the dominant home side in the first minute of added-on time. By then, Terry had been withdrawn for the always impressive Dujon Sterling and the also impressive Mount was replaced by Ike Ugbo. In fact, all the youngster did quite well, playing alongside the seniors, even if the scoreline didn’t quite reflect the balance of play.
We could look at this as a slap in the face for the likes of Terry, Cesc, and Batshuayi, but all three showed good enough attitude in what was a much-needed runout in an actual game situation for them. Two nice goals from Michy, two assists from Cesc (though his non-assist passes, throughballs, and long-balls were far more impressive), and more match fitness for all.