When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club in 2003, he didn’t just set out to win as many trophies as possible, he also set plans in motion to create one of the best football academies in the world. Fast forward to 2017, and Cobham is world renowned for nurturing young talent (both among players and coaching staff as well), and winning youth competitions such as the FA Youth Cup (6 in the last 8 years) or the UEFA Youth League (back-to-back champions before not allowed by UEFA to defend our title last season).
The first full generation’s now entering their early 20s and ready to spread their wings and fly after being in the system for the past decade or more (many of the best and brightest joining before age 8, even), the test of the Chelsea first-team being able to make use of their talents becomes even more important. But more on that later.
Here’s Chelsea's head of youth development Neil Bath reflecting on the winning mentality that’s instilled from bottom-to-top in the Academy as well as the senior side.
"Throughout the year, all our Academy age groups participate in overseas tours and tournaments which prepares them for future tournament football and for the challenge of winning. We go out every weekend trying to win our games but we also have clear principles of play so we develop our players technically, tactically and physically. Playing to win is a big part of development because it challenges the players’ mentally as well."
"You can see the benefits of that with our achievements in winning trophies at the older age groups in recent years and now with our boys involved in successes with England. You hear a lot in the media about club versus country but in youth development it’s so important to work together to find the best way to develop players and the experience of playing for your country should complement the competitions in academy football."
"These competitions and the international tournaments are an important way to bridge the gap to senior football. Players like Tammy [Abraham] and Andreas Christensen have played in them all and I’m sure the experience has helped in their transition to the senior game."
Chelsea have become the backbone of England's youth national teams over the years. Academy players played a big part in England winning the U20 World Cup this year and the Toulon Tournament for two years prior to that, while also forming an important part of the team that got to the U17 European Championships finals, the U21 European Championships semifinals, and are currently contesting the U19 European Championships as well. in which.
"It is another huge highlight of our season to see players representing England and winning international tournaments. At the Under-17 Euros we had four players who started every game and they were so unfortunate to concede a late equaliser in the final and then lose on penalties."
"We then had five players in the squad who won the Toulon trophy for the second year running and three boys who have come through the Academy involved in the huge achievement of winning a World Cup. All the players and staff feel immensely proud to witness our involvement in such important trophy successes."
Chelsea have contributed coaches to these winning efforts as well, with their development becoming almost as important as the players’ over the year. On a near-annual basis, we see shifts taking place in the coaching staff at Cobham, yet we continue to maintain an extremely high level of excellence.
"As well as the success that is visible from the outside, there’s always a foundation of work that’s continually taking place to ensure we improve. It’s vital to continually develop our facilities to keep up with the competition and the indoor arena forms a big part of that with a pitch two-thirds the size of Stamford Bridge, a viewing area for 200 spectators and a specialist gym."
"Especially being in London alongside so many clubs, we are in constant competition so ensuring our entire programme is the best it can be is so important. That stretches from our coaching programme and the content of our work to an overall holistic approach to player care and education that remains at the forefront and is balanced carefully with football development. This work is not as obvious to many but it forms the basis to bring more success in the development of our players in future years."
Winning may be Chelsea’s aim, but it is technically secondary to the Youth teams’, which concentrate first and foremost on player development. We’ve seen Chelsea’s youth sides becoming younger and younger in fact, as the older ones tend to head out on loan to challenge themselves in a more competitive environment instead.
"We will continue to compete in as many competitions as possible for the development of our players but we accept we might not enjoy as much success as we have in recent years because we want to push our young players to experience the senior game at an even earlier age. Naturally, that will make winning youth tournaments more difficult but we don’t see that as being a problem. It’s a challenge for us to compete and win things with even younger teams while striking the balance of getting the right player on loan at the right club and not undervaluing our programme back at Cobham."
Earlier this week, we made the point that selling prospects with a buyback clause are a good solution to players who have grown tired of the loanee life. In the same article we used a quote from Neil Bath himself in which he mentioned a 100-game threshold for young players to consider for “making it" as pro footballers.
But two years later, the perspective has shifted a bit. With players' careers lasting longer than in previous times and the Premier League becoming more competitive than ever, Bath admits that our youngsters now have to get 150 to 200 games under their belt to be ready for first team duty at a club like Chelsea. Thus, the transition from the Academy to the Bridge will also take longer and only become tougher.
"Realistically, to break into a first team like ours you need to have played 150 to 200 games at senior level. Even someone like Eden Hazard had done that in France before coming to Chelsea so the reality is our young players will need to experience the same, which is almost three full seasons out on loan. If a player goes out at 18 or 19 years old, that means they will be 22 years old before being able to really compete for a regular place in the team and you can see that pathway with the likes of Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Chalobah."
"We accept it is going to take longer. The Premier League is a competitive global market for players and advances in sports science mean players are playing longer than ever before as well, which makes it even more competitive. That breakthrough becomes more difficult but we understand that and it’s why we see the whole Academy programme and the loans pathway as very much part of the longer-term development of our players."
-Neil Bath; Source: Chelsea FC
Chelsea’s youth development, excellent as it may be, often comes under fire from fans and media alike regarding a perceived failure in developing talent for the Chelsea first-team. Some of that criticism is certainly valid — opportunities are sorely lacking, in general — but the club do have a plan, for better or worse, and are adamantly sticking to it. Someday soon we might even see an actual benefit to the first-team istelf beyond just profiting on the prospects who may have caught the eye of another club. Those cases, one suspects, will be few and far between, but that’s just the harsh reality of modern football at the very top level these days.