It’s become somewhat of an unofficial tradition over the last decade to renew hope with every new managerial appointment — and there have been a few! — that Chelsea would finally find the “Next John Terry” among our world-renowned Academy’s ranks. It’s also become an unofficial tradition to be bitterly disappointed along similar lines. Whether it’s Josh McEachran or Nathan Aké or Gaël Kakuta or Nathaniel Chalobah or the countless other tragic and sad cases, the pattern has remained the same.
While Chelsea’s England-best trophy haul at first-team level during the same period has been used frequently to explain away or silence the calls for an emphasis on youth integration, Chelsea’s recent financial shift to a sell-to-buy policy, and other hints that Abramovich’s free-spending days are over, have led to fresh hope that the club would finally start to rethink this policy. There is a large pool of exciting young talent at our disposal, as usual, and the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi or Ethan Ampadu or Tammy Abraham could save Chelsea huge amounts of money in the future.
And of course there is a new man in charge as well, Maurizio Sarri, and he’s already very different from those who have come before him. May he be the one to break the wheel? Do we dare hope?
Sarri has been very impressive since arriving at Stamford Bridge and has already proven many of his doubters wrong. However, two of the main points of criticism directed at him prior his appointment, his lack of rotation and his reluctance to use young players, are showing signs of resurfacing already. The initial hope, especially after a preseason full of Hudson-Odoi and Ampadu, was that Sarri would give important minutes to young players in cup games and the Europa League, but after the opening two months, that has been anything but the case.
Chelsea would’ve been well aware of Sarri’s preferences and reputation of course, and decided to appoint him anyway. The question that thus arises is simple: where does the real problem lie? Is it as easy as simply blaming the current or a previous Chelsea manager or is the problem rooted elsewhere, more deeply?
In order to come to some sort of answer, let’s first take a closer look at Sarri’s record of giving minutes to young players
Back in early August, Sarri boldly declared that Callum Hudson-Odoi was ready and would be staying with the first-team, but he also made sure to remind that we would “have to wait” and see how things would turn out for the youngster. So far, they have not turned out great.
When Callum, Marcin Bułka, and Ethan Ampadu traveled with the team to Greece for Chelsea’s opening Europa League game, hopes were high that the academy’s time had come. Unfortunately, none of the trio made it into the match day squad. Before Chelsea’s trip to Anfield in the Carabao Cup, many were once again hopeful that one of the youth players might feature or at least be given a spot on the bench, especially after Zola lauded Hudson-Odoi in his pre-match conference. But while Hudson-Odoi did make the bench, he was not called upon even when Chelsea fell behind. And even though David Luiz’s introduction was key to turning around and winning the game, swapping a defender for a defender as the final substitution instead of putting on an exciting young attacker seemed like a strange decision.
Sarri did warn everybody that patience would be needed and this is easy to forget. But he also leaned heavily on (some) youth players in preseason, and during his time at Empoli (2012-2015), he worked wonders with several future stars.
Sarri was very generous with minutes for youngsters at Empoli. He gave debuts to multiple internationally known players (e.g.: Daniele Rugani, Piotr Zielinski, Elseid Hysaj) while players such as Spinazzola, Verdi, Tonelli, and Laxalt are also well-known names in Italian football these days. In his three years at the club, Sarri used 23 different players of 22 years of age or younger, and many of them had come from Empoli’s own academy. Current Napoli star Hysaj’s 8930 minutes in 108 games or current Juventus defender Rugani’s 7298 minutes in 81 games were most impressive, especially considering that both of them were just teenagers at the time.
After joining Napoli in 2015, Sarri continued to give a reasonable amount of minutes young players, but utilized far fewer than he did at Empoli. And the ones he utilized the most, Hysaj and Zielinski, were already established and trusted players from his previous appointment. Meanwhile, Diawara and Milik had been important starters for Bologna and Ajax, respectively, and Marko Rog had been an important player for Dinamo Zagreb back in his home country. That said, Napoli’s academy hasn’t been good or well stocked for quite some time now — Alex McGovern made this point in his excellent article on Sarri for These Football Times — so expecting Sarri to give minutes to its graduates may have been unreasonable to begin with. Sebastiano Luperto is the sole academy product who was given any games during Sarri’s tenure in Naples.
Of course, comparing a team constantly bouncing between promotion and relegation, as is the case with Empoli, to a far more competitive side like Napoli or Chelsea is a bit tough. The expectations and aims are naturally very different. Still, we cannot disregard the fact that Maurizio Sarri provided young players with chances in the past. He is not incapable of putting his trust in young players, given the right circumstances.
But are any of those right circumstances possible at Chelsea? It’s certainly tough to imagine Chelsea tolerating Empoli-level results. Roman Abramovich is famous for his itchy trigger finger, and despite the long leash afforded Mourinho Mk.II, that tendency doesn’t seem to be coming to an end anytime soon. The obvious conclusion is that the club plays a major part in our managers not daring to put their faith into academy players, as any run of bad results could lead to a premature end to their Chelsea career.
Former Chelsea player and youth team coach Jody Morris put the blame squarely on the shoulders of former managers, some of whom apparently weren’t even interested in watching the youth teams.
“You’ve got to have a manager that, first and foremost, wants to look.
“We’ve had managers at Chelsea where they’d be 50 yards away, there’d be a Champions League U19s game going on, and the manager’s sat in his office, rather than coming out to watch. It’s very disheartening. It’s not my place to go over there and start talking to managers, but some managers aren’t interested — they don’t care about youth. They judge the first team and want to get their own players in.”
“The thing about Chelsea is I don’t think there’s an academy in this country that’s better, but it doesn’t look like that on paper because of the amount of players who are not playing in the first team. The players are good enough, most definitely, but the managers are not, for one, aware of them. It’s alright someone going in and talking up a player and saying ‘this player’s got European Player of the Year in an U19 tournament, won the World Cup, and is one of the best players at his age group’ — if they don’t see him, physically, that doesn’t get you him.”
“You need to see it — Claudio Ranieri’s point of playing John Terry was the fact that he went to watch him. He saw him, said ‘right, he’s playing for me’ — and in. There’s nothing better than seeing players in the flesh. It’s alright people talking them up but you have to see it in the flesh.”
-Jody Morris; source: Sky
Be that as it may, is merely pointing the finger at the managers not just an easy way out? Morris doesn’t hold the club responsible whatsoever, and that seems a bit disingenuous. Maybe Jody’s got future employment prospects in mind. Or maybe he’s just oversimplifying things.
If we take a look at Chelsea’s last three long(er)-term managers, we can spot a pattern of institutional directives and influence, even if we include players like Romelu Lukaku or Kurt Zouma, who were brought in for a lot of money and were already first-team players for top flight European clubs before their moves to Chelsea.
In 109 games, Carlo Ancelotti played 10 youngsters and handed out 9 debuts, accumulating 3585 minutes from players aged 22 or younger. But only Sturridge was given a comparatively ‘decent’ amount, and he wasn’t even a product of the Chelsea academy.
The same pattern shows under José Mourinho, another manager known to dislike rotation and overlook young players. He handed out 12 debuts for a total of 136 games during the 2+ seasons of his second tenure but other than Andreas Christensen and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, none of them are playing any sort of part at Chelsea just three seasons later. Overall, 5511 minutes were given to the youth under Mourinho, with the vast majority of them (3427) going to Kurt Zouma.
Conte was in charge of Chelsea for 106 games and provided players who were under or exactly 22 years old with 6515 minutes. However, as with Mourinho and Zouma, nearly half of Conte’s youth minutes went to an already established top flight player. The one difference was that we could count Christensen as an Academy product, and as someone who could possibly turn into a poster child for the loan system. His successful two-year loan spell at Borussia Mönchengladbach set him up for his Chelsea chance — and this is a key difference between him and, say, Charly Musonda Jr (and most of the other academy and current ‘Loan Army’ members).
None of the three even remotely compare with Sarri at Empoli, or even Sarri at Napoli to a certain degree. But Ancelotti, Mourinho, and Conte were all brought in to do one thing: to win trophies. They may have waxed lyrical about youth players, but they were not hired to build dynasties. They were hired to win, and if that came with a few youth promotions, then that was just added bonus. They were here to engineer (short-term) success. The integration of youth represented an unnecessary risk in this equation. Putting the blame purely on the managers, as Jody Morris did, is oversimplifying the matter.
Through the first two months of the season, Maurizio Sarri has only given Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi a few minutes each in the Community Shield defeat to Manchester City, and a couple cameos to Loftus-Cheek in the league. But any definitive conclusions regarding his intentions in this regard are still far too premature. The current situation might even change as soon as tomorrow (Thursday), when Chelsea take on MOL Vidi FC in the Europa League. However, even if it does, the overall directive of trophies over youth integration will remain. Any rumours regarding Chelsea’s hierarchy intending to give Maurizio Sarri the time he needs to build up a long-term project simply sound too good and hopeful to be true.
So, should we be worried about Sarri’s lack of youth utilization?
Yes. But not necessarily because of Sarri. The fault for the poor use of Academy talents lies mostly with the club, and, to a lesser degree, with the managers.
That said, Ancelotti, Conte and Mourinho could have certainly utilized the youth far more often than they did and arguably still have had massive success. But all three tend to rely heavily on veterans and a reliable core of experienced players, making it hard for youngsters to break into the team. Maurizio Sarri, on the other hand, has shown in the past that he’s very well capable of utilizing the youth if given the platform to do so, but that is where the club must come in and reassure that his job won’t immediately be under threat if results don’t go his way — which may not be as easy to do as it sounds, even if they are willing, given the constant media and, it has to be said, supporter pressure as well.
The way things are going financially however, Chelsea will need to come up with a different long-term solution than the path we’ve all become used to over the past decade and a half. Consistently wasting a brilliant youth academy will not be sustainable in the long run. Whether that will happen under Sarri or one of his successors remains to be seen — maybe the tipping point would need to be someone like Jody and/or Super Frank and/or John Terry himself? — but surely the time is coming.
One of these days.
Hope dies last, after all.