Chelsea’s issues in providing viable pathways for youth team players to successfully bridge the gap to first-team action have been well documented over the years. While some of the criticism may be a bit unfair — youth development is never easy nor straightforward, and not every prospect will “make it” — the club’s record (or lack thereof) speaks for itself. In the last two decades, other than John Terry, only Andreas Christensen managed to collect 50 senior starts for the Blues.
Christensen’s start in the Europa League final was actually his 63rd for Chelsea, but by winning it, he also set a new historic marker, along with the injured Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The Chelsea Academy pair have become the first two players to have won both a UEFA youth competition and a UEFA senior competition.
Chelsea have been very successful in the UEFA Youth League, winning it twice, in 2015 and 2016, and losing the final twice as well, last season and this season. Christensen and Loftus-Cheek were part of the 2014-15 team that beat Shakhtar Donetsk — that was quite the team with Izzy Brown, Charly Musonda, Dom Solanke, Tammy Abraham, Charlie Colkett, Ola Aina, Jeremie Boga, Jay Dasilva, Jake Clarke-Salter all playing in the final, and Fikayo Tomori on the bench.
Fun fact, Christensen had the misfortune of conceding an own goal in that Final. Fortunately, against Arsenal on Wednesday, he avoided any such calamity. In fact, he was more than solid enough, and kept one of the most lethal strikers in football, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, at bay for most of the match.
Christensen has been an important player for Chelsea’s Europa League campaign, featuring in all 15 matches and completing the full 90 in all but one. He had been second choice to Antonio Rüdiger and David Luiz for most of the season however in the Premier League, only seeing six starts. But he’s still only 23. His first season under Sarri has seen good progress, and hopefully next year he can cement his place in the first-team.
Loftus-Cheek gradually broke into the squad as the year progressed, turning frequent substitute appearances (and improving fitness) into starting minutes. Like Christensen, he started more matches in the Europa League than the Premier League. Judging by his recent stellar performances, Ruben would have surely played a large role in the final. Unfortunately, the Achilles injury he suffered a couple weeks prior ended his season early.
A quick shout out to Callum Hudson-Odoi, who also saw his season end early to an Achilles injury as well. His meteoric rise to the senior team has been a joy to behold. Like Christensen and Loftus-Cheek, he featured more heavily in the Europa League, to the tune of four goals and two assists. Like Ruben, his form was positively trending before succumbing to injury, and he likely would have also played a large role in today’s final (although Hudson-Odoi has never won the Youth League, losing both finals he played in unfortunately).
The upshot of all this, beyond their individual accomplishments, is that Chelsea appear to be finally making a serious push to integrate more youth than before. With a potential transfer ban looming, this is perfectly timed (and perhaps not a coincidence). What Christensen, Loftus-Cheek (and Hudson-Odoi) have accomplished this year in our Europa League winning campaign is something to be proud of and something to build on.
Next year we take on the elite of the elite in the Champions League.