With Monday’s victory in the UEFA Youth League final Chelsea’s Academy continues to establish itself amongst Europe’s elite. While the tournament is very much in its infancy the victory is a fantastic result for all concerned. Chelsea, the first club in England to win the prestigious tournament, join an exceptional Barcelona side as winners of the premier competition for Academy sides. The 3-2 victory against Shakhtar Donetsk flattered their Ukrainian rivals; it was a well-deserved end to a tournament which saw Chelsea play remarkably well from the outset.
Playing against their peers Chelsea’s youth teams are amongst the best in Europe. On an individual basis there are stars in almost every position at the respective age groups. Yet, without opportunity at senior level the tangible success of the Academy can never truly be measured. Winning tournaments at youth level looks good superficially but what is the ultimate goal? To develop young players to sell/loan at a profit or bring through players who understand the fabric of the club?
If the FA get their way Premier League teams will need to include 12 home grown players in the squad (we currently have 3). While I believe this is unlikely to happen the feasibility of a compromise being sought is still a risk. Chelsea were miles ahead of other teams strategically when it came to navigating the perils of Financial Fair Play. The oft mentioned “buy, loan and sell” strategy is incredibly profitable approach. Do Chelsea look to adopt something similar and move early to pre-empt any potential squad constraints in the future?
If the required number of home grown players increases significantly, Chelsea are clearly at a disadvantage if they react late. We currently have the lowest total of registered home grown players in the Premier League. This is not so much about “playing the youth” for the sake of it, but adopting a strategy that bloods the best talent we have to futureproof us against any significant changes. Capitalising on what is a phenomenally gifted group of players now means less work or panic if changes are made.
That aside watching the youth team this season has been a pleasure. Nonetheless, of all the players grabbing headlines one name appears to consistently fly underneath the radar. In a team with an embarrassing array of attacking talent the likes of Abraham, Boga, Brown, Musonda and Solanke regularly take the plaudits. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has already been earmarked for a role with the first team next season. Yet it is Charlie Colkett who is the heartbeat of the side. His metronomic passing, tactical awareness, technical skill and distribution allow everyone in this Chelsea side to play.
Colkett has had some outstanding moments this season which show up in highlights packages. Nevertheless, to really appreciate what he does you have to watch an entire ninety minutes. He subtly dictates games - making elaborate things look simple and moving the ball as well as anyone in the Chelsea first team squad. Everything he does is well planned and executed. He draws favourable comparisons to Luka Modrić and Andres Iniesta (I should qualify I am talking about stylistically, not that Colkett will go on and become either player). The way he moves in midfield and his touch are very much like the Spaniard and his use of the ball reminiscent of the Croatian.
Vision and passing ability are things that transcend the constraints of age group football. In this respect there might not be a Chelsea player to come through the Academy that possesses Charlie Colkett’s footballing brain. He sees things during games that even to the viewer with an optimal view do not appear there. This pass in particular is absurd - to not only see the run but to execute the pass perfectly is baffling:
It is this vision that separates him from practically everyone he plays against. It is also what should enable him to make a similar impact at the next level. Colkett always has time and even in frenetically paced games he conducts the flow of the game. While having vision is one thing it is his capacity to consistently produce excellent passes that makes him both a joy to watch and so difficult to play against.
The philosophy of la pausa (expertly explained here) is something that Colkett subconsciously embodies. It is “the moment when a No10, poised to deliver a pass, delays a fraction, waiting for the player he is looking to feed to reach the ideal position”. Juan Román Riquelme perhaps is the most recent embodiment of this particular talent: an innate sense in manipulating the ball perfectly. Everything from the weight of Colkett’s passes, to the angle, the imagination, confidence, aggression and importantly the accuracy reflect la pausa.
In fact stylistically Colkett is precisely the type of midfielder that Chelsea’s first team could use. Imagine slotting Modrić in alongside Matić - that ability to be the person passing the ball that creates opportunities for Chelsea’s attacking players. Putting creative players in space to work their magic is something Modrić is renowned for and Colkett has been doing that all season for Chelsea’s youth teams.
Fàbregas is a wonderful footballer but he is always looking for the killer ball from any area on the park. Modrić’s brilliance is in his subtlety and variation - sometimes a perfectly weighted 10 yard pass that puts Hazard in a 1-on-1 situation is better than a 60 yard pass to Costa that may lead to us going nowhere. We lack that intricate link play from deep and that is something Colkett has excelled in this season.
Colkett’s quality on the ball across an entire game is dazzling to watch. Elaborate when he needs to be, simple when required, aggressive when the opportunity is on, relaxed when no one is there, he is incredibly intelligent with his use of the ball. Boga and Musonda ran the show in the UEFA Youth League final, but it was Colkett’s influence from the middle of the pitch that allowed the Chelsea youngsters to exert their authority during the game. He set the tempo, found pockets of space and continually fed Chelsea’s attacking talent with excellent ball all game.
His footwork is almost Iniesta-esque. The way he shimmies, shakes and dribbles in tight areas looks so utterly impudent that it must frustrate anyone trying to tackle him. One outrageous piece of skill in the final sent Loftus-Cheek clear to shoot over. His ability to pass is one thing but possessing quick and skilful feet elevate him to another level. The first time you see him play you might think “he’s taking a chance there” but after the tenth time of him adroitly manoeuvring himself out of trouble you just accept that it is a facet of his game that not everyone has.
Either playing as a 10 or in a slightly deeper role, where I prefer him, Colkett has quietly shone. Perhaps the biggest development in his game this season is his tackling. By no means is he Michael Essien reincarnated, but he regularly wins his fair share of ball. I think the biggest compliment I can pay him is that he reminds me of Michael Carrick defensively. Not a physical destroyer but someone who breaks the game up due to positional play and a desire to win the ball. He noticeably presses well and judiciously and my concerns about him physically no longer exist. A tough player with a competitive edge, he can hold his own.
Things are effortless for Colkett at youth team level and at just 18 years of age there is still much more to come from him. He is the fulcrum of arguably the most talented Chelsea Academy side there has been. His style is one that looks increasingly aligned to the needs of Chelsea’s first team: someone with the capability of dictating play from deep and the confidence to play difficult passes. Colkett is burgeoning into a fine midfielder - whether his future is as a technical and creative number ten or a midfield passing general remains to be seen.
It may be too early to determine whether Colkett is another young English player who is to be sent on loan or pushed into the first team picture. He is, however, along with Loftus-Cheek an incredibly promising talent who needs to be nurtured correctly. Colkett has shone this season and he significantly improves those around him. Watching him control the tempo of a game, either quick or slow, is like watching someone who has played the game well into their 30s. Can he push into the Chelsea 1st team within the next three years? Right now only time will tell, but watching him develop during that period will be as fascinating as it is exciting.