In a season where Chelsea has been erratic and disappointing to say the least, manager Antonio Conte continues to face pressure for his underperforming team. In return, the manager has complained that he has not received enough support from the board. This, despite spending an inordinate amount of money on two defenders, a striker and two midfielders this summer, and then another midfielder and striker in the January window — all arguably of first-team quality.
But the fact is that Chelsea’s problems stem from more than just that. One should consider how their inconsistency over the years is tied to the youth setup that the soon-to-be deposed champions have.
Chelsea currently has 38 players out on loan, and their academy has had remarkable success in the FA Youth Cup in recent years. Now, one might question how many of these players could actually be first-team quality. That ultimately is a chicken-or-egg question — how would you really know without giving them a chance? In a period where many Chelsea fans had complained about Tiemoué Bakayoko, perhaps Ruben Loftus-Cheek could have been given a look. Or Watford’s Nathaniel Chalobah, who was sold by Conte himself.
The list goes on. Nathan Aké: good enough to make the Dutch national team, but apparently not the Chelsea first team. Ryan Bertrand, England’s most in-form natural left-back right now? What about Tomáš Kalas, Gaël Kakuta, Lucas Piazon? Or Josh McEachran, who was supposed to be the next big thing, who’s now plying his trade at Brentford? More recently, promising youngsters like Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah have returned to the Premier League to demonstrate just what Chelsea has missed out on.
The fact of the matter is that other than John Terry, Chelsea has no legacy of handing first-team starts to youngsters. The problem is that when players return from loan, they never get a chance to shine, perhaps with the exception of Andreas Christensen. That does incredible damage to the club’s reputation and, more importantly, to the players. With all their potential, youngsters should have the opportunity to shine, but instead Chelsea has turned the notion of sustainability on its head; instead of bringing through players from the academy, they buy them cheap and sell them high, so as to then re-invest in the first team. It helps them with Financial Fair Play and brings them occasional success, but nothing more.
This is a function of the failed leadership of Roman Abramovich, who hires and fires managers faster than any other owner in the league. New managers mean players need to once again prove their worth and youngsters often get sidelined.
Perhaps one might ultimately be too harsh on Chelsea. Looking at the top six teams, one could make the case that only Harry Kane has really been a true first-teamer from an academy. While previous and current top managers have handed opportunities to Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Phil Foden to name a few, none of them are considered consistent first-teamers at the moment. And that’s because the Premier League demands instant success, forcing clubs to perennially be in win-now mode and as a result, ignore youth development.
But there’s no question that Chelsea is the worst offender of all.