Chelsea Youth To First Team

I’ll be honest, until the last season I haven’t really enjoyed watching the Chelsea first team for several years.

Instead the highlight of my week was a Monday night reserve game or the chance to see the Youth Team progress in the Cup against Stevenage Borough or Shrewsbury Town. The football at that level is refreshingly honest; youngsters get the chance to show what they can do without the threat of a broken leg courtesy of the opposition team’s hatchet man (unless Blackburn happen to be in town).

It also helps that in recent years we’ve had a sterling crop of kids coming through, even those destined for lower league football look outstanding in the context of the team. Then there are the occasional jewels; Kakuta, Bruma, Clifford, McEachran and Chalobah spring to mind, players that look well ahead of anyone in their age group.

All this makes me wonder if there are similarly minded fans at Barcelona, how exciting it must have been to have seen a young Messi or Xavi or even Bojan playing in the youth and reserves. Except Barca reserves and youth teams don’t play at Brentford or Aldershot or even at the La Masia youth academy. Nor do they ‘compete’ against other reserve and youth sides, packed full of 2nd division standard (and below) has-beens and never-will-be’s. Barcelona B (reserves) and Juvenil A (Youth Team) play at the Mini Estadi, purpose built for their use. Barcelona B currently compete in the Segunda division, against Championship quality teams, playing a full fixture list with a mix of the best junior talent and experienced old heads. Compare this to the Chelsea Reserves.

We currently have no permanent home (the pitch at Brentford becoming increasingly unplayable towards the end of the last reserve season). Our reserves play in a league that features reserve sides from the majority of Premiership teams, although it’s interesting to note that certain teams, Spurs amongst them, withdrew from the Premier reserve league, questioning it’s value. If you look at the average ages of the reserve sides Chelsea submitted for the first game of the season (18.14), what you will find is that it is effectively an extension of the youth team. So if the reserves are actually the youth team +1, where do the reserves play? The standard and status of reserve football dictates that once a player reaches a certain level, they need to leave on loan to further their development, moving initially to a 2nd or 3rd division club and latterly to a Championship club. While this may be effective in some cases (JT at Notts Forest, Defoe at Bournemouth and Ashley Cole at Crystal Palace for instance) there are many more examples of loans stunting a players growth.

Using Scott Sinclair as an example; he made his debut for Bristol Rovers at 15 years of age before transferring to Chelsea. A season in the youth side and half a season in the reserves later, he made his debut for the senior side at 17. Later that same month he left on a short term loan to Plymouth where he impressed in their run to the Quarter Finals, scoring a particularly memorable solo goal. Upon his return to Chelsea he was immediately in first team plans, coming on against Arsenal and starting against Man United at home. So far so good, however the story changes at this point; unable to immediately cement a role in the first team squad, Sinclair spent the next 2 seasons on loan at 5 different clubs across the length and breadth of the country making only sporadic reserve team appearances in the brief time he spent at Cobham. In August this year he was finally sold on a permanent basis to Swansea in the Championship. Sinclair is the poster boy for the failure of the reserve system in English football; too good for that level of football he was farmed out on loan to clubs with facilities and coaching systems far below what you would expect at Cobham. By removing him from the protective umbrella of Cobham, Chelsea lost control of his development for 3 whole seasons.

The reason for this? Simply that reserve football isn’t of a high enough quality and there is no other option open to the club.
Humour me for a second, but compare this to Pedro Rodriguez at Barcelona. Prior to his breakthrough last year Rodriguez spent the previous 4 seasons playing in either the Barcelona B or C sides at varying levels of the Spanish league pyramid. He broke through to the Barca first team at the relatively late age of 22, but the important aspect is that throughout the previous 5 years he was able to gain experience at every tier of the Spanish league, all without changing coaches or leaving the La Masia  complex. Barca retained full control over his development but at no point was his progress stunted. The net result of this was 30+ league appearances and a World Cup Final appearance for a player that the previous season was plying his trade in the Segunda division. We can debate the relative merits of Sinclair and Pedro until the sun comes up but the most important factor in Pedro’s development is that he was given every opportunity by the club; can we really say that for Sinclair? Of Sinclair’s 5 years at the club, 3 of them were spent away from Cobham, living in hotels, away from friends and family, being coached by sub-standard coaches, coached not for his development but for the good of team he was on loan to.

It bears no comparison to the Barca model frankly. For every Sinclair there is a Pedro, for every Mancienne there is a Puyol, for every Messi could there be a Kakuta?

The worry long term is that for exceptional talents such as Kakuta the same options remain as they did for Sinclair. The recent loan arrangement with Vitesse Arnhem is encouraging, surely it will be more beneficial for Matej Delac to spend a season in Holland than at Crewe like Rhys Taylor. However this only addresses the issue on a piece meal basis.

As it currently stands the step between reserve football and first team football at the very top level in England is too large, the risks of playing a green youngster in anything other than the cup competitions too great. Until the powers that be allow the formation of B teams in the English league system we will continue to produce talented footballers that drift into relative obscurity by the age of 21. Had Chelsea operated a B team in the Championship, players like Sinclair, Stoch, Kakuta, Mancienne, Bertrand, Cork et al would be content, playing regular top level football in an environment that is built around their development, in a team environment, all without any degree of change. They would be able to play for the first team when needed or when ready yet still play for the B team.

A simple look at the World Cup semi final this year between arguably the best two teams tells an interesting story. Of the 28 players that played that day for Spain and Germany only 10 were not brought through the B team system. Of the Spain starting eleven 5 players had pulled on the jersey for Barcelona B.

What then does the future hold for Chelsea youngsters? The old adage goes “if they are good enough they’ll make it”. Certainly this is true of some players, but all players develop in different ways .

For every Torres, in the Athletico Madrid team at 17, there is an Ian Wright, playing Sunday league at 22. The only way to develop these players is through proper coaching and individual development plans, a one size fits all solution is no longer good enough.

There needs to be a reward for players that develop at a sufficient rate and that reward is not 6 months on a frozen training ground in Crewe.

Posted by Elliott for England

9 thoughts on “Chelsea Youth To First Team

  • Vespar

    You haven’t enjoyed watching Chelsea for several years? LOL!

    You sound like another armchair wannabe manager.

    It’s time football fans enjoyed football for what it is, just a game, enjoy the highs and lows of following the game, celebrate goals and winning trophies, moan about defeats, worship your heroes, have a great day out with your mates but leave tactics to the experts.

    I think you would be more at home watching Arsenal at the emirates, you won’t see any success but you can pat yourself on the back about what a talent spotter you are.

    Do you wear a long “managers coat” at the stiffs?

  • Rob Newton

    Sums up the state of English football in a nut shell.

    Ever since going on a FA coaching course i’ve questioned what the FA actually do to produce quality coaches and a proper development structure.

    The barca model takes enormous resource and planning to get it into the state where they can effectively manage their future assets. This is why English football really is light years behind the rest.

  • Trizia

    I watched a program once which compared how young footballers are trained in this country as opposed to in Holland. The problem with here is that if you are not of a certain size by a certain age then you are invariably let go. Where as in Europe they put far more store by skill and are more patient – after all everyone developes at different rates.
    The likes of Gianfranco Zola probably would have been let go at a young age had he been born in ENgland because of his size!

  • Nick

    “Sinclair is the poster boy for the failure of the reserve system in English football”

    I think you confuse English Football with Chelsea.

    Clubs like Arsenal are producing premiership footballers every year, Chelsea poached Cole and there are many other plying their trade in the PL. A few are now breaking into the first team. Clubs who have a philosophy of buying success dont have time to allow youngsters come through as such a philosophy demands continued success.
    Chelsea will possibly start tomorrow with only one English player and maybe none, will that be news as it is at Arsenal?

  • Arsenal don’t “produce premiership players every year” they buy teenage prodigies from lowly clubs in France and Spain and then claim they’re products of their youth system, when in fact most of the hard work has already been done by someone else.

    This is a model that many clubs including Chelsea are now to an extent following, It’s far easier to pay a few hundred thousand pounds on players that have shown talent elsewhere than to bring in hundreds of young hopefulls to your club each year in the hope 1 or 2 are good enough, It’s probably cheaper too.

  • Elliott for England

    Just to respond to some of the comments.

    Vespar – Each to their own, because I take an interest in the whole club rather than just a matchday experience that doesn’t make me an armchair manager and to suggest that I’d be more at home at the Emirates suggests that it is you not me that fails to understand what being a supporter is all about.

    Rob – I agree, the changes in the academy at Cobham are hugely positive but arguably it’s a change in the national infrastructure that needs to take place first.

    Triz – I think things are improving certainly, there are still limitations on size for English players which I believe is due to the different application of refereeing in the English game, maybe a topic for future articles!

    Nick – On the contrary, I think you confuse English football with Arsenal. Sinclair is symptomatic of the issues that every team in the English top flight experiences including Arsenal. Yes Arsenal have managed to integrate youngsters into the team but to what end? Arsenal have gone from being perrenial challengers to being also-rans with the promise that next season will be the season the kids come good. The prospect of losing the only world class youngster Arsenal have brought on, since Ashley Cole, next summer will put even more pressure on these kids. (And you didn’t even develop him, he came in as near to the finished article as you can be at 16).

    Thank you for all your comments though everyone!

  • Stan Streason

    A fantastic article which has mirrored my views for years. This could all be changed at a stroke however by allowing ownership of other clubs.

    Imagine we bought, say, Brentford and were allowed to play any number of under 21s in their side. It solves the lower leagues financial problems at a stroke – they train at Cobham with better facilities using the same systems. Players get competative matches – Brentford get higher attendances. There is no drawback that I can see (other than to some journeymen cloggers in the lower divisions ) which cannot be addressed with a small rule or two (drawn in FA Cup or promotion etc.)

  • excellent article

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