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