The benefit of the FA Youth Cup Final being a two-legged affair means that one can analyse both teams in the time between matches, and the first meeting typically throws up a lot of talking points ahead of the deciding ninety minutes. For both Chelsea and Aston Villa, this bank holiday weekend will have been a busy one, with pre-final briefs now being adapted to what was learned last Thursday night when the two teams shared a 1-1 draw at Villa Park. For everyone else, it offers the chance to look ahead at what we may see.
Tony McAndrew’s side adopted a basic 4-4-2 shape on paper, but in practice it often became a 4-2-3-1. Industrious midfielders Richard Blythe and Ebby Nelson-Addy kept things sturdy in the middle, with the pace of Tomos Roberts on the left keeping Billy Clifford in check. On the other flank, Samir Carruthers was more prone to cutting inside, allowing either Ryan Simmonds or Kofi Poyser to drop into the right-hand side channels whilst the other remained up top. It was essentially a plan to counter Chelsea’s three-man central midfield with an extra threat in the middle, knowing that Jacopo Sala and Gokhan Tore were unlikely to be the hardest working in a defensive capacity.
For their part, it worked quite well. Kaby and Conor Clifford proved industrious as you would expect them to be, having a physical edge over their opponents and using it to drive the team forward. The third of Dermot Drummy’s midfield trio, Josh McEachran, had a quiet first half, only popping up to hit the crossbar, but came into the game in the second half, yet not in they way the team really needed. His passing and link-up play was its typical composed, adept self, but he was stifled into passing into the areas Villa really wanted him to, and when the hosts were able to put six outfielders behind the ball, it meant the only way to goal was either through long shots from Clifford, or blocked efforts when the play came through the middle.
Indeed, Chelsea were only able to score from a set-piece, with Jeffrey Bruma sending a lovely effort past Benjamin Siegrist to restore order. The best chance of the night from open play came when McEachran capitalised on a slip inside the Villa penalty area and gave Marko Mitrovic an open goal, which was blocked by Durrell Berry. The woodwork was hit on three occasions, but two were efforts from outside the area and the third was a header from a corner which was never going in, dipping onto the bar from a height.
In retrospect it was always going to go down this rather predictable rout, as both sides would have wanted to maintain a chance of victory in the second leg. The Youth Cup is a single-match knockout competition until the Semi Final stages, and the two teams clearly changed strategy when they reached the last four. Villa ensured a level playing field travelling to Newcastle ahead of their second leg, and the Blues battled hard to a 1-0 win at Blackburn, a result which belied their previously prolific cup campaign but equally one which set up a 4-0 massacre in the return match at Stamford Bridge.
So where will each team win it? For Chelsea, the return to fitness of Conor Clifford will be crucial, and should be likely as his late withdrawal on Thursday was precautionary. If he and Kaby can take hold of the game in midfield, the majority of the momentum should come through their distribution. McEachran will need to get open and involved more, perhaps requiring Sala to play inside more than he did in the first match, and allowing Billy Clifford to get into more advanced positions, akin to the rampant performance we saw from Aziz Deen-Conteh last week. The young left-back capably supported Gokhan Tore all evening and the duo caused no end of problems to Berry at right-back, but Ellis Deeney on the opposite side wasn’t tested, despite being almost as inexperienced in the position as Berry is his.
If both full-backs face an odd-numbered battle, Blythe and Nelson-Addy will be expected to help shore up the defence, and leave their positions infield. That should, in turn, create room for Chelsea’s midfielders, and things will hopefully go from there. Mitrovic will thrive, as usual, on an odd-numbered battle in the penalty area, and is a great target to feed off. In the event Clifford is unfit, Sala will play in midfield, with McEachran dropping deeper and Lalkovic coming in wide. The Slovakian can be hit and miss but will at least test Deeney’s agility and athleticism, and can provide crosses for Mitrovic to work on.
The visitors will want to play the second match as tightly as they played the first, looking to shore up their back four with the same two midfielders in a strong unit of six, looking for the pace ahead of them to spring on the break. Daniel Mills Pappoe will miss out injured, meaning Rohan Ince plays again, and he didn’t look particularly composed in the first leg. If Poyser and Simmonds pressure his first touch they can get a result and potentially damage the young defender’s confidence, and with the knowledge of a poor backpass leading to Daniel Devine’s opener last time out, he will want a strong showing on home turf.
Set pieces must be taken advantage of when they get the opportunity. Devine and Williams are big targets, and whilst Ince, Bruma and Mitrovic are tall, only Bruma really dominated in the air. The rest of the Chelsea team are short and will be relying on Sam Walker to command his area in the way he often does, standing head and shoulders over almost every academy opponent he faces. Ideally, from an Aston Villa perspective, the match stays goalless for as long as possible, and then maybe the late introduction of Darius Darkin’s pace and Arsenio Halfhuid’s physicality can provide a crucial go-ahead goal.
It proves to be a fascinating match-up already, with kickoff a mere 24 hours away. For the 22 starting players, ten substitutes and assembled coaching staffs, this is the moment in the season they’ve been waiting and preparing for, and neither will want to let it pass without doing themselves justice.
The match kicks off at 7.45pm at Stamford Bridge, live on Chelsea TV. Tickets cost £3 (£1 concessions) and remain on sale until 5pm tomorrow afternoon. With the East Lower and Matthew Harding Lower stands already sold out, a healthy attendance is expected, so get yourself down to the match and give the lads the support they need to bring home what will hopefully be the first of three trophies in a fortnight.