On the eve of the season kickoff in the FA Premier Academy League, we conclude our three-part season preview by looking more closely at Chelsea themselves, having previewed the club’s opponents in parts one and two.
The upcoming season is the first Dermott Drummy will have taken charge of from the start, having stepped up from Under-16 coach last season when Paul Clement was promoted to Reserve Team Manager. He benefits from a scholar intake made up largely of players he worked with at Under-16 level, and many of whom have been with the club for years, and are from the local area. It’s a balanced squad, with depth in midfield and attack, but worryingly short in some areas of defence.
To break down the team, we’ll start in goal. Whereas previous years have seen vast competition in this position, there are just two major players this year. Sam Walker enters his third year at the club and second as a scholar with a growing reputation, having put in some fine performances last year. Competing with him and likely to get as much playing time as he ever has is Aldi Haxhia. He’s been at the club a long time but has struggled to make the step up to Under-18 level, but will get his chance this year. Should either of them get injured, one of Niclas Heimann or Jan Sebek may drop down to deputise, or more likely, England Under-17 international Jamal Blackman will step up from the schoolboy ranks.
The defence took a big hit in pre-season with the serious injury suffered by Rohan Ince. He looks set to miss the entire year, and whilst his defending still had a lot of work ahead, he was a presence and someone capable of playing a big role. It leaves a hole alongside big Danny Mills, which might be filled by Kenny Strickland, signed after being released by Manchester United in the summer. Tom Hayden could also move into a central role, but it doesn’t suit his game so much. Depth at full-back, however, is better. Right-back will see Ben Sampayo compete with Billy Clifford, with the former providing a defensive security countered by the attacking instincts of the latter. On the left, Aziz Deen-Conteh will get the majority of starts but George Saville will have much more of a chance now that Ben Gordon will be progressing to the Reserves.
In midfield, things are exciting. The team looks likely to use the diamond formation being utilised by Carlo Ancelotti’s first team, meaning one extra role that wasn’t there in the 4-3-3/4-5-1 of the last few years. Conor Clifford is a likely captain and anchor of this unit, although with a growing number of Reserve loanees, he may have to step up. If he does, Anton Rodgers could step in, and even perhaps be a captaincy contender (although Billy Knott or Danny Mills would be favourite). More natural central midfield options include the incredibly gifted Josh McEachran and the slick and smooth James Ashton, who together should see some fluent play in the middle of the park, allowing Kaby to play with the freedom he loves in his preferred ‘number ten’ role behind the strikers.
If Drummy wants to go with wider options flanking a front two, he can call on Billy Knott and Milan Lalkovic. Both are dangerous players who can create and score at will. Kaby also has wing experience, whilst Billy Clifford and Bobby Devyne can also do jobs there, even if Devyne prefers to play up front. If called upon, Gokhan Tore will start and find this level below him, so he should be looking at Reserve involvement. That leaves a potentially lethal strikeforce of Marko Mitrovic and Philipp Prosenik, two ‘proper’ strikers with the frame to be a target man but the skill to create and finish chances for themselves. Mitrovic has shown he can consistently find the back of the net, but he needs to have a spell free of injury to press on.
If depth becomes an issue throughout the season attentions may turn to the Under-16s for cover, but whereas many of this new intake made the step up early last year, it may be unlikely this year because it’s a young schoolboy group. If necessary, the likes of Toni Sa, Nathaniel Chalobah or George Bowerman could get a look-in.
This all means that a potential ‘consistent’ line-up at this level (which never happens anyway) could be
Walker; Sampayo, Strickland, Mills, Deen-Conteh; Rodgers, McEachran, Ashton, Kaby; Lalkovic, Mitrovic
Pre-season has seen a number of shapes, styles, and personnel involved, and it’s been a good one, by and large. A comfortable 3-0 win opened against Colchester, before a successful and now traditional summer tour of Austria saw a 2-0 win over SC Magna. Upon returning to English shores, wins against Rushden & Diamonds and Bristol City followed, before a poor defeat away to Newcastle further emphasised defensive frailties which came to light against Bristol City. Scorelines of 5-4 and 3-5 back to back aren’t great, but they do make for a potentially entertaining season.
It’s a season you can keep completely up-to-date and informed on best here on CFCnet, and on the CFCnet Forums. Here’s to a successful campaign.