When posed with the question of how to improve upon their successful 2007/08 youth campaign, Chelsea will find an easy answer.
Take the next step.
Paul Clement’s boys made Chelsea history last season by becoming the first Blues team in almost half a century to reach the FA Youth Cup Final. The run ended in painful defeat to Manchester City, but was a fantastic indication of what the team – as individuals right now and for the future – can achieve. The League campaign was perhaps a disappointment, suffering disrupted line-ups due to the Cup run, but as the club continually stresses, the development of the player is of primary importance. With a record number of Under 18s representing the Reserves for Brendan Rodgers, that part of the plan is certainly on course.
This summer saw Chelsea move into the new Academy Building and Pavilion. The facility provides everything the players and staff could possibly wish for to aid development to the very maximum, and continues the commitment towards the Academy’s motto of ‘From Foundation to Excellence’. The team now have the facilities, and a quite stunning home playing surface (complete with stands for spectators), on which to hone their futures.
For the first time in three years, the youth team will enter the campaign with the same coach from the previous season. After Brendan Rodgers stepped up to the Reserves in 2006, Ruud Kaiser was hired. The Dutchman left the club after just one season, and was replaced by then-Under 16 coach Paul Clement. The affable and committed Clement is incredibly popular amongst players, staff, family and fans, and with him leading the team again this year, hopes are high.
On the playing front, it’s been another busy year of intakes, with over ten new faces to the Under 18 side. Some, such as Aldi Haxia, Tom Hayden and Frank Nouble have been at the club for a number of years. Others, like Sam Walker, Conor Clifford, Jacopo Sala and Kaby, have been at the club for a year and have had valuable experience in the Under 16s; whilst Vincenzo Camilleri and Marko Mitrovic are new to England and Chelsea. With no notable Under 18 departures to speak of, it leaves a large pool of players to choose from, but also the opportunity for many to push on to greater things at an earlier age.
Take the goalkeeping situation, for example. With Haxia and Walker becoming first year scholars, there are four contenders for one spot. Jan Sebek returns after a troubled first year in England, whilst Niclas Heimann currently has the starting jersey. The young German stopper featured for much of last season and has been given the opportunity to back Rhys Taylor up at reserve level.
In defence, Camilleri will slot straight in alongside Jack Saville at centre-half – Saville being another who will hope to make an impact for Rodgers after scoring on his reserve debut in April. Nikki Ahmed and Tom Hayden will share right-back duties, whilst Ben Gordon and Billy-Joe King will do the same on the left. With Hayden and King capable of playing at centre-back if needed, and Jeffrey Bruma still only a first-year, there’s good depth across the back four – even if they have looked slightly porous in pre-season.
The midfield has taken on a new look over the summer, in both personnel and shape. For the last three seasons the centre of the park has taken on the look of the first team – a trio with one holding behind two more attacking players. This summer, at least, has seen Clement adopt a different look, with two players holding in the middle of the park, with two more traditional midfield wingers and one player playing off a lone striker. With just two central spots on the cards, competition will be hard-fought for starting places, with the three main contenders all having captained the team in pre-season too. Daniel Philliskirk, Conor Clifford and Jordan Hibbert are all capable and highly talented, and any pairing of the three will typically do well against every opponent.
Having such security in the middle allows for a bit more freedom and flair further forward. Jordan Tabor has moved into midfield permanently, with more chances to start on the left wing than at left back, whilst Jacopo Sala and Frank Nouble will offer fantastic threats on the right. Diminutive Portuguese playmaker Kaby should take on the role Gael Kakuta played so sensationally last season, with plenty of skill and hopefully as many goals, with Sala also capable of playing in this role.
Which leaves the strikeforce. It’s not been a position of strength for a couple of years, but Fabio Borini has looked prolific in pre-season and very much a more confident player heading into his second year in England. Frank Nouble prefers to play as the lead striker and may have that opportunity at times, and Adam Phillip will be back from a serious knee injury at the turn of the year. Uruguayan Jhon Pirez will arrive from Defensor Sporting in time for the start of the season but it’s another new signing that is most interesting in this department.
Marko Mitrovic is a tall, powerful, and highly skilled forward signed from Malmo in Sweden, and most recently finished as top scorer in the Under 16 Nordic Tournament, with seven goals in four games, including three braces. His prowess in front of goal will give the team a real focal point and hopefully a prolific striker wearing the number 9 shirt.
With such depth across the pitch, it might seem hard for any of the Under 16s to get opportunities to step up as schoolboys this season, as has been the case with many players in the last two seasons. Yet Milan Lalkovic, Rohan Ince, Billy Knott and Josh MacEachran have all featured for the 18s over the summer and can have their own dynamic impact.
With wins against FC Karnten and Middlesbrough and draws with QPR, Brighton and Wolves completing an undefeated pre-season, all that’s left to do now is finalise plans for Thursday morning’s big kickoff against Crewe. The match gets underway at 11am on the new pitch at Cobham. A full report will follow on CFCnet.