Saturday’s matchday programme featured an interview with Frank Arnesen on all things Chelsea academy related. The Blues’ Sporting Director previously served as Head of Youth Development and Scouting, and is still deeply involved with everything in that area.
CFC: Frank, your role changed at the beginning of this season as you became Sporting Director and moved into the first team building. How important a part of your job does youth development remain?
FA: I think it’s a very important part of the job – we are very much focused on the development of all our players once we have got them here – it’s what we call ‘internal scouting’. I went from the academy building to being closer to the first team and also to being more visible to players and staff if I’m needed. But I’m always here, there and everywhere because I still go over to the Academy and travel to watch games with our scouts. Youth players can arrive from the age of eight and, from then up to the first team, internal scouting makes sure their development is going in the right direction. Obviously there’s not a lot of changes going on until they’re 17 or 18 because they are just moving up the age groups of the youth team. Then it starts to get more complicated because from 17 to 22 years is the most difficult part of a player’s career, particularly at a top club like Chelsea.
CFC: You moved from Denmark as a young man to join Ajax because they were one of Europe’s top clubs. Does the fact that you’ve been through that yourself help you to understand it better when you’re guiding players here?
FA: Absolutely. I think it’s a big, big advantage for me, because I know what they’re experiencing. But we are all different and you can never compare one player with another, it’s about individual characters and backgrounds. So you have to really listen and look at the individuals, not just say there’s one way of doing things with all the players. I was 18 when I moved to Ajax and there were two of us moving – my friend Soren Lerby was with me and was only 17. To go out at 17 or 18 at that time was very unusual, it kick-started with us really and was a very difficult time for us. So I know how it is to go out to a country where you don’t understand a word of what they’re saying and you just have to get on. At that time there was absolutely no support from the club, not that they didn’t want to, but it was not set up like that back then. Now we do everything we can to make sure that they get comfortable as quickly as possible at Chelsea. So I have a lot of experience in that and I use my own experience a lot, I have done since the beginning.
CFC: So it takes time before you see the best from a youngster arriving in the Academy from abroad then…
FA: One thing I’ve always said, which I think is very important, is that a new player in a club needs to adapt. You have to give him time, even if he’s come from somewhere else in England because from the north, for example, to London there is a world of difference. Sometimes you see the pressure on players, especially when they come to a club like Chelsea and the demand is big to win every game. That’s the way it is but you have to remember still that they are human beings – this is very important for all the players here and it’s important for the staff to understand it as well. We say to our staff: ‘Don’t talk about how they are playing for the first six months.’ The pressure is big enough to be in another country for the first time and learning English so this is what we have to worry about first. Then, little by little, in their second year you start to demand more things from them.
CFC: There are plenty of examples of players who have improved markedly in their second season in those circumstances aren’t there?
FA: Look at Branislav Ivanovic, he didn’t play a minute for six months and now you can see how he has developed. Not only is he at home himself, he is also helping Yuriy Zhirkov settle in London. This is a very good example of a player adapting at the highest level because he was Defender of the Year in Russia when he came here, but he needed half a year to get into everything before he kicked on, then off he goes.
CFC: Some of our overseas Academy players have made first-team appearances this season with Jeffrey Bruma, Gael Kakuta and Fabio Borini all getting their debuts. Although you mentioned patience, is that encouraging to see?
FA: Very much and also I think it’s going the way we have planned and spoken about since 2006. The players we got in back then were 16 years old and we kicked off with that year’s intake, so that was a very important time when we could say we were on our marks. From 16, it’s a long way before they can challenge for a first-team place but now Bruma, Kakuta and Borini are 18 and it’s normal that they will come in to train with the first team and get some games. Still, every game they get is like a present because the level is so high here. If you look at the top teams and see the players who are 18 or 19, they are rarely playing games – they are getting involved in three or four games per season normally. The philosophy of this club is to give them chances to play, if they’re good enough of course. Carlo is backing that 100 per cent and it’s good that this is going in the right direction.
CFC: All three of those players were involved in the FA Youth Cup Final two years ago, as was Daniel Sturridge, albeit for the opposition! Does that bode well for this year’s Youth Cup team who have a semi-final coming up?
FA: I’ve always said that the FA Youth Cup is probably the best youth tournament in Europe, although I know Germany is not bad as well because they get full houses for the final. But in England they have a great set-up, you can play in the first team stadium, there’s always a fuss around before the competition in the week before and you feel that. It’s also the only time where we say “We have to win,” to the youth team and that is also development for them because they learn that winning is a nice habit and you have to be a winner here. Now we’re in the semi-final again, for the second time in three years, and you don’t get to the semi-final if you don’t have some talent. But it’s still such a long way to say: ‘Yeah, we can go all the way with this youth team and in two or three years have them in the first team.’ That’s a long, long way from here but we are in a good position right now.
In an extension to the interview, Arnesen spoke about tactics and systems and how this development can help players to adapt to the first team if they are asked to step up:
‘I think it’s very important that the players learn to play in different systems. I was at Ajax for five and a half years and everybody says “Ajax always play 4-3-3” but that is rubbish. When I played there, in my first year we played 4-3-3 under Rinus Michels, but with the next coach we played 5-3-2 for the whole year and we won the championship. The year after that we played 4-2-4, so in my first two and a half years I learned to play a lot of systems. Here, we have also done that for the last few years with the youth team – some games we try to go out and play 4-4-2 and, with Ancelotti coming in, it’s important that they learn the Christmas Tree and the diamond. But our philosophy for development in the youth team is to play 4-3-3 because we think that is the best system to develop a player.’