For most of the beginning years under Roman Abramovich, Chelsea were very focused around winning, and winning now. He was pouring money into the team at rates that had never been seen before and in the short term, it absolutely worked. However, with the introduction of Financial Fair Play and in the changing European landscape, Chelsea have been forced to change their habits. There has been much more of a pattern of finding young talent and developing them into top players. Evidence of this change can be seen in their well-known policy of only offering 1-year deals to players over the age of 30. This has also been illustrated in their most recent transfer dealings.
A perfect example of this is Kurt Zouma. Bought at a bargain of an estimated £12 million, Zouma is maturing into one of the best young center backs in the world. However, an even better example of Chelsea’s growing strength in youth talent, is their academy. For years, Manchester United has been renowned for having one of the strongest academies in the world. With their “Class of 92’”, it’s really hard to question that logic. But times have changed for United, and the tides seem to be turning in the direction of the Blues. Their U-21 team won both the league and the FA Youth Cup last season.
Their academy boasts some of the top European youth talents. Players such as Nathan Ake, Dominic Solanke, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are widely considered the gems of the academy. Lewis Baker, Izzy Brown, Andreas Christensen, and Nathaniel Chalobah have also shown great promise. However, I will focus on the 4 youngsters who I think have the most star potential, and these are Ake, Solanke, Zouma, and Loftus-Cheek.
The young Dutchman joined from Feyenoord in the summer of 2011 after his successful U-17 world cup appearance. He is a very versatile player who is very skilled in the back, but also can find himself contributing in the midfield. Ake made his first-team debut on Boxing Day in 2012, one of six appearances the youngster would make last season. However, in January of 2014, the Dutchman was permanently promoted to the first team. Ahead of the 2013/14 season it was announced Ake had signed a five-year contract at Stamford Bridge, keeping him at the club until 2018. Ake has made a few appearances this campaign while training with the first team. However, he has contributed greatly to the U21 team.
When playing in the first team, all the signs of a true star have been there. In the preseason, Ake slid into the left back role and was pretty much flawless. During the season, Ake received two starts in the League Cup against Bolton and Shrewsbury Town, both of which were strong performances at defensive midfield. Ake also came off the bench in Chelsea’s 6-0 romp of NK Maribor in the Champions League. The youngster was responsible for Eden Hazard’s 2nd goal of the game with a beautiful long pass to the Belgian.
When Ake steps onto the pitch, there is a swagger about him. Not with an air of cockiness, but he acts like he belongs next to the world class players that he lines up next to, and rightfully so. He is without a doubt ready to earn some further minutes at the business end of this season.
Dominic Solanke is originally from Reading and has been with Chelsea since Under-8s. Solanke is a natural born striker with a knack for scoring goals. He has scored 16 goals in all competitions so far this season for the youth teams. The striker has also made several appearances for the Englsnd U17 during their successful European Championship campaign in the summer of 2014. He netted five goals in qualification and then, in Malta at the final tournament, he finished joint-top goalscorer.
Solanke signed a professional contract in September 2014. He made his debut as a substitute in a Chelsea’s Champions League tie against Maribor, becoming the youngest Chelsea player to participate in the competition.
Solanke is the type of player that fans should be getting excited about. This guy scores goals, and a lot of them. He has that striker mentality that is hard to come by. He works hard to create his own chances, but importantly he finishes off plays. A lot of strikers, brimming with talent, miss easy opportunities to put games away, easy tap-ins etc. Not Solanke.
Solanke is another player that will have a role at Chelsea next season, and quite possibly at the business end of the season. However, that will depend on the health of Chelsea’s strikers, coupled with their lead over Manchester City in the league. Either way, there is one fact that’s certain, the young Englishmen has a bright future at Chelsea, and the English National team as well.
What makes Zouma so special? Well, there are a number of physical attributes that he possesses. The young Frenchman is 1.90 m tall and has a strong ability to jump and win balls in the air. Zouma also has tantalizing pace, which allows him to keep pace with fast strikers, and recover quickly, after him or a teammate gets beaten. However, this young man’s maturity is the standout factor for me in his current success. He has come into a well-experienced Chelsea side, brimming with talent, and has looked the part all along. Being able to easily assimilate into one of the best squads in Europe is no easy task and Zouma, at just 20 years old, has done so with ease.
There is no doubt that Kurt Zouma has a bright future ahead of him. What’s makes him so intimidating is the fact that he is so young. Zouma is only going to get better. Just thinking about his early preseason performances and his performance in the latter stages of the League Cup, there is no comparison between the two. Obviously, Zouma is gaining confidence and skill from training with such elite players. Although learning from Gary Cahill, he has also done enough for people to start to ask questions of Cahill’s selection ahead of Zouma. This is a mighty task to achieve, just ask David Luiz and Tommy Kalas. While Zouma might be paired with Cahill later in his career, he might have even proved that Chelsea need another CB signing in the next few windows to give Cahill even more competition.
While this remains to be seen, there is no doubt that Zouma will have a place in Chelsea’s starting XI for many years to come. Especially with his new found ability to play in the midfield. While most were initially skeptical of Mourinho’s decision to start Zouma in this position, Zouma did his very best to prove these critics wrong. He made 100% of this attempted tackles from the midfield, while simultaneously picking out several good passes. Zouma looked very comfortable at CDM, where he had less time to distribute the ball than at his typical CB role. Using his speed to patrol the area that Matic typically dominates, Zouma not only justified his selection, but impressed as one of the top performers in the game. Overall, between Zouma’s versatility, strength and willingness to learn, the Frenchman has a bright future at Chelsea.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been with Chelsea since the Under-8s age group and is a talented box-to-box midfielder capable of controlling games. In 2013/14 he was part of the Under-21 squad which lifted the Premier League title, as well as captaining our Under-18s to FA Youth Cup glory.
Loftus-Cheek made his first team debut against Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League. He also made a late appearance against Manchester City in the Premier League. The youngster has impressed so much so that in February, Loftus-Cheek was promoted to the first team squad. He will take the number 36 shirt for the Blues.
There is no doubt the young Englishman has promise. His initial touch and finesse with the ball dictates that. However, what RLC brings to the pitch is his sheer size. The young midfielder stands at 191 cm. That’s absolutely gigantic for someone of his position. He can dictate the midfield, while also shield the back four. What makes him and even more perfect of a match for Chelsea is the fact that he has a built in mentor at the club. Who better to learn from than Nemanja Matic, who boasts a similar stature, skill and position. There is no doubt in my mind that between Matic, and Mourinho, Loftus-Cheek will not only be a Chelsea starter, but an absolute star.
Contribution by @tyler_strauss_
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