Chelsea’s Under 18s returned to winning ways this morning with a stylish 4-2 victory away to West Ham at Little Heath. Despite falling behind inside five minutes, goals from Frank Nouble, Fabio Borini, Jacob Mellis, and an own goal gave the Blues a comfortable advantage they thoroughly deserved for some scintillating football.
With no immediate Reserve commitments to plan for, Paul Clement was able to call upon some of his stronger names as he looked for a turn-around not only in results, but performances – especially defensively. Niclas Heimann donned the goalkeeping gloves, whilst Jeffrey Bruma lined up in central defence. Jacob Mellis and Gael Kakuta joined him in returning to Under 18 action, and Fabio Borini led the line once more.
Things didn’t start well for the Blues – in yellow on the day – though. A poor pass from Daniel Philliskirk (once again captaining the team from centre-half) gave the ball straight to Ahmed Abdullah 25 yards from goal. The ex-Arsenal schoolboy saw Heimann out of position to one side of the goal and took aim, beating the German inside his left hand post. If any one moment was symbolic of the way Chelsea’s defence has played so far this season, this could be it, and another long morning appeared to be on the cards.
Those predictions were found to be in error though, as Clement’s boys asserted themselves on the game immediately, playing everything through Kakuta, who was in absolutely dazzling form. He twice shot straight at Canadian goalkeeper Adam Street when maybe scoring was a bit easier, then earned a free kick from which Street made a fine low save from Fabio Borini. This was all within five minutes of Abdullah’s opener, and the pressure mounted sufficiently to draw Chelsea level an extra minute later. Kakuta and Mellis combined well on the edge of the box to allow Frank Nouble the chance to sweep a shot past West Ham’s teenage stopper and put them on level terms.
They didn’t let up, and the game began to take on the shape and feel of many of Chelsea’s performances from last season – a dominant first half performance of sublime skill, movement, and pace. Kakuta was almost untouchable, and Jordan Tabor and Ben Gordon linked well down the left, swapping positions every now and then. For all the superb football, Chelsea’s go-ahead goal on 21 minutes was the end product of the most basic of play – the route one long ball. Philliskirk sent a long arrowed pass in behind the Hammers defence, which Borini chased admirably, despite being second favourite for it to the advancing Street. Somehow the Italian ended up there first, prodding the ball high towards the goal, dipping just under the bar and landing in the net. He took a clattering for his troubles, but had his goal.
The lead gave the boys an even greater confidence, and they should have been scoring far more than they ended up with. Bruma became an extra midfielder, pushing forward often as West Ham played with just a lone striker. He surged forward to win a free-kick which he himself sent spinning inches over, then crashed a 35-yard missile similarly close to the crossbar – the latter attempt coming after a sustained two-minute spell of possession moving from right to left.
The margin of the advantage was again extended ten minutes later, with Mellis at the heart of it. Starting the move from midfield, he carried his late run into the box, where Nouble clipped a ball back from the byline to meet him. His strength was enough to beat Matty Miller to the ball and Chelsea led 3-1. It was almost instantly 3-2, the lively Anthony Edgar sending a low long-range shot towards goal that Heimann was able to tip onto the post and recover to smother the loose ball.
That Chelsea didn’t have six or seven by half time was a two-fold story, that of Adam Street’s fine work in goal, and that of some slack finishing by the visitors. Nouble, Mellis and Borini all should have scored before the break, each finding themselves with time and space to make it count, but not doing so. Still, it was arguably Chelsea’s best 45 minutes of the season, and the half-time team talk must have been simply to carry on from where they left off. For much of last season the second half performances were a little below-par, allowing the opponent back into a game they were long since out of, and easing off with the game apparently in the bag.
This game was similar to those, although credit to West Ham for responding both tactically and individually. Tony Carr sent on colossal midfielder Conor Okus to settle his team in the middle of the park, and his presence was felt immediately, allowing Edgar out wide to open his legs and run at Chelsea with his pace. Three times in the first ten minutes following the restart Edgar went through down Chelsea’s right but a lack of composure saw the chances come to nothing. Worse for the Hammers was that Chelsea made it 4-1 with their first real opportunity of the half.
Another spell of unbroken possession allowed Chelsea to move the ball about comfortably, biding their time for a chance to take advantage. Nouble had that chance, skinning Jordan Brown inside the area before sending a ball across the goalmouth. Borini went for it, as did centre-back Callum McNaughton, and it was the latter who got the last touch as the ball made its way across the line, Borini apparently bemused at the ball going in, Nouble seemingly intent on claiming the goal.
With a healthy lead and no real chance of slipping up, changes followed, and attituded became a little more relaxed and unfocused. Josh MacEachran and Jacopo Sala came on, and Kakuta continued to dazzle. Running at the heart of the home defence, he often had the option to shoot or pass, and typically passed, unleashing Borini beyond the last man on multiple occasions. He didn’t add to his tally, the ball usually running beyond him, or Miller making a superb last ditch tackle to deny him. Sala lashed wide from a wide angle, as did Kakuta himself, running onto his weaker right side but still going close with a ferocious effort.
West Ham got themselves a bit more respectability on the scoresheet through England Under 16 winger Robert Hall, who was in the right place at the right time to tap in following Okus’ marauding run to the edge of the area, and for the last ten minutes or so Carr’s boys made a concerted effort to reduce arrears further. Abdullah went agonisingly close, taking a coat of paint off the post, whilst Okus and Barnett may have done better with chances.
With the win, Chelsea leap off the bottom of the table and consign their beaten opponents to the basement. The team may well have been stronger than at any other time this season for the presence of reserve regulars Kakuta, Mellis and Bruma, but the performance was as good as they’ve played in many, many games and there are a lot of pleasing things to take from the game. Aside from Kakuta’s brilliance, something also highlighted by West Ham-leaning press, Bruma, Mellis, and Nouble were all outstanding. The left-back duo of Tabor and Gordon worked well all game until Tabor went off, and Borini continued to show his superb second season form. On a day where their finishing was sharper, double figures would not have been surprising. On days like this (without going over the top), the future looks very bright for Chelsea – and not just because of the yellow kit.
Team: Heimann, Ahmed, Philliskirk (c), Bruma, Gordon, Clifford (MacEachran 60), Mellis, Kakuta, Nouble, Tabor (Sala 57), Borini
Subs Not Used: King, Kaby, Haxhia
Goals: Nouble 11, Borini 21, Mellis 32, own goal 51
Booked: Borini, Mellis