With much hype and praise over the last decade, the Chelsea youth academy has dominated youth cups winning 16 trophies across all tiers. This includes: 2x UEFA Youth League trophies; 2x U18 Premier League trophies in the northern region, and 4x U18 Premier League trophies in the southern region; and 9x FA Youth Cups, with seven in the last decade. The recent transfer window finally forced Chelsea to take a meaningful look at their talented academy. The appointment of Frank Lampard as Chelsea manager has helped academy players’ path to the first team become more possible. Lampard reminded the academy that they will have to earn their spot and work their way into the team. The transfer ban denied Lampard any opportunity to bolster and upgrade his team, and thus he had to shift his sights onto the academy. To the surprise of many, a handful of youngsters have proved their worth and praise. The likes of Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Mason Mount Fikayo Tomori and Billy Gilmour, to only name a few, have all made a name for themselves on the pitch. This wasn’t always so.
Chelsea developed a bad notoriety for denying opportunities for Chelsea youngsters over the years, with the most popular names being Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah. All would make a name for themselves on different teams and proved to Chelsea why they had deserved a chance in the past. Roman Abramovich built a concrete foundation for Chelsea to strive and allow them to become one of the best premier clubs in Europe for a continuous period of time. Their strong core consisting of Petr Čech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba brought much success for Chelsea Football Club throughout the Abramovich era. This core of quality, in a sense, barred an entrance path for academy youngsters. The expectation of winning didn’t allow time for failure, and thus Chelsea consistently chose experienced players with shaped quality. Thankfully, this is changing. The current revelation of Chelsea youngsters is paving a visible road to the first team, but we must understand that Chelsea is a top tier team, and their prestigious success justifies this acclaim. Therefore, like any top club, it is important to have the right balance between youth and experience. Earning your way in the team is the proper way to introduce young talent.
I’m going to discuss some current young players that Chelsea should build around, and some wildcards along the way. I will be briefly describing their past and their current capabilities as a player. Let’s begin!
Reece James: Right Back
From winning youth cups to being Championship Player of the Year, Reece James has climbed the ranks and forcefully made his way to the first team. His skillset at such a young age helped Wigan Athletic in several areas. His versatility also saw him deployed in the midfield. Reece’s impressive composure on the ball immediately made his name well known audiences and football scouts alike. He inevitably became a key player for Wigan Athletic’s 2018/19 campaign. His strong frame helped him cope with the physicality of the Championship and prepared him for the gruelling, intense style of Premier League football. His biggest weapon was undoubtedly his right foot delivery. Reece’s crossing ability immediately made a huge impact for Chelsea when he came back from an ankle injury. His attributes were in full display and his passing has been a huge plus for Chelsea, because it added an extra layer of offense to their game. Reece has a 72% pass completion rate (longer than 25 yards) while averaging 1.5 crosses per game.
Lampard’s current style of play consists of offensive-minded football and often directness to throw off opposition defending. One of these characteristics is crossing the ball into the box. With Reece’s outstanding crossing skills, Chelsea is far more dangerous on the attack. His presence in the lineup will play a crucial part in Chelsea’s success for years to come. His veteran counterpart Cesar Azpilicueta has shown signs of deterioration and perhaps lost a step or two. Cesar has praised the young English fullback and claimed he has taken Reece under his wing. This was music to Chelsea fans’ ears, as it is without a doubt that Reece James is the right back of the present and the future. The aid of the current skipper will only improve him as a player.
Andreas Christensen: Centre-Back
I was wary of including the young Dane into this core of young players, but his impressive form and improved demeanour helps justify the decision. Andreas first made a good amount of noise in his loan spell at the German side Borussia Mönchengladbach, and showed why he deserved to be given a chance. Antonio Conte was first to praise Andreas, publicly stating, “He’s even better live than on television!” Andreas made 62 appearances for Mönchengladbach and was finally given a chance to earn his way into Chelsea’s lineup when Antonio Conte took the reigns as manager in 2017. The defensive attributes Andreas demonstrated on the pitch was enough to overthrow David Luiz from the lineup, and become the heart of the three-man defence. He would then continue to put on impressive and consistent performances, even catching the eye of Pep Guardiola in a Premier League fixture against Manchester City. Chelsea would go on to lose that match against Pep, but Andreas demonstrated his full defensive repertoire making several outstanding interceptions and blocks. Chelsea looked more solid defensively with Christensen in the lineup alongside Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta in the back three.
The turning point for Andreas came in a key Champions League elimination match versus Barcelona. Willian opened the scoring to put the Blues ahead 1-0, but later that game a grave error from Andreas gave Barcelona the opportunity to equalize. Since that game, the young Danish defender looked shaky and inconsistent. He also had a tough time getting back into the team under Maurizio Sarri.
Another opportunity arose for Andreas when Antonio Rüdiger injured his knee and was kept out of the latter part of the 2018/19 season. Andreas was slotted in to be partnered with David Luiz and would string up strong performances. But his strong showing went under the radar while Hazard and Hudson-Odoi stole the headlines, though Andreas became a key player during the Europa League campaign. There is one thing Andreas never lacked, and that was his defensive awareness with an ability to read dangerous attacks. In the beginning portions of the 2019/20 season, he struggled to cement a CB spot, as Lampard juggled several players in the back line. He finally got on track and has been in sublime form ever since he made his return in the FA Cup fixture against Nottingham Forest. He suffered a face injury that would force him to wear a face mask, joining a list of Chelsea players who have worn the infamous black mask. His presence in the back was crucial and made him hard to drop, which allowed his return after the injury. Overall, when in form, Andreas is probably one of the best current Chelsea CBs. He’s well attuned on the pitch to keep up with pacey defenders and has a knack for making vital interceptions. I must iterate that this isn’t to say Andreas is a lockdown CB for the future, but he is someone to keep a hold of as his defensive attributes are too valuable to waste. One key weakness is probably his lack of frame for his size. He should look to buff up his frame and make sure he isn’t physically outperformed, especially in aerial duels. His heading accuracy has also been questioned as he had many underutilized opportunities to score from headers in aerial duels. If Chelsea can find another top quality defender to pair alongside Christensen, then Chelsea should be set in the CB department.
Billy Gilmour: Central Midfielder
One of the most exciting recent revelations of the 2019/20 season has been Billy Gilmour. He made his mark on the football world this past month. Gilmour impressed in preseason with his maturity and on-the-pitch presence. His calm demeanour and ability to read the game made him one of the standout players during Chelsea’s preseason, but a deep midfield of experienced players made it hard for Gilmour to get selected. Unfortunately, injuries are what gave Gilmour the chance to shine- but shine he has. He actually made his Premier League debut back in late August against Sheffield United as a late-game substitute coming in for Mateo Kovačić in the 83rd minute. He would make another first team appearance in October in an EFL Carabao Cup fixture against Manchester United, where he started that game and played for 70 minutes. His next appearance came in March when Chelsea hosted Liverpool in the 5th round of the FA Cup. Injuries having plagued Chelsea all season gave Gilmour the nod to start alongside Mason Mount and Mateo Kovačić. He was awarded the Man of the Match having a 75% pass success rate, 4 accurate long balls, winning 6/11 duels, 2/3 dribbles attempted and 9 recoveries. The young Scotsman impressed the footballing world with his amazing ability to dictate the match, as well as a wonderful move to get past the esteemed central defensive midfielder, Fabinho. His small stature would often mistake him for a teenager, which he still is, but his maturity and attitude accounts for his quality. Billy continued his strong performance against Everton at Stamford Bridge later that week and picked up his second Man of the Match award in as many games.
Billy isn’t afraid to get scrappy against opposition and has displayed his capacity to make a strong tackle when needed. He beats Jorginho at mobility, and the two often play a similar role as central deep-lying playmakers. Jorginho’s lack of pace often puts him in sticky situations against counter attacks, and Billy’s other strong abilities may eventually favour him over the Italian midfielder. Billy has much room for improvement, especially in the physical department, but he has already demonstrated strong qualities that are essential on the pitch. He’s another player to build around and will more than likely be the future of the Chelsea midfield.
Callum Hudson-Odoi: Winger
In April of 2019, a devastating partially-torn Achilles injury prevented Callum Hudson-Odoi from finishing his strong season. Despite only making 29 appearances in all competitions, Callum demonstrated characteristics Chelsea lacked especially during the beginning portions of the 2018/19 season. Callum had a strong and impressive preseason, but the stubbornness of Maurizio Sarri led to the exclusion of Callum during that time and his frustrations only grew. It grew to a point where the young Englishman handed in a transfer request in January of 2019 as Bayern Munich was interested in signing the talented youngster. At times Callum didn’t even make the bench, leaving Chelsea fans distraught at the possibility of seeing their talented youngster leave Stamford Bridge and join a list of players who didn’t make the cut. The move thankfully never happened and Sarri finally came to his senses to play the dynamic young winger. Callum made strong contributions to the team and helped them charge into their top four league aspirations, and in their Europa League campaign. His directness and dynamism is what stood out and grabbed the attention of Eden Hazard, who also made it hard for opposition to cope against Chelsea’s attack.
Callum’s return came in late September against Grimsby Town where he immediately jumped back onto the score sheet nabbing a goal. His presence was immediately felt and he continued to rack up assists. After a couple of bright games, however, Callum’s form deteriorated and fell off. His rustiness started to show and the lingering effects of his injury were in full effect. It was obvious Callum wasn’t at his best and just needed time to get back into form. Thankfully he would later elevate his form in January and scored in the FA Cup against Nottingham Forest. His qualities on the ball are characteristics that Chelsea lacked for a while, and his directness helps the team be even more dangerous. He can play both on the right and left wing. His chemistry when playing on the wing with Reece James behind was in full effect and brought life to our right-side attack, an area Chelsea weren’t strong in. With work and diligence, Callum can become a very tremendous talent for Chelsea Football Club. If he reaches that level where he can become a full threat on the wing, then it’s without question that he will be another key piece in Chelsea’s present and future core.
Mason Mount: Attacking Midfielder (#8, #10, Second Striker)
There isn’t another player that has been unfairly scrutinized more than Mason Mount. Mason was praised way before he made his Chelsea debut. Due to this overhyped praise, Chelsea fans set the bar high for the young English midfielder. The only way to truly analyse Mason’s game is by removing any biased agenda towards him. He’s currently made 41 appearances in all competitions and contributed 6 goals and 5 assists. People will automatically look towards the goals and assists statistics to use as a landmark for his performance. But we have to dive deeper than that. What makes Mason a unique player? It is his ability to get in attacking areas and cause the backline trouble with his highly effective pressing. His decision-making skills are not polished and he is far from a finished article. He has exhibited plenty of examples of scuffing opportunities on the attack, but Mason will only improve over time. He’s already been involved in more goal situations than Frank Lampard’s first season. He’s currently behind Tammy Abraham in shots on goal with 66 compared to Tammy’s 72 shots. Mason is very adept at making good runs in the final third, but his decision making at times lets him down.
Other forgotten traits he possesses are his set piece and playmaking abilities. Mason has overtaken Willian as the primary corner taker now with 74 taken. He has 47% corner accuracy while Willian has a 41%. Mason is also statistically Chelsea’s main playmaker with 42 main key passes in the Premier League. There is one thing you can’t question about Mason, and that is his work rate. His boundless energy off the ball keeps the opposing backline in check because of his relentless pressing. He’s often deployed behind the striker but presses along the front man, almost as a second striker. Mason has 58 attempted tackles, only winning 30 of them. The amount of hate Mason gets is really unjust and ultimately pathetic. It’s fine to rationally and reasonably judge how he performs on the pitch, but his expectations were already set way before he stepped foot on the pitch. His overall gameplay still needs adjustments and if he works hard will only improve. It’s still unclear whether he will be a guaranteed starter, but it’s irrefutable that whenever he’s on the pitch he makes a tremendous impact.
The term wildcard is defined as “a person or thing whose influence is unpredictable or whose qualities are uncertain.” Well, in this case I will be discussing just two out of a number of candidates who likewise meet this standard. There is still numerous amounts of a questions on our academy products, but two whom I feel need to be mentioned.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek: Central Midfielder (LCM, CM)
With prowess and power comes vulnerabilities, and in Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s case, there are a few to stand out. To start out, it’s important to note out that Ruben is probably one of our best attacking players in the whole squad if fit and healthy. The biggest deciding factor has been the “if”. Ruben has unfortunately had to deal with many obstacles in his Chelsea career. He had to deal with the concrete ceiling of breaking into the first team with the likes of Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte as managers. He made his official senior debut in a UEFA Champions League group match against Sporting CP substituting Cesc Fabregas in the final seven minutes of the match. In February of 2015, he was promoted to the first team by Jose Mourinho. In May of 2015, he was awarded his first start against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. He played for 60 minutes and had a 100% pass success rate. That year he would only make three total league appearances. Ruben’s first senior goal came against Scunthorpe United in the FA Cup of the 2015/16 season. Excluding John Terry, he became the first player to have been at Chelsea before the age of 15 to score since Carlton Cole.
In the 2016/17 campaign, under new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, Ruben was deployed as a striker alongside Diego Costa during the preseason. He was impressive and earned the praise of the Italian coach, but he would unfortunately only make sporadic appearances throughout the season. His ability to dribble past defenders only improved and so did his physique. Ruben was already a well-built player for his age and looked elegant on the ball for a guy that big. He had a very good loan spell at Crystal Palace with 2 goals and 5 assists in all competitions, but started to show signs of injury problems throughout the year. He fought his way to the preseason squad when Maurizio Sarri took charge of Chelsea and was at first situated to the bench. Ross Barkley was initially favoured as LCM in preseason, but Mateo Kovačić’s dexterity in midfield ultimately replaced Barkley as LCM. Ruben’s perseverance and work rate (defensive and tactical adjustments) improved and eventually Sarri had no choice but to play him. His offensive attributes were immediately spotted and his ability to get past defenders and open up opposing defence cemented him as a starter and crucial part for the 2018/19 season. Lingering back problems kept him out of the lineup at times, and Sarri indicated that he could suffer from his back problems throughout his whole career. The medical staff did an amazing job keeping his back in check, and Loftus-Cheek looked sharper than ever. During this the 2018/19 season he possessed a 71% dribble success rate and completed 536 accurate passes at an 88% rate. Just when things started to fall into place for Ruben’s promising, young Chelsea career, a devastating injury in April 2019 stopped his momentum. Ruben suffered a ruptured achilles in a controversial charity match against New England Revolution right before the Europa League final. Since then he’s been rehabbing, and fortunately signed a new contract extending his tenure at Stamford Bridge until 2024. One of the most questionable factors is his health and whether he can sustain it. When healthy, he continued to improve his eye at goal and became a devastating weapon for Chelsea, notching a total of 10 goals and 5 assists in the process. It is still uncertain whether he will be consistently fit throughout his future playing career, but if Ruben can maintain his health, then it is without question he can be an essential piece to this Chelsea core of young players.
Fikayo Tomori: Centre-Back
The last wildcard I will touch is the young centre-half Fikayo Tomori. The talented and athletic defender (like Mason Mount) played under Frank Lampard for Derby County last year. He earned the trust of Frank, but it was questionable whether he would be a part of Chelsea’s squad before the season started. The surprising sale and departure of David Luiz helped Tomori’s case, as Chelsea didn’t have the means to replace the Brazilian defender. Chelsea were handed a transfer ban and thus Tomori was kept for safe measure. The questionable backline of Chelsea gave Tomori the opportunity to impress. Antonio Rüdiger was still out with his knee injury during the start of the season and more playing time arose for the English defender. Tomori quickly made his mark with his composure on the ball and his gifted athleticism. He demonstrated his pace to keep up with fast attackers such as Mohamed Salah and Wilfried Zaha. In a game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, he scored his first senior goal in mesmerizing fashion. He blasted a powerful shot from midfield that beat Rui Patricio to open the scoreline. From then on, Tomori arguably became Chelsea’s best centre back for a spell and was deemed undroppable. He built a wonderful relationship with Kurt Zouma and the pair worked wonders for a while.
This unfortunately didn’t last. Tomori started to show questionable performances and was dropped, although still getting a nod at times. He has currently made 22 appearances in all competitions with 2 goals, one in the Premier League and one in the FA Cup and, one assist in the UEFA Champions League. Tomori is a very gifted defender but is sometimes caught out of position for being over aggressive. If he can improve his defensive awareness and instincts, then his natural talent on and off the ball will help him stay in the Chelsea squad for years to come. The real question lies is whether he can take that next step and be much sounder defensively.
There are many more “wildcards” in the Chelsea squad, including Ethan Ampadu and Chelsea’s main scorer Tammy Abraham, to name a few. It was important to highlight the uniqueness and individual stats of these seven players. Tammy Abraham has been one of the standout youngsters this season with 15 goals and 6 assists in all competitions. This list wasn’t a concrete select few that Chelsea should build around, but rather a list that Chelsea can look to build around. Ethan Ampadu is another forgotten and unspoken youngster that has shown promise for the future. His impressive maturity at a young age quickly caught the eye of many football clubs. He is currently on loan at RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga, but could very well return next season and be a valuable piece to the squad. There are many more talented youngsters that aren’t from the academy, such as the talented young American Christian Pulisic, and the innovative Croatian, Mateo Kovačić. These players are only going to get better over time as they’re both at a good age to improve. Chelsea also bolstered their creativity department by securing Hakim Ziyech for next season’s campaign for a fee of €40 million (potentially increasing to a maximum of €44 million, with variable factors). His abilities will only improve Chelsea’s attack. While this season has been a roller coaster of emotions and results, it’s safe to say that the future of Stamford Bridge is nothing but promising.
Sources: Statisitics from mobile apps-Premier League App, FOTMOB app, Onefootball app, Transfermarkt.com, Chelsea FC official website.
Edited by: Dan