Since the restart of football following the coronavirus break, a number of players from Chelsea’s academy have been training with the senior squad, including Tino Anjorin, Armando Broja, and Henry Lawrence among others. Another was 17-year-old midfielder Lewis Bate, who, despite only being a first-year scholar, turned out to be the only one to make the bench for a first-team game, against Sheffield United. Tino Anjorin would have been likely to be named on the bench at some point, had he not sustained a season-ending injury in training shortly after Chelsea’s first Premier League game back against Aston Villa. He did travel with the senior squad to Villa Park, but he wasn’t named in the matchday squad. This, and injuries to Billy Gilmour, N’golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić opened the door for Bate to be named as a substitute at Sheffield United and also to travel with the squad to multiple other games. His season ended at Wembley with the senior squad for the FA Cup final – a great end to a great season for the youngster, as it was put by @chelseayouth on Twitter. So, what is it that has made this season so great for him?
Bate’s rise to being named on the first-team bench at Sheffield United this season has been nothing short of remarkable. It was only in October 2019, at the beginning of this season, that Bate was signing his first professional contract with Chelsea on turning seventeen years old. Before that, though, he had already caught the eye playing for England’s Under-18 side and made his Chelsea Under-18 debut in August 2018. Last season, he played fairly regularly up an age group for Chelsea’s Under-18 side as a 16-year-old ‘schoolboy’, and was also named Player of the Tournament as Chelsea captain at the Premier League Under-16 International Tournament. The Sidcup-born teenager was also the only Chelsea player to be selected in England’s squad for the Under-17 European Championships in April 2019.
Despite showing so much promise at such a tender age, few would have expected Bate to be working so closely with the senior squad this early. He started the season off with the Under-18 squad in a midfield pairing with Xavier Simons that worked wonders in Ed Brand’s 3-4-2-1 until around February, when both capitalised on the promotion of Billy Gilmour to Chelsea’s first-team squad and the departures of Clinton Mola (permanent, to VfB Stuttgart), and George McEachran (loan, to SC Cambuur) to make multiple impressive appearances for Chelsea’s Under-23 side in the Premier League 2.
Bate also played in four of Chelsea’s UEFA Youth League group stage matches, as well as being one of the stand-out performers in this year’s FA Youth Cup campaign, in which a semi-final against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge and a potential final away at Blackburn Rovers or Manchester City still remain to be played.
It is extremely impressive how at home Bate looked in Under-23 football when called upon this season, playing against players sometimes as much as three or four years older than him. He has been said to have impressed in training with the first-team squad as well. So, what kind of a player is he, and what are the attributes that have enabled him to appear so accomplished at so many different levels?
Bate is a diminutive but combative central midfielder with a sweet left foot. Equally comfortable as a number six, number eight, or in a double pivot, he does his shift out of possession, but it’s his work on the ball which really stands out. If I were to pick out three of his best qualities, they would be his Kovačić-esque dribbling ability to get out of tight spaces, his Gilmour-esque wide range and composed execution of passes, and his Kanté-esque tenacity and stamina. It is that mixture of game intelligence, ingenuity with the ball at his feet, and a feisty willingness to get stuck in, no matter against whom, that earned him my comparison with the great Clarence Seedorf.
Whenever you look at him, Bate is always scanning the pitch. He knows where everyone is at all times and loves to get on the ball and turn quickly with his first touch, before spraying it wide or driving it between the lines. One of his favourite moves is to entice an opposition player in, before playing a one-two with a teammate or using his quick feet to bypass the press and drive into the space vacated.
Bate is also a great leader, demonstrated by his successful captaincy of the Chelsea Under-16 side and other age groups throughout his time at Cobham. Even when not captain, he is always urging his teammates on and likes to encourage by example as well, and tends to still perform well in games where his team may not be quite at it. A good example of this was in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final 1-0 victory over Millwall at Stamford Bridge, when the 17-year-old was one of the best players on the pitch.
If I had to pick one weakness of Bate’s game that needs to be worked on, it is that he sometimes gets caught in possession when dwelling on the ball for too long. This is natural considering the position and role that he plays, but it happens a bit too often than he would like.
Bate was unlucky in that had Chelsea been 3-0 up, rather than 3-0 down, against Sheffield United, he would have been likely to have been brought on for his Chelsea first-team debut. Instead, it is quite probable that Bate will make his debut against Bayern Munich in a few days, a game in which there is only pride to be played for. Hopefully he will produce a decent display, but, against one of the best sides in world football, the most important thing for a young player is to learn from the experience.
With luck, we will see the Sidcup Seedorf lining up with Billy Gilmour and co for Chelsea in years to come. Until then, he will continue to do his thing wherever he plays, whether that be for a Chelsea academy side, on loan somewhere, or for the Chelsea first team.