The U23s must be treated better soon or we will regret it

I was fuming. Absolutely fuming and I’ve only just started to calm down. I found out quite early that there would be no chances for any Chelsea debuts against Morecambe on the weekend, and that really was disappointing. This pretty much is going to be a rant as to why including none of Lewis Bate, Henry Lawrence and Tino Livramento in the squad was an absolute disgrace. I do understand that there were reasons and context as to why not all of them couldn’t make it, but, if I’m honest, most of the arguments were pretty weak in my opinion. I will try and balance it out, especially towards the end of this piece, but I’m still confident that many wrong choices were made on the weekend. I know most of you have already read the first paragraph and think I’m just overreacting and moaning for the sake of it, but please do read right to the very end.

I think one thing to point out before we get started is that I absolutely love the academy. I watch every single U23s game and as many of the U18s as possible, and I’m not afraid to admit that I am biased towards them. When I was writing the plan to this article, the thoughts just kept on coming and that is simply because the youth team is an area I’m so passionate about. So yes, I will probably be quite one-sided here, but I don’t think that takes anything away from the fact that Sunday’s squad selection was not good enough, whoever’s fault that is. Before we get started, I do have to give credit to Frank Lampard and the staff members that I am even having this conversation. No manager other than Lampard has brought in the youth like he has, giving multiple debuts last season and trusting them, so I guess I’m only frustrated because I expect Frank to match those amazing opportunities he gave last season. Let’s get into it.

Frank Lampard sets Chelsea Academy first-team debuts record - We Ain't Got  No History
Lampard can take full credit for the amount of debuts he gave last season (Credit: WAGNH)

Chelsea got drawn against Morecambe in the FA Cup third round, and as soon as that got announced, I had been looking forward to this fixture. The last two weeks I genuinely have never been as excited for a game in a while, as I and many others expected to see 2-3 debuts from players I had been watching and raving about for ages. The week before the game, I heard that Bate, Livramento and Lawrence were all training with the first team – brilliant. A few days later, Jude Soonsup-Bell & Marcel Lewis made it an academy team of 5 – even better. When the number reached five, I was confident we would see a few of them make the squad. The whole of Saturday I was texting people asking which players have made it to the squad. None. What? Huh? I already counted Anjorin as first team as he is that good and fully deserves to be in that picture, but it was just shocking to see no other players involved in the squad. I was not asking them to start the game, which I’ll talk about later, but are you really telling me Henry Lawrence couldn’t be on the bench with Reece James out and that Lewis Bate couldn’t get ahead of Jorginho or Kovacic for an FA cup game against League 2 side Morecambe?

I saw so many people say it would have been too much of a risk for Lampard to include them in the squad. Wrong. So wrong. If you said too much of a risk to be starting, you could have a point, yet I’d still heavily disagree with you as I’m about to explain, but in no way was it a risk putting them on the bench. None at all. One competition that Chelsea participate in, the EFL Trophy, consists of the best U21 teams coming up against professional sides in the third and fourth tiers of English football. It’s a brilliant experience for the young lads as they get to experience the real game for the first time and our kids are more than good enough to put up a real fight. Earlier on this season our U21s faced Bristol Rovers in one of the best games of the season and we unfortunately narrowly lost 4-3. Despite the loss, the players were still extremely impressive and should have been very proud of their performance. Three days ago, Bristol Rovers only just lost to Sheffield United – a Premier League team! Now, I know football doesn’t work this way, but if you use a bit of logic that’s only going to suggest that our U23’s would put up a real fight against a Premier League team, and although we probably would lose, it just shows that our boys are good enough. Our side against Bristol Rovers basically consisted of 10 kids + Danny Drinkwater, so to start/involve 2-3 of them against a side in the division below Bristol Rovers in Morecambe with world class players around them really wouldn’t have caused any harm. Here’s the thing about these players: they are more than good enough, and that’s because we have one of the best academies in the world. Throughout the game against Morecambe, I couldn’t stop thinking about how slow Azpilicueta was, and although he’s a good squad player to have as well as being a Chelsea legend, he simply does not have the brain of an attacking fullback, and I can pretty much guarantee that Lawrence or Livramento would not have done any worse either from the bench or the start, as well as it being a huge learning curve for them. No risk whatsoever.

Chelsea lose despite Anjorin star turn, Gilmour injury return, and a  Drinkwater appearance, too! - We Ain't Got No History
Tino Anjorin had an incredible performance against Bristol Rovers not too long ago…(Credit:WAGNH)

Against Morecambe, especially in the first half, we looked short of ideas and the intensity was lacking. However, it was absolutely no surprise to me that our three best players were all academy products – Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount and Billy Gilmour. I’ve said it so many times, but these are the guys who will put so much desire and effort into this club and would do anything to put the Chelsea shirt on, compared to signings who just want to play in the Premier League (of course they like the club, but no way near in the same way). Another thing which frustrated me even more was how Anjorin was treated in the game. He definitely had a case to start, although I understand that it was good to give Hudson-Odoi confidence and Ziyech some match fitness, leaving Anjorin on the bench. We were 3-0 up around the 50th minute, and everyone was waiting for Anjorin to come on and impress. But no, we had to wait another 30 minutes and he was given 10 pity minutes where he probably touched the ball about 5 times and was brought on after Christian Pulisic, who we’re trying to protect from injuries! Not only that, but he also came on the pitch playing as a right-sided winger, a position he has very rarely played, in a new formation that we were trying out and you could see he was playing way too close to Kai Havertz at times – can we please see Tino in midfield, just once? My point is, give these players chances, even better a proper chance, and they will turn up. Billy Gilmour got given that chance vs Liverpool last season and his career arguably changed due to that game, same with Anjorin after being arguably the best player on the pitch against Krasnodar in the Champions League, and I’m sure very similar things could transpire with the likes of Lawrence, Bate and Livramento if they were given a proper shot.

The worst part is that last season we were known for giving opportunities and now this season it all seems to have been thrown out of the window. Aston Villa (albeit due to a coronavirus-struck senior squad) fielded a full academy team against a very strong Liverpool side, and really put in a good shift as some players impressed the world. Manchester City and Spurs included young kids in their squad, the main name being Alfie Devine who scored at the age of 16 for Tottenham. Just a few weeks ago, Chelsea U23’s played Spurs U23’s in a thrilling match, where Devine got sent off and Livramento, Lawrence and Bate were all better players on the night, yet it was the much lesser-experienced Devine who was given the opportunity to make his dreams come true by José Mourinho, of all people! In the third round of the FA Cup, pretty much every side gave minutes to some kids and we didn’t, which is really frustrating for the fans as we literally have one of the best academies in the world and arguably the best in the country. What makes it more annoying is that Lampard gave debuts to players last season, and the likes of Maatsen, Broja and Guehi have all developed heavily since (which Frank can take huge credit for), but we’re not doing the same thing. Even worse, these guys are going to go to their England camps, and despite being some of the better players there, they’ll be the ones with the least number of minutes in professional football.

More to come' from Tottenham record-breaker Alfie Devine, says Japhet  Tanganga | Evening Standard
Tottenham had no problems including 16 year old Alfie Devine in their squad…(Credit: Standard)

And that’s just not going to make the youth players happy. They will see players in their age group playing senior football and getting opportunities which will just be disappointing for them. The best example has to be Jamal Musiala. The ex-Chelsea man is best mates with some of our guys in the academy right now, and it is very likely that if he stayed here, he would still be stuck in the U18s or U23s. Yet, he took the risk of leaving and going to Bayern Munich and is now recognised as one of the best youngsters in the world. His mates will be looking at him and surely be thinking why that couldn’t be them too, especially with Germany being a very appealing option for English youngsters at the moment. Callum Hudson-Odoi’s camp tried to do the same thing by forcing a move to Bayern Munich, Charlie Webster has been linked with Dortmund in the past, and these examples will keep on coming. After all, other clubs will be seeing Chelsea not giving many opportunities and will be licking their lips as they’ll simply just try to seize one of our incredible talents. On top of that, the guys in the 18’s and even lower will be keeping an eye on how the youth is used in the first team to see whether they have a future at the club. I don’t want any academy prospect to leave, nor do I necessarily think they will, but they will certainly be assessing their options based on what goes on around the first team in terms of opportunities for youngsters.

I don’t think it is anywhere near yet turning into this case, but could we be returning back to the old cycle of not using the kids? This is especially if Frank Lampard does end up leaving the club sooner rather than later – if Lampard can’t give minutes to the younger lads, who will? We know Frank has been brilliant with the youth in the last 18 months, so with another manager the situation could obviously be even worse. Is there a pathway from the academy into the first team? Or does it look like being loaned is the only option and following the likes of Marc Guehi and Conor Gallagher? Don’t get me wrong, both players’ development away from Chelsea has been absolutely exceptional, however I can fully understand why some players wouldn’t want to take the risk of going out on loan when things can change so quickly, and before you know you’re in the constant cycle of being sent out season after season, which really can hinder development. This links to my next point in that the academy players need to feel rewarded after staying at the club and for playing so well, and currently they are not. For playing so well in the U23s right now and to an extremely top level, they are being rewarded with…absolutely nothing. For example, Henry Lawrence just signed a new contract at the club, has trained with the first team multiple times this season, been the most consistently excellent player for the academy for a full year and a half, yet he has just missed out on so many occasions. What more does he actually need to do to make the bench against Morecambe when someone in his position – Reece James – was injured? Then, there’s players like Marcel Lewis (one of my favourite players in the academy who is criminally underrated) who has been brought into the first team bubble recently, how’s he going to feel? His contract runs out in the Summer and I’m sure we’re trying to convince him to sign an extension, perhaps before going out on loan. But, from his point of view, why should he sign a deal when he’s seeing his mates not get an opportunity (he’s probably even further behind the others mentioned in this article too)? The players aren’t stupid and they’ve seen what’s happened in the past.

Now, obviously, there will always be players who will leave the club at a young age and we cannot do anything about. That’s absolutely fine. For example, we would have tried our best to convince Musiala and Illing-Jr to stay at the club, but if they still wanted to leave, there’s nothing we can do. Same with Tariq Lamptey – there unfortunately wasn’t anything else we could do to keep him at the club. Talents will always leave, but it’s about reducing the amounts that are even thinking about it. We have to do our very best to keep them at the club, especially with this very special crop of players coming through (Colwill, Bate, Livramento, Lawrence, Simons, Soonsup-Bell, Webster etc). And that starts right from the very top.

But, despite all the criticism I have given, you do have to remember I am talking about Jody Morris and Joe Edwards who are in the coaching staff, probably the two best academy coaches the club has ever had, and they surely know what they’re doing, right? Which probably means I should shut up. Lampard also has a very large squad and perhaps politically he is being forced to play some of them or keep the squad players happy – I do understand that. There was context to the kids not starting. Hopefully the game did a world of confidence for the likes of Werner, Havertz, Mount and Hudson-Odoi. Hopefully the victory improved the morale around the club, and we can go on a running form. That still won’t take away the disappointment I had when I saw that not a single player would be making their debut against Morecambe.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I’m being biased. Maybe, in six weeks’ time, I will look like an absolute idiot when these kids get their chances against Luton in the FA Cup, or in the very heavy schedule. Then again, we would be treating the 23s better in 6 weeks than we are now if that were the case, and that’s simply all I’m asking for. Deep down I do believe that they will be given their chances in the next six months. Some need to be if we want to keep them around. That’s the way football works nowadays. Play the kids, or they leave, because our boys are damn good enough.

What did you think of the article? I know it’s an extremely controversial topic criticising Lampard on the way he’s using the youth after he’s done so much for the academy lads, but let me know your thoughts on our social media!

Written by Paree

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