It used to be so straightforward.
Those of us who had an invested interest in the graduates of Cobham knew the deal. You’d watch as a promising group of young talents dominated both domestic and international youth football, the best of which would be “promoted” to the first team. That promotion would be met with the annual pre-season oath that “*Insert Youth Player Here* will be a very important player for us this season” as a single 20 minute Carabao Cup cameo would be swiftly followed by a silent departure to pastures new. Whilst ultimately disappointing, you knew the deal and you could accept it.
Then we had to go and ruin it by giving them a genuine chance.
The perfect storm of a transfer ban and the bravery of newly appointed coach Frank Lampard brought with it an influx of youth graduates, the likes of which had long been desired but never seen within the club. Unlike the Jeremie Bogas, Gael Kakutas and Ola Ainas of this world who were shipped out without a real look in, the new generation came in and more importantly, remained, despite scepticism from fans and media alike, including a certain Jose Mourinho.
That show of faith has proven to be the most successful gamble that the club has ever made as the class of 2019 not only helped Chelsea qualify for the Champions League against all odds, but drove the team forward to a convincing European triumph the very next year as Chelsea picked up their second Champions League trophy. The smoke cloud that surrounded the club following Sarri’s 18/19 campaign was lifted and revealed a bright new future that was forged primarily in Cobham.
I previously wrote about how the academy should be at the core of Chelsea’s financial and footballing model moving forward. Rather than spending large fees and wages on squad depth, those rotational minutes should be given to Cobham graduates. The upshot being that not only do you have players on lower wages who didn’t cost you a penny to sign, you have players with a much higher talent ceiling that can either go on to become first-team regulars or be sold for pure profit if they don’t quite make the required grade.
The positives are obvious, for every £22m spent on squad players like Zappacosta, you could have easily had a Reece James, a Tariq Lamptey or an Ola Aina. All of whom could genuinely stake a claim to have made a bigger Premier League impact. That money saved then subsequently gets spent on genuine top talents who improve the first XI. It wasn’t just the footballing exploits of Mount and Co on the pitch that allowed the previous summer’s spending, it was the positive impacts they had on the books too.
With all that said, this step into the unknown has lead us to questions we’ve never faced before. What happens when these graduates want more? What happens if another club wants to turn one of our developmental talents into a first-team regular? What happens if the youth conveyor belt moves faster than the club can manage? We got a sneak peek of this impending dilemma in January 2020 when Tariq Lamptey left for a cut-price £3m as the club couldn’t guarantee him a pathway ahead of Reece James who was only one year his senior.
Now, as we move into a summer transfer window that many expect will propel the club even further to sustained success, we’re almost certainly going to see both Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori creep out the back door. Two of the five that were instrumental in the youth revolution at the club departing within 2 years, one inexplicably left out by Lampard, the other not to the new manager’s liking. Unlike the other departures I’ve mentioned so far in this article, this isn’t a case of selling a young talent without knowing what they could contribute. These were two talents who took their chance with both hands and showed they belong before ultimately facing the same fate as those before them.
What is unclear this time around is whether this a sign is that the club is taking a step backwards and reverting to type or whether this is a necessary step forward in the development of the “new” Chelsea that many have subscribed to. The reported £25m for Tomori, whilst still feeling slightly low, is pure profit for a player that cost the club nothing and was deemed surplus to requirements in a position that has had a dramatic change in fortunes under Thomas Tuchel. The answer to that question will likely come in the form of how the club looks to replace the departing centre-back. With Marc Guehi impressing on loan and the likes of Levi Colwill, Xavier Mbuyamba and Sam Mclelland looking to make that next step, there’s a strong case to be put forward that the Tomori approach could be replicated again and again to great effect. At the time of writing, the club is yet to be seriously linked with any inbound centre-backs, which would have been unthinkable back in January but is perhaps the most telling sign yet that valuable lessons are being learned and the model hasn’t been abandoned at the first sign of success.
On the other hand, you have the curious case of Tammy Abraham. Finishing top goalscorer in the 2019/20 season with an impressive 15 goals, none of which came from the penalty spot, and joint top goalscorer in 2020/21 despite missing half the season. His exclusion from the squad has been frustrating, if not inexplicable at times, however, he is perhaps the clearest example of the crossroads the club face when a Cobham graduate is no longer viewed as just a “youth player”. Abraham has now found himself in the awkward position of being too good for a backup player, yet perhaps not good enough (yet) to be a first-choice striker for a club that now expects domestic success. There is a certain irony in the fact that one of the superstar strikers that are rumoured to replace him is Romelu Lukaku, a man who left the club in somewhat similar circumstances, all be it the Belgian proved his Premier League credentials on loan rather than at Stamford Bridge.
That comparison perfectly represents the impossible situation that Chelsea face this summer. Hindsight could tell you that the club should have stuck by Lukaku and as such, wouldn’t have to break their transfer record to recruit a striker this summer. Doing so, however, could just have likely seen Chelsea’s 2014/15 Premier League title not happen without Diego Costa leading the line, or alternatively, Lukaku’s development could have stagnated as he watched from the bench. Fast forward to today, a somewhat unexpected Champions League win has put Chelsea in an enviable position in the transfer window where they can genuinely target some of the best talents in the world, a position that is not guaranteed next summer.
It then becomes increasingly clear that a move benefits both parties. For the club, they can utilise Abraham as a pivotal negotiation tool in their pursuit of a world-class striker. They can either generate pure profit for a high potential striker who didn’t cost them a penny or equally attempt to use the player as a makeweight in a potential swap deal to reduce the financial outlays even further. For Abraham, a player who has proven he can perform at the top level, he can continue to develop even further at a club that will trust him to be their number one option.
We ultimately will not know the exact motives behind these sales, and whilst on the surface, it’s disappointing to see two of our own leave the club, there is certainly a lot of encouragement that can be taken from the situation. Two players who have come through the Cobham pathway have left a positive impact on the club both on the pitch and on the books. If reports are to be believed, the club could generate north of £70m for two academy graduates. One moved on for a profit to free up space on the production line and the other let go to assist the club in securing world-class talent. Whilst it’s sad to see these players go, it’s further proof that Cobham should be the foundation that this club is built on for sustained success in the future.
The key behind the success is in long term planning and stability, and whilst the stories of Abraham and Tomori could be positioned as positive ones for the club, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. A less successful story, at least from the viewpoint of the club, is that of Tariq Lamptey. At the point of his departure early in 2020, there was a reluctant acceptance that despite his high potential, there wasn’t going to be a space for him to develop with both Reece James and Cesar Azpilicueta ahead of him in the pecking order. Fast forward only 18 months and the club is now looking to spend big money on Inter Milan’s Achraf Hakimi to provide an attacking option at RWB in Tuchel’s system. Hakimi, a top talent in his own right at only 22 would naturally become first choice at RWB, with James and Azpilcueta providing rotational cover whilst primarily focusing on their RCB role. That RWB role, however, would have been perfect for the homegrown Lamptey who has excelled there for Brighton and caught the attention of the “big 6” with his standout performances. This not only could have saved Chelsea an outgoing £60m transfer fee but could also have seen the club generate a large incoming fee of their own if the time ever came to move Lamptey on. Whilst hindsight is 20-20, and perhaps nobody could have seen a move back to a 3ATB system (despite the remaining Conte influence on this squad), the whole situation is evidence of the negative impacts that a lack of planning can have when handling youth players.
The Hakimi situation then becomes even more interesting when you bring Tino Livramento into the mix. The 18-year-old, who won Youth Player of the Year this season with his standout performances at wing-back only has a year left on his contract and has already caught the attention of some top European clubs. The introduction of Hakimi undoubtedly impacts the minutes available to Livramento, especially with James (21), Azpilicueta (31) and to a lesser extent Hudson-Odoi (20) all providing ample rotational options. There is then every possibility that as Lamptey did, Livramento may decide to reject a new contract that would force the club to sell at a fraction of his real value.
What’s important is that in the midst of this unexpected success is that Chelsea doesn’t lose sight of the foundations close to home that got them there. Whilst the temptation is always to look to the transfer market for solutions, the past two years are clear evidence that keeping a pathway from Cobham to Stamford Bridge is not only beneficial for the club in the short term but critical to our long term success. It is no coincidence that it’s the academy products who are proving easy to sell, whilst the likes of Marcos Alonso and Emerson, who despite being internationals, have seemingly been priced out of a sale due to their initial cost to the club.
What the sales of Tomori and Abraham should remind us is that opportunities for these youth talents should not be viewed as having the sole aim of making them first-team regulars (despite the unbelievable success of Mount and James). Not every youth player will be able to remain at the club and whilst it’s unrealistic to expect us to consistently compete with a squad full of academy products, it’s equally unrealistic to expect us to compete, both on the pitch and financially, without them.