TJosh McKieran and Ola Aina were here. There was Dominic Solanke and Gael Kakuta. There was a season under Maurizio Sarri when he didn’t make his player’s debut in the academy. There was the Chelsea manager who argued in a presentation to technical director, Michael Emenalo, that the club should cancel or reduce their academy because it was costing too much and not producing any tangible benefit to the first team.
For all of them, and all of that, Chelsea’s third goal against Juventus on Tuesday night was a kind of decorative shutdown: Reece James sprints away toward the back post with his usual menace, Ruben Loftus-Cheek writhing and moving in the area, Callum Hudson-Odoi applying the finish line. A goal scored at Chelsea, envisioned at Cobham: This is perhaps the most complete evidence yet of Roman Abramovich’s often-mocked and wasted vision for a Chelsea first-team full of academic talent.
Alongside James, Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek, Trevoh Chalobah scored the first goal, prolonging his impressive start to the season. Mason Mount and Andreas Christensen warmed up the bench. Even if you ignore Romelu Lukaku, who joined Chelsea at the age of 18 before returning this summer, Chelsea’s youth team productions have played 27% of the minutes and scored nearly a third of the goals.
And this phenomenon is not limited to Chelsea. Scan the list of Premier League fixtures this weekend and all but one alumnus of Chelsea’s academy will appear: Eddie Nketiah at Arsenal, Tino Livramento and Armando Brugga at Southampton, Billy Gilmore at Norwich, Marc Guehy and Conor Gallagher at Crystal Palace, Bertrand Traore at Aston . Villa and Tariq Lamptey in Brighton, Nathan Akee at Manchester City, Declan Rice at West Ham, Ryan Bertrand at Leicester, Jack Cork and Johann Berg-Gudmundsson at Burnley plus Louis Butt at Leeds.
Chelsea not only built a team, they built another. They don’t just lead the Premier League: they colonize it, turning it into a pale blue shade of Cobham.
so what happened? Is this just an abnormally talented generation of Chelsea youth with a unique ability to bridge the chasm from football academy to elite? Or did they finally get a little help? “We’ve seen very quickly in training that we have very good kids here,” manager Thomas Tuchel said this week. “What makes me happiest is how much they care about the shirt and the club, and how much they want to make it here.”
And while Tuchel takes a great deal of credit for being willing to dump relatively inexperienced talents like Shalluba and James, it was in many ways groundbreaking work years before his arrival, and not without a few missteps along the way. For years, Chelsea’s approach to the Academy was similar to that of a real estate speculator in London with a wide range of luxury apartments in which he had no intention of living at all. With their wealth and facilities, Chelsea could sweep the best young players in Europe, pay them decently and watch them pile up without going anywhere near the first team.
Publicly, of course, the focus was still on developing players for Chelsea’s own use. Naturally, managers will all say the right things. Antonio Conte was quick to make noise with the likes of Aena and Nathaniel Chalobah when he first joined the club in 2016 and then won the league with 13 players. When the economics of football made it so profitable to loan players and then sell them, and with an owner who never hesitated to open the trap door when the results took a turn, what’s the point of doing anything else?
Perhaps the biggest turning point came when Frank Lampard arrived in 2019 with Chelsea temporarily operating under a transfer ban. Lampard’s predecessor Sarri did not bother to conceal his disinterest in the academy, failing to attend a single training session or under-23 match in his time. On the other hand, Lampard made eight academic appearances for the first time in his first season, a club record in the Premier League era. Mount, Fikayo Tomori, and Tammy Abraham were among those who moved to the front of the queue: playing and sometimes blundering but most importantly learning in the hot glow of the biggest games.
In a way, Lampard’s managerial reputation was the collateral damage to Tuchel’s astonishing success. And eventually, Abramovic’s itchy toe will also run into him. But where would the likes of Mount and James be now without those crucial eighteen months of development? This, like anything he has achieved on the pitch, should be Lampard’s legacy as Chelsea manager.
Of course, the academy continues to be a fun money spinner. The departures of Abraham, Tomori, Gehi and others brought in more than £90m in the summer. Another 22 players have been shipped out on loan, and many are still trapped in the carousel. If Matt Miazga, Dogon Sterling or Ethan Ampadu can achieve anything in the game, he certainly won’t be at Chelsea. Tomori has discovered a new lease on life under Stefano Pioli in Milan. Abraham benefited from the personal guardianship of Jose Mourinho in Rome.
But most importantly, the path to the first team is now also there: undefeated, radiant and luminous. The next talented teenager to come from Chelsea’s ranks – say, Judd Sonsup Bell or Harvey Vale – can no longer succumb to a vicious cycle of meaningless pre-season friendlies and loans to Vitesse and Huddersfield. Look down, show your worth and you might as well with the Champions League trophy in a sea of duct tape and sweat.
This is the model Tuchel himself instinctively defines as having started his career as youth coach in Stuttgart under Ralf Rangnick, who will face his new team on Sunday. Tuchel knows that the best modern teams have always combined the local and the global: a local core studded with a few stars. He knows his faith in the youth will only last as long as the results and Abramovich’s patience allow. But for now, at least, the two halves of the Chelsea project seem to be in perfect cosmic terms.