Roman Abramovich was again reminded of the talent pool at his club’s multi-million academy programme after Chelsea reached the final of the FA Youth Cup for the second year in succession.
With a performance full elegance and numerous, the young Blues edged out Liverpool with a 4-1 aggregate over two legs, setting up a grand finale with Norwich. At Stamford Bridge Friday night, they were a joy to behold.
Liverpool, who had arrived with a 2-0 goal deficit from the first leg at Anfield a week earlier, drew the first blood early in the game. Yet there was no sense of panic about the ability of the Chelsea side to bounce back, which they did. Such is their quality at this level and it has never been in doubt for some time now.
The Blues youngster’s FA Youth Cup run continued after the impressive campaign their U-19 side- largely the same squad- enjoyed in the NextGen Series (a youth version of the European Champions League), where they also reached the final.
After following both competitions till this stage, a certain question triggered my mind: how on earth did Rafa Benitez miss the chance to showcase the talents of both Lewis Baker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek despite the paucity of his first team squad in this marathon season?
Benitez was aware he would not be allowed to procure his own players given his short-term deal. He lost Oriol Romeu early last December; one of only for midfielders for the pivot role, then had to release Mikel for over a month at the African Cup of Nations in South Africa. That meant only Ramires and the ageing Frank Lampard, who was just returning from fairly long injury lay off, were left to juggle the games between themselves, together with David Luiz, as an emergency cover.
So how could Benitez be so uninventive not to realise the talents of Baker and Loftus-Cheek and drag them into the position? Truly it was the Spanish manager’s decision to adapt Luiz to the pivot role, especially while Mikel was away and the Brazilian filled the void to a respectable level of performance.
But I’m baffled by Benitez’s weird decision to re-tune Nathan Ake, another natural central defender as a backup for the pivot role rather than discovering the obvious abundant potentials in Loftus-Cheek and Baker, both central midfielders. The duo’s performances in the NextGen Series and the FA Youth Cup suggest they only needed the manager’s trust to build their confidence.
Ake, 18, though made strong impressions against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup as well as the Europa League quarter final clash at Rubin Kazan, but Baker- also turns 18 next week- would have benefited more this season, especially with his tremendous progress at youth level. The Luton-born youngster was voted the NextGen Series MVP and his brilliant technical skills would need to be harnessed by Chelsea.
Baker’s ability to deliver set pieces, corners and freekicks inclusive, rubbished the weaker foot theory, same way his mental strength, maturity and leadership potentials would have caught the eyes of some coaches, especially in terms of need. He is an admirable top talent who can also play in an advance midfield position, with impressive work rate and tactical awareness.
I have been really impressed with the brilliance and guile of Loftus-Cheek too. Not only is he able to navigate as a box-to-box midfielder, he possesses an amazing level of composure beyond his age. Loftus-Cheek has come under the media microscope for his lucrative professional contract with the Blues whom he joined in the under-8 category (we know Chelsea often do those outrageous deals), but the club have got a real gem in the 6ft 1 youngster.
Good enough, old enough
Many times the argument is about age, yet Josh Mcechran starred for Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League at 17 and Cesc Fabregas broke through as a teeanager. I believe Loftus-Cheek has even got more presence and personality than Mceachran to grow into the pivot role if given the opportunity. It was a shame Benitez didn’t exploit this possibility with his lean squad. His composure brings echoes of John Mikel Obi on arrival Stamford Bridge in 2006, though Loftus-Cheek appears to be gifted with better technical prowess.
Mikel had arrived as a 19year old with only six senior football appearances, made sporadically over two seasons in Norway, and suffered during a year-long transfer wrangle between the Blues and Manchester United before he eventually signed. Despite the presence of top class midfielders like Michael Essien, Michael Ballack, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard and a young Lassana Diarra, the Nigerian still made a staggering 42 appearances, including 24 starts in his debut season. That happened after only playing 37minutes in his first six games.
So the then manager, Jose Mourinho put huge responsibilities on a young shoulder, and Mikel grew into it and became an important player for the club. It would be interesting how the Special One will fair now that the club have more talented and exciting academy player, if the Portuguese returns to West London in the summer.
But it would not be entirely fair to blame Benitez alone for not taking advantage of the small squad, his predecessor, Roberto Di Matteo was also guilty of the same problem. Chelsea had only Fernando Torres as the striker before Demba Ba joined the club from Newcastle in January, yet Di Matteo did not look in the direction of Islam Feruz, the best striker in the academy, not even as a sub. Yet he suffered a traumatic experience with the Spanish top striker, a situation that contributed to his sack.
After spending over £60million to upgrade the academy and assemble some of Europe’s best talents at their age, Abramovich must realise the progress of his club’s youth structure needs to be a key agenda for the new manager and put an end to cosmetic development programme. The truth is that, it is not only about showing off, it is about the future of these promising.
It is about time these blossoming talents made the next step after conquering their peers, or else the glamour will soon fade out of the façade of his talent factory.
Your thoughts Blues?