Chelsea’s young players earn one challenge before drawing another

SAITAMA, JAPAN - JULY 23: Mason Mount of Chelsea runs past Samuel Umtiti of Barcelona during the preseason friendly match between Barcelona and Chelsea at the Saitama Stadium on July 23, 2019 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
SAITAMA, JAPAN - JULY 23: Mason Mount of Chelsea runs past Samuel Umtiti of Barcelona during the preseason friendly match between Barcelona and Chelsea at the Saitama Stadium on July 23, 2019 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images) /

Mason Mount and Ross Barkley received England call-ups hours before Chelsea landed in a Champions League group with Ajax. The Blues’ youth project will go up against a club who have set the standard for in-house development.

Mason Mount and Ross Barkley will join England’s senior squad for their Euro 2020 qualifiers against Bulgaria and Kosovo. Mount’s early season performances have him in line for his first cap, having stayed on the bench last October in Nations League qualifiers. Before that, Gareth Southgate showed his optimism for the Chelsea midfielder by having him train with the senior team before they left for the 2018 World Cup.

Ross Barkley is the other Chelsea player in the squad. Once Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi return, the Blues will likely contribute four England full internationals, with Barkley the oldest at 25 and Loftus-Cheek the oldest of the three Cobham-trained players at 23.

Southgate’s faith in young players predates Chelsea’s, but the Blues are quickly seeing the rewards of their new approach to player development and promotion. For whatever level of transfer ban-induced necessity is at the root of players like Mount, Tammy Abraham and – soon enough – Hudson-Odoi, Loftus-Cheek and Reece James being matchday regulars, these players are so far proving that their age is incidental to why they are on the team.

Chelsea will face the industry standard for in-house, low budget player selection in the Champions League group stage. Ajax, whose young squad of mainly homegrown players reached the semifinals last season, join Chelsea in Group H along with Valencia and Lille.

Erik ten Hag showed how far a well-organized, cohesive team of young players playing an ingrained style of football can go in European competition, even if they did lose to Tottenham.

Last season was the culmination of Ajax’s renaissance that started under Johan Cruyff. Cruyff returned to Ajax to build the culture of the club around a philosophy of football, supported by a developmental pipeline that prepared their players to play their game at every level. The club committed to this purpose, and one early culmination was last season’s deep Champions League run.

Like Monaco several years ago, Ajax paid the price for their investment in youth and Champions League semifinal appearance. Ajax lost many of their best players over the summer in marquee transfers, and do not have ready replacements. Ajax’s most expensive summer acquisition was Quincy Promes at £15 million, roughly one-fifth of what they received for each of Matthias de Ligt and Frankie de Jong.

For as much talent as they have in their squad or development pipeline, none are yet at the level of de Ligt, de Jong or Kasper Dolberg, who also left this summer. Southampton legend Dusan Tadic can only do so much.

Chelsea are obviously at the very beginning of just such a project, and some of their decisions have been reactions to factors outside their control. They are doing more things like Ajax – bringing former players into the coaching and technical staff, promoting players smoothly from the youth sides to the first team, fielding historically young starting XI’s – but for different initial reasons.

Ajax have their own necessity behind their youth commitment. Yes, there are the cultural and historical elements within the team, but there is also the simple fact that they do not have the riches of a Roman Abramovich-style owner nor an international behemoth like the Premier League. If Ajax cannot produce players effectively in-house, they will succeed neither on the pitch nor financially.

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Whereas Chelsea can go back to buying world-class players next summer, Ajax will continue to build and then sell such players – perhaps to Chelsea. If they did, it would be quite noteworthy: per TransferMarkt, the last player Chelsea bought from Ajax was Jesper Gronkjaer in 2001.

Regardless of past and future, Chelsea’s meetings with Ajax in the Champions League will be cast as a battle of the youth: the players themselves and the approach they represent. The Blues have the overall team-level advantage of player quality, but Ajax have the confidence and cohesion that the Blues are years away from developing. The rapport we see now from Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, and will soon see from Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi is pitch-wide and squad-wide at Ajax.

Achieving this at Stamford Bridge will require a Ajax level of commitment, and will cast Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and anyone else who comes home in the role Johan Cruyff played for his former club.

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These are the right people to have, if the club is willing to give them the time to see it through in their own particular Chelsea way.