Chelsea is in a catch-22 over youth and can’t get out of their own way

Scotland's midfielder Billy Gilmour - star of the match - reacts after the UEFA EURO 2020 Group D football match between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium in London on June 18, 2021. (Photo by FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA / POOL / AFP) (Photo by FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Scotland's midfielder Billy Gilmour - star of the match - reacts after the UEFA EURO 2020 Group D football match between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium in London on June 18, 2021. (Photo by FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA / POOL / AFP) (Photo by FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) /

Chelsea’s transfer ban was supposed to change things. The Blues were unable to buy and brought in a manager more than willing to give the kids a chance. Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham, and Reece James all returned from loan and were given something practically unheard of: a chance. No one really knows what happened with Tomori and Abraham could establish himself for long stretches of time but never totally. But Mount and James? They very much made the breakthrough.

They are joined mainly by Andreas Christensen who has a second lease on life now. Others, such as Billy Gilmour and Callum Hudson-Odoi were able (to different degrees), to at least remain in the conversation for the first team. And yet, it hasn’t been enough to convince academy players that things are different now.

Chelsea has lost Marc Guehi, is losing Lewis Bate and Myles Peart-Harris, and could lose Valentino Livramento. What happened to the youth revolution? The answer is far more complicated than the pro youth and the “what have youth ever done?” crowd think.

On the one side, Chelsea is a club that focuses on winning first and foremost. They can’t necessarily wait for youth to develop into the players they need them to be. It is much faster to sign a ready made player and loan the youth out to be ready made for later. Unfortunately, the club has made it nearly impossible for those loaned out players to make the grade. Every loan has to be meticulously planned to work. Even then, the player may need to be on loan for quite a while to reach the same level of player that Chelsea would consider signing.

The ones that have truly broken through (Mount, James, and Christensen) all spent time on loan. The former two, however, were able to come out of their loans at the right time for the club. Without the transfer ban or Lampard, is very hard to imagine either player is kept at Chelsea that season. After all, they were coming from the Championship and would Chelsea ever sign a first team player from there? It is doubtful.

That’s likely the spirit that saw Marc Guehi depart for Crystal Palace. Was he good enough to be a part of the first team at Chelsea? Absolutely. But he makes the decision many youth have made over the years: he knows Chelsea’s history, he decides he only has one career, and he refuses to gamble on it with a club that historically is poor at bringing the youth through.

Bate, Livramento, and Peart-Harris are coming to the same conclusion. All are about to be out of contract and, rather than extend and go on the loan merry go round, they back themselves to make first team football with other Premier League clubs. If they did stay at Chelsea, it’s highly unlikely they’d be loaned out to that level or be given a first team chance.

And here is the real kicker: not all of these players are going to be able to make it at Chelsea. It’s simply impossible for the academy to create a new first team worth of players every year. Bate and Peart-Harris have far too many players ahead of them, including several academy graduates, to realistically find a way in. Guehi could have and Livramento could yet though and that’s where the real sticking point comes. The pathway has to be evident for all and at Chelsea, even after Mount and James broke through, the youth just aren’t convinced.

Many won’t see how that is a big deal because the effects of it won’t be seen for some time. It’ll be when Chelsea signs a player like a Davide Zappacosta instead of using an Ola Aina or Dujon Sterling. And it’s a hard thing to see because, usually do to Chelsea’s own actions, the development of those players will be stunted to the point that they aren’t as good as the signing Chelsea is making.

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Which comes to the real question. What is the purpose of the academy? It’s hard to believe Chelsea has invested so much into making one of the world’s best academies just to see those players go elsewhere before the Blues can even command a transfer fee. No, the academy is just as geared towards winning as the entire club is. The only issue is, after a decade of failing to show a pathway, the youth weren’t convinced when Lampard cleared the way.

Maybe these young guys aren’t jumping ship too early on Thomas Tuchel who does historically have a good youth record. Maybe the simple fact of it is they see better opportunities at Crystal Palace, Leeds, or Brighton than they do at Chelsea and it’s hard to deny them that. Maybe it’s just that the club can’t possibly squeeze everyone in.

It’s a big catch-22 for the club from development to opportunity. This feels like a tipping point moment because in many ways it is for the club and the academy. The club is looking to resolidify itself at the top with big money signings ready to go now. But it’s hard to tell how many other Mount’s and James’ are ready to be given their chance because they don’t see the point in waiting.

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These players have to be shown that the pathway is there. Because other clubs are more than willing to show them one. It’s hard to believe the academy is made to fill out the rosters of rivals. But as things stand, there is little Chelsea can do about it when they continue doing the things that saw Romelu Lukaku leave when Diego Costa signed or Kevin De Bruyne leave after being given a few games for Jose Mourinho to write him off.