HALF-TERM REPORT: THE CHELSEA YOUTH TEAM
Chelsea's youth team have enjoyed a strong start to the 2013/14 campaign, winning nine of their 15 league games to date, while also progressing to the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup, though it is the emergence of several schoolboys into the Under-18 fold on a regular basis that has most impressed manager Adi Viveash so far this season.
Striker Dominic Solanke, with 11 appearances and 13 goals, may be the most notable of Joe Edwards' group to take the next step up, however he is part of a sizeable set of 11 youngsters that have been involved above their age group in the Under-18 league before the Christmas break.
Looking back on the season so far and speaking to the official Chelsea website, Viveash said: 'We obviously want to develop a winning mentality among the players at Under-18 level but the main thing is developing the players.
'If I look at that as a gauge then to have 11 Under-16s that have already played with my group this season is a fantastic achievement and a great credit to the programme that Neil Bath [the Academy manager] is running here at the club.
'I think that's the most schoolboys we've ever had involved at this stage of a season and the impact of the full-time school is certainly beginning to show. It's been very different this year. We trained with Joe's group in pre-season and they form an integral part of our training group on a day-to-day basis. We've had a couple of our group play in the Under-19 UEFA Youth League, a couple have played in the Under-21s, including Solanke (pictured below) as a schoolboy, and they've all made good inroads.'
The youth team signed off before the festive break with an eye-catching 6-0 win over Reading at Cobham and Viveash has continued to breed in his young players an intent to attack and entertain. They have scored 45 goals already, with 12 different goalscorers, and it is that mentality that has served them so well to date.
'We started the season very well,' Viveash continued. 'Towards the Christmas period the team changes quite a bit. There are a few injuries and quite a lot of games and there wasn't a settled look to the team. The standout game is Arsenal away [a 3-0 win courtesy of a Jeremie Boga hat-trick], obviously because of the level of opposition but also the way we played.
'The West Ham performance at Cobham was pretty special as well. We had five schoolboys starting that game and the football we played was superb. Tammy Abraham's goal was certainly the best goal I've seen this year in terms of youth football, a fantastic team goal.
'We've scored a lot of goals and we've certainly been very attack-minded. A lot of our talented younger players are either midfielders or front players and that's the area in which we've looked the strongest.'
The schoolboy contingent has contributed strongly, however the nucleus of Viveash's youth side has remained first and second-year scholars. Captain Jon Muleba has been an ever-present, while George Cole, Ola Aina, Ambrose Gnahore and Dion Conroy have all featured prominently.
'There have also been some really good contributions from second years,' reported the manager. 'Jon Muleba (pictured below) has been very consistent and he's relished being captain. We've also had the likes of Fankaty Dabo and Kevin Wright who played with us earlier in the season and now they've used that to get themselves into the Under-21 starting team so that's very important as well.
'The month of January is massive for the second years, to try to force their way into the big youth games but also to get into Dermot's plans in terms of the Under-21s. It is a big challenge but everything is achievable.
'The youth team in the second half of the season becomes extremely young and we've always done it that way. Last year some of the boys played as Under-15s and now we'll probably be asking a lot of them as Under-16s to be the bedrock of our Under-18 team. That might be difficult as they're giving away a lot of experience compared with opponents but they certainly won't be giving away quality, because there's an awful lot of quality in that group.'
One second-year scholar who recently departed from the club was goalkeeper Ben Killip, who signed a professional contract at last season's Youth Cup-winners Norwich City. Viveash was eager to pay tribute to the 18-year-old's hard work and commitment to move his career on to the next level elsewhere.
'Ben had been here since he was eight years old so he was naturally quite emotional when he left,' he said. 'He's a lovely kid, a really good trainer who always gave his all and someone who was really popular with the other boys.
'It's a tremendous opportunity for him to get a professional contract at another Premier League club and we're all delighted for him. I know Bill Thompson [Chelsea's youth team goalkeeping coach] was especially pleased and he should be proud of the work that's been done with Ben.'
The new year is certainly shaping up to be a busy month for the Academy, with both the Under-21 Cup and FA Youth Cup resuming alongside the Under-18 and Under-21 league campaigns. Viveash believes January remains a crucial month in terms of development and will be looking for his players to push on to the next level once action gets back underway.
'The second half of the season is generally when you see players move training groups,' he said. 'There's a lot of games in a short space of time and I expect the Under-16s to start saying, "I want to be playing regularly in the Under-18s, I want to nail down a starting place.''
'Similarly, the first years in my group will be looking to train with the Under-21s and force their way into Dermot's plans. It's difficult because it's a very high level but there are a lot of good players here and that has got to be their aim.
'We have a lot of talent that we need to push forward. We have a lot of talented players but some naturally develop quicker than others and if somebody is developing quickly then you want to try and push that, but you also have to be careful that they get a regular programme because it's very important in development that you don't try to run before you can walk.'
The accumulation of competitions, with the UEFA Youth League tie against AC Milan also scheduled for the start of February, will represent a challenge for Viveash, Drummy and Bath to manage the squads, and the youth team boss reckons it will be tough at times to juggle the different demands.
'The different competitions will definitely have more of an impact and there's certainly going to be a clash somewhere along the line, though I'm very confident to go into any Youth Cup game with the team I select on a Saturday,' he said. 'They would certainly give a good account of themselves and play football in the right way.
'Previously for the Youth Cup we've got the best group of Under-18s available together and played them but this year that won't be the case. They won't all play every time and I see that as being an interesting situation come hopefully the quarter-finals onwards if we progress.'
2014 looks set then to be another busy year, and one in which there is silverware to fight for throughout the youth team ranks. Viveash, though, remains keen to emphasise that results are just one aspect of assessing the progress of his young players.
'I've been very pleased with the season so far. I can see the development in the players in terms of our day-to-day programme. Everybody who works with the youth groups has worked tremendously hard and I can see that in the players. That's always the key gauge for me as a coach, to look not only at my own work but all the staff that work with our group. They have a big input in the programme and you can certainly see the signs of that this year.'
The Under-18s return to action in the new year, with their first game back on Saturday January 11 hosting Norwich City at Cobham.
By Sam Poplett.
Tomorrow, Under-21s and Under-19s manager Dermot Drummy reports on the season so far for his teams…