HALF-TERM REPORT: UNDER-21S AND UNDER-19S
Yesterday we reviewed the Under-18s, today Under-21s and Under-19s manager Dermot Drummy shares his thoughts on the season so far…
Chelsea's Under-21 side have enjoyed a solid first half of the 2013-14 campaign, winning five, drawing three and losing two of their 10 league games before the Christmas break, while also progressing through to the quarter-finals of the inaugural Under-21 Premier League Cup.
However, it has been in the Under-19 UEFA Youth League, a competition also in its debut year, where Dermot Drummy's squad have excelled, progressing through the group stage with six wins out of six and setting up a showpiece last-16 meeting with AC Milan in February.
Looking back on the first four months of the season, Drummy naturally focuses on his team's European excursions as a highlight. The young Blues were in a group that mirrored the first team's Champions League schedule, with games against Steaua Bucharest, FC Basel and Schalke, and it was wins against the third of those sides that Drummy was particularly happy with.
Speaking to the official Chelsea website, he said: 'To go 100 per cent through the group stages is a terrific achievement.
'Schalke were a very good team so to go away there and win (pictured below) was very impressive. It showed a great winning mentality. To win six games out of six is fantastic and we've earned ourselves a home draw against AC Milan now, which will be a great game for the club.
'Reading the boys' logs they were all disappointed with losing in the finals of both the NextGen Series and the FA Youth Cup last season, so they want to go one better and win this competition this year.'
Another tournament the players are eager to progress and triumph in is the Under-21 Cup and, after a comprehensive 4-0 win over Cardiff City in the last round, the quarter-finals have produced a home date with West Ham, a game that will be the Under-21s' first back after the festive break.
'Playing at Cardiff in their main stadium was great and it was really good for us to progress,' Drummy continued. 'West Ham will certainly be a big game and then, if we win that, we're in the semi-finals so it's quite exciting.
'The Under-21 Cup has been good. It's been a bit like the first team's Capital One Cup, where we can use the players that are not getting into the side. If the team are performing well in the league then I tend to keep the same players involved so this competition gives the likes of Alex Davey, Adam Nditi and Danny Pappoe a chance to get back involved.'
Utilising the squad more efficiently is a luxury that Drummy has been afforded this campaign, with the additional demands of knockout competitions running alongside the recently revamped Under-21 Development League programme. His side currently sit fifth in the standings, just a point outside the top four, who progress to the knockout playoff stage in May.
The manager is certainly aiming to finish in that upper echelon, though he has primarily been pleased with the quality of games his side have played in so far this term.
'You have to remember that 95 per cent of our Under-21 side are Under-19s. That gives you a good barometer of how well the Under-21s are faring in the league this season. The league has been a really good standard this year and I think the boys have had a challenge in every game.
'Certainly playing against first team players at St James' Park against Newcastle and at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland was a great experience for them. The winning mentality has been there and, even though we probably deserved to lose the first game against Tottenham, our mentality has been good and we don't panic after a bad result.
'The league has been a massive learning curve for me to see where the boys are and I think they've done really well, playing often against more experienced teams and winning.'
Their most recent league outing was their most impressive of the league campaign to date, a 5-0 win at Bolton in mid-December, in which Isaiah Brown scored a hat-trick, and Drummy was naturally pleased.
'The Bolton game had everything,' he said. 'We attacked really well and perhaps did neglect the defensive side of our game, which sometimes we are guilty of, but some of the football and some of the goals were a joy to watch. We had control of the game, kept a clean sheet and killed the game off, which was really pleasing.'
January promises to be a busy month as the Academy returns to business as usual, with Under-21 Cup and Youth Cup action resuming alongside the Under-21 and Under-18 league campaigns, however Drummy is content that he has the players at his disposal to mount challenges for silverware on numerous fronts.
'Lewis Baker, Nathan Ake, John Swift (pictured below) and Andreas Christensen have all been fantastic in pretty much every game. Swift's goal tally [10 in all competitions] has been incredible, while Lewis controlling the tempo in midfield has been so important for us.
'Andreas and Nathan have put in top performances too. They've made it look easy at times to defend against top players. Islam Feruz is worth a mention as well. He has worked tirelessly and even though he's gone through a period of not scoring goals he does a lot of work for the team off the ball and midfield players have scored a lot of goals thanks to his link-up play.
'But I have to say that all the players have been a pleasure to work with, whether it's on the training ground, in and around the building, or when we travel. They're a fantastic group and it's been a very good first half of the season. The staff have worked hard, we'll enjoy the Christmas break, but after that we've got to perform and win things and hopefully get players across to Jose Mourinho in 2014.'
The Under-21s return to action in the new year, facing West Ham in the quarter-finals of the Under-21 Cup at Aldershot's Electrical Services Stadium on Monday 6 January. Ticket prices are £3 adults and £1 concessions. Season ticket holders will have free entry on production of their valid 2013/14 season ticket.
The game will be broadcast live on Chelsea TV.
- By Sam Poplett