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Pat Nevin asks - ‘Are Chelsea the best young team in Europe?’

It is now six victories in a row for Frank Lampard’s Blues, who are the first Chelsea team to record consecutive away Champions League wins for six years. Pat Nevin, who studied the Ajax game for Chelsea TV last night, is impressed…


I was asked an interesting question the other day by a Chelsea fan on the train from London back up to Scotland. ‘Will all the positivity around Stamford Bridge this season with this new young team be ruined next year when the transfer ban runs out?’ I dismissed the idea immediately but then thought about it a bit more and by the time we reached Peterborough, I was quite intrigued by the thought.

Our young side have just deservedly beaten Ajax, the best young side in Europe, at their own ground and it was no fluke, Chelsea were the better team. If we do the double over them on 5 November, does that then make us the best young side in Europe? If it does, then should Frank take a chance on ruining that progress with a bunch of new signings?

Why for example would you even consider buying, say, another centre-forward when Tammy Abraham has been superb and is absolutely definitely going to get even better? Well there could be a dip in form or an injury, or indeed he might just need a rest at some point.

We have got other strikers already on the roster. Michy’s goals-to-minutes-played figures are off the scale again this season for club and country, but what club or indeed manager would turn down a world-class player if he suddenly became available?
 

The more I thought about it, the more interesting it became as an idea. I hadn’t considered it at all this season, because with Chelsea lying fourth in the Premier League, who cares about next season right at this moment? Well the club has to, Frank has to and doing things at the last moment on a whim is generally not considered the best way to bring long-term success to any club. So forward planning is a given.

I suspect there will be a bit of a war chest available to Frank by the summertime, but unlike other clubs around us, such as Manchester United and maybe even Spurs, it doesn’t look like a whole new outfit is needed, just a few little jewels added to make the whole thing sparkle even more.

I wouldn’t be surprised however if the club takes precisely the opposite approach to previous seasons when these acquisitions are considered. During the ‘Roman era’, how many world-class strikers of a certain age have come to the Bridge with, it has to be a said, varying levels of success? I almost can’t imagine Frank doing that, but I can imagine the scouts being sent out around the planet to find the next hot young thing who would fit into, or more likely grow into, this group and this system.

'I suspect the faithful fans would prefer this route as well.'

photo of Pat Nevin Pat Nevin

This search could be anywhere from South America to South Korea but a quick look at this week’s opponents Ajax underlines you might not have to get on to a 747 to unearth a rough diamond. It sounds the easiest thing in the world to do, but there are plenty of other clubs around trying to do precisely the same thing.

It is also anything but an exact science. Ajax’s striker Dusan Tadic scored an average of seven league goals in every 10 games last season and got to within a whisker of the Champions League final, but did anyone see that coming when he was at Southampton averaging three in 10? He was under everyone’s noses but no one in England was tempted, though admittedly he is no spring chicken and the Eredivise is not as challenging as the Premier League.

Looking back at a youth game between Chelsea and Ajax three short years ago, they had Matthijs de Ligt and James Van Der Beek while we had Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori. Surely it was obvious that these lads would all be stars? Well no, some players blossom later and others have already reached their peak by that age when there is still much more to learn. By the way, how good was Tomori last night? Kurt Zouma got man of the match from UEFA but Fikayo was phenomenal.
 

I recall constantly saying on Chelsea TV that I rated Tammy Abraham well above Dominic Solanke as they were coming through from the youths, but most of the outside focus was on Dominic at the time. Tammy has raced ahead lately but why? There are other nuanced things you have to take into account, such as where they are on the physical development spectrum at that precise point. Is it just that the player is bigger and stronger at that young age and this is hiding limitations in technique he will need at the higher levels? In one season both scored 41 goals for our various youth teams although more of Dom’s were in the older age groups. Picking the winner here is an inexact science.

I watch Scottish football quite a bit and a few years back I spotted a player I loved. I told everyone about how brilliant I thought he was but for some reason they couldn’t see what I was seeing in this Virgil van Dijk guy at Celtic. The problem? He was playing in Scotland and the standard wasn’t considered comparable to England and I understand that was a very reasonable argument, even if it was wrong.

I fell for it myself with another player soon after. I watched a kid playing at my Scottish club Hibernian and thought he was wonderful. I thought he might even be good enough for the Premier League and again passed on my thoughts to friends in the south, but John McGinn who is now starring at Villa has outperformed all of my expectations already.

There is no obvious and easy way to be sure and the younger the player is, the harder it is to tell with any certainty. I just have a suspicion that although Chelsea always trawl the planet for talented youngsters, we might now be looking even more closely at those who are just about ready to break into the men’s first team as opposed to the super-expensive world-renowned finished articles.

So yes, the Academy kids are getting their chances and they always will under Frank but the other new players next summer may be just as exciting if and when they come in.

It may well be that the original example of this method is already at the club. Christian Pulisic is now showing the signs of the player he will become for Chelsea. Unless you are a Blues obsessive (and yes, I know most of you are), before the last two substitute game-changing appearances against Newcastle and Ajax, you might not have known that the American had produced some superb moments previously. You might not have known that the skill, vision and pace attributes of his game are already in place. It seems obvious now though that it all just had to be fitted together within the structure of the team. After his last two appearances, many Chelsea fans will agree it doesn’t seem to be too far off.

So yes, there might be more talent coming in at the end of the season, but do not be surprised if they are fairly young. It all seems to be working well at the moment but you cannot rest on your laurels at this level. As for us watching, we probably should forget about it now and only consider the next game because at the moment, every single one is a joy.

Click to watch Pat Nevin analyse Cesar Azpilicueta's consistency

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