Fikayo Tomori discusses stepping up to the Premier League this season and outlines what he has learned from facing some of the toughest strikers in world football...
Not many players make the direct jump from second-tier football to the European stage but Frank Lampard’s unique approach in trusting the young players at his disposal this season have seen not just one but four of our Academy graduates swap the Championship for the Champions League in the past 12 months.
It is easy to forget just how many question marks hung over the quartet of Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Mason Mount and Tomori last summer, when pundits doubted the wisdom of promoting so many youngsters at once, and whether individually they could make such a big leap.
Lampard, however, had worked closely with Mount and Tomori at Derby County, finishing in the play-offs with the on-loan duo having played a key part in a positive season at Pride Park.
He tried to convince James to join him at Derby last January but the teenager was happy to continue at Wigan, while it was of course Abraham’s Aston Villa that beat the Rams in the play-off final at Wembley. How different the course of history might have been had that result gone the other way.
The quartet have combined for 123 Chelsea appearances between them this term, helping the Blues into the FA Cup quarter-finals and the Premier League top four before football’s suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tomori accounts for 22 of those and the defender has been discussing that acceleration through the football pyramid, from academy football to the Championship and then on to the Premier League and Champions League, all in the space of three years.
‘You’re suddenly thrust into this men’s team environment and playing against seasoned professionals who have played the game for 15 or 20 years in some cases,’ the 22-year-old says of his move into the senior game in an interview with the official Chelsea website.
‘It’s a big transition because you have to train well, try to get yourself into the team and then you’re fighting every week for three points that could get you promoted, into the play-offs or save you from relegation.’
During three separate spells in the Championship, the Canadian-born England international experienced battles at both ends of the table, fighting against the drop with Hull City as well as helping Brighton & Hove Albion to automatic promotion in 2016/17 and Derby to a sixth-place finish last season.
‘You have to deal with the physical side of the game but then from the Championship to the Premier League, it’s a bit more of a mental change where you have to be even more focused,’ he explains about adapting to top-flight football this campaign.
‘You have to be more conscious with how you take care of your body and the little things you can do to improve to get yourself that extra five per cent. Each milestone and level has its own adaptation period where you have to figure out what you need to do and how you can better yourself.’
Putting aside the physical and psychological nuances between the two divisions, it is clearly the challenge of facing the best opponents in world football that excites those experiencing the Premier League for the first time.
Tomori’s first test of the season came in Istanbul in the Super Cup final, where he played 35 minutes up against Liverpool’s revered front three. A fortnight later, he made his full debut against a very different style of strikeforce when Sheffield United visited Stamford Bridge and snatched a late point in a 2-2 draw.
It is these varying challenges that provide the toughest scrutiny for defenders in the top flight and which require the utmost levels of focus and concentration.
‘It is tough because you come up against different strikers and different systems that teams use,’ continues Tomori.
‘Some teams might play two strikers up top, some may play one and then you have teams like Liverpool - we all know how Roberto Firmino likes to drop in, with Mo Salah and Sadio Mane running in behind so you need to have that concentration all the time.
‘It’s about always being aware of what’s going on around you, communicating with team-mates around you to help them and make your job easier.
‘Everybody knows that if you make a mistake in the Premier League, you’re likely to get punished so being able to stay focused and making sure you do everything at 100 per cent is another part that you have to grasp quickly.’