By Jake Entwistle
If Antonio Conte is to be believed, Chelsea's domestic dominance—financially & on the pitch—is waning and such a concern suggests it is now more than ever that a change in approach is needed.
If that is indeed the case, the club need look no further than its own academy.
Chelsea have been the juggernauts of youth football since 2011/12 (some may even argue as early as 2009/10), winning five FA Youth Cups, including a current streak of four consecutive titles, as well as back-to-back UEFA Youth League triumphs in 2015 and 2016, equating to two out of the four editions of the competition.
Just as the most prosperous period in the club's history was built on wealth, their dominance at youth level has arguably been a microcosm of that success. Able to offer more money—to both the selling club and the player himself—under Roman Abramovich, Chelsea created a series of super teams led by a more or less uninterrupted line of managers well versed in winning trophies; even Avram Grant had dominated domestically in Israel.
The club's approach towards their academy and youth recruitment certainly has its critics: offering too much too soon has been a hot topic of late, whilst obvious flaws in the transition from academy to first team has cast a shadow over the process. Nevertheless, just as Chelsea established themselves as a Premier League titan through the consistent winning of titles, their youth team has done everything to mirror that success.
It's slightly ironic that Chelsea's aforementioned ability to outspend their rivals is perhaps the reason why so many bright talents that have been unearthed through the countless FA Youth Cup triumphs have failed to make the leap, but with Antonio Conte's constant complaining about the club's inability to provide him with the quality of player he needs to compete, perhaps now is the best time to finally give these players the chance.
After all, if Chelsea's first team have shown signs of regression, slipping further away from the buccaneering Manchester clubs that seem to be setting the bar in all areas, then their youth sides have shown no chance of slowing down, continuing to widen the gap between themselves and their rivals rather than loosening their grip.
The period of dominance heralded by the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Dominic Solanke has been extended by each new generation. Callum Hudson-Odoi (17) should be considered one of the most exciting prospects in English football right now, if not Europe, whilst Trevoh Chalobah (18), brother of Nathaniel, and current Vitesse loanee Mason Mount (19) are all evidence of a strong line of succession that shows no sign of slowing down.
In fact, Hudson-Odoi and Chalobah are currently embarrassing senior professionals in the Checkatrade trophy, and whilst the gulf in quality with the Premier League is gigantic, the idea is not to simply play Chelsea's U23s in the Premier League, but start integrating the clear talent within those ranks to strengthen the first-team rather than fill the apparent voids with huge cash injections.
In an alternate universe, Chelsea's under-strength side that succumbed to Arsenal in the Carabao Cup could have included Loftus-Cheek, Chalobah, Solanke and Abraham; all of whom cost dramatically less than Drinkwater, Barkley, Bakayoko and Batshuayi. Who is to say they would have done any worse?
If they sincerely believe they lack the financial power to strengthen properly in the current market, it is time to trust the serial winners in their youth sides. Selling Nathaniel Chalobah, letting Dominic Solanke leave and loaning Ruben-Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham whilst pumping money into Danny Drinkwater, Tiemoué Bakayoko, Michy Batshuayi and potentially a near-32-year-old Edin Džeko should be Chelsea’s final warning.
The gap between the players they can afford and those shining at youth level closing rapidly. Their academy side is the final pillar of the near-unstoppable domestic force Chelsea created. Now it is time to finally take advantage of it.