In 2008, when Frank Arnesen was sports director at Chelsea, he proudly held a conference on the investment the club was making in their academy.
A slick presentation illustrated how they had revised the previous youth system and were now scouting and developing the best players in Europe.
It ended with a glossy music video, set to inspirational music, as a strange academy graduate trotted for 15 minutes in a League Cup tie for Chelsea.
Frank Lampard is starting to feel the pressure amid Chelsea’s poor results
Club owner Roman Abramovich has been known to quickly get rid of underperforming bosses
Notable for his absence from presentation or video at the time was Chelsea’s captain and one of their greatest ever players, even though he had graduated from academy. John Terry’s face didn’t quite fit.
Growing up in Chelsea prior to the Roman Abramovich era and the Arnesen Revolution, he was seemingly blown out of history as part of the old era, which had had its day.
To be fair to Arnesen, these were the first days. But things were shocked over the next few years when Chelsea bragged about their academy, which won the FA Youth Cup seven times from 2010-18: the academy’s only shining star, the club’s captain, preceded those times as the players came through under the completely new reformed system would invariably be lent to Vitesse Arnhem and never heard from again.
Still, Arensen’s reasoning was not wrong. He explained that Abramovich’s era of millions of transfers had to be tempered and replaced with a more balanced model, with Chelsea training its own stars. It was quite an ambitious cultural shift.
After all, even before Abramovich, Chelsea were seen as the foreign mercenary team, the place to go for decent pay at the end of his career. They were the first Premier League team to field an all-foreign XI in 1999, sparking a stir among traditionalists.
For years we waited for Arnesen’s vision to become reality. Arnesen himself would leave the club in 2010. Quietly, behind the scenes, with less fanfare, someone picked up his vision and molded it into something tangible.
Ironically, it was one of the youth coaches who had been with the club since 1993, and that was part of the old era too, Neil Bath. As academy director, he started to produce some of the best young players in Europe. And yet they never really seemed to get the grade.
Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount is the poster boy of the club’s youthful revolution
Some managers bought the vision more than others, but when the bag beckoned as soon as you hesitated, it wasn’t exactly the ideal environment for a long-term vision. Carlo Ancelotti gave it a go as Gael Kakuta, Josh McEachran and Patrick van Anholt started pushing to the first team, but was fired before he had a chance to nurture them.
Most of the managers – Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez – haven’t lasted long enough to implement anything in the long run. Villas-Boas and Di Matteo did give chances to Ryan Bertrand, who performed well in the final when Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, and Benitez was the first to believe in Nathan Ake.
Jose Mourinho’s second stint at the club was not associated with thriving young players, although he did give Andreas Christensen his first games. It would be fair to say that among the many qualities that Antonio Conte possessed, the development of the youth did not stand out. Maurizio Sarri didn’t seem to care either.
All the while, Abramovich’s vision of a homemade Chelsea team has been hanging around like an ethereal dream, something that looks great on paper, but less shiny in the real world of top flight.
Reece James has become a regular starter in Lampard’s Chelsea on the right side of the defense
That is why it is not always appreciated what a huge leap forward Frank Lampard has made at the club. During his speech on Friday, he was wispy at the start of his press conference, as he is well aware that his job will be in jeopardy in the coming weeks.
But on the other hand, something very remarkable is happening at Chelsea. It’s echoed in other big six clubs, but nowhere is the change as profound as at Stamford Bridge: academy graduates actually get the grade and, crucially, make a difference.
In the FA Cup match against Luton, we can see some of Chelsea’s next generation, such as winger Tino Anjorin.
For years, the lack of progress from youth team to first team at Chelsea was a regular joke. But now it is conceivable that Chelsea could put down a really good first XI next season, with six internationals, all of whom XI are homegrown: Blackman; James, Christensen, Tomori / Ampadu, Maatsen; Loftus-Cheek / Gallagher, Gilmour, Mount; Anjorin, Abraham, Hudson-Odoi.
Center-back Fikayo Tomori could make his recent move to AC Milan permanent
The team will need some loan players like Jamal Blackman (Rotherham) and Conor Gallagher (West Brom) to return. And if Fikayo Tomori finalizes his loan to AC Milan, Marc Guehi, who currently stars in Swansea, or Ethan Ampadu, on loan to Sheffield United, should step in.
It cannot be ignored that Chelsea is on the cusp of something extraordinary. Barcelona was once seen as the blueprint for the academy’s development and Chelsea’s model was, in some ways, an attempt to copy them. In 2012, in a La Liga game against Levante, Barcelona made a historic substitution when Dani Alves got up injured and was replaced by Martin Montoya.
When Montoya came in, all 11 players on the field had graduated from Barca academy. And as good as Chelsea’s theoretical team would be, it couldn’t quite match this: Valdes; Montoya, Puyol, Pique, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta.
Still, Chelsea is about to repeat that moment. And if Lampard keeps his job until next season, it would be appropriate if he were the man to pick that team. When asked about the number of players he has bloodied and developed, he said: ‘I am proud of that. I said it a lot last year, that I didn’t want us to become an academy club, I wanted us to win things and achieve things.
‘But when I came back here, I made the conscious choice to look at the younger players, because we had a good match. But also to give them the opportunity to show that they can join the team. That wasn’t something I had to do – people talked about the transfer ban as if I had to do it.
Callum Hudson-Odoi is starting to shine again after a gloomy spell at Stamford Bridge
But Mason Mount will be in midfield last year in front of seasoned internationals and Tammy Abraham, as will Fikayo Tomori, Billy Gilmour when he joins the team. It’s double-edged: I trust them and they produced for the team and they should get a lot of credit for that too.
‘I thought it was very important for players who come through the academy. Because they really feel the club when you get through the academy – and you should. And they do, the boys. That is a great feature to include in the selection of the first team. ‘
Mount has appeared in particular, will likely play today. ‘He is crucial to the team. There is always a good balance in this work about when you can find peace of mind for players who are crucial to the team, ‘said Lampard.
The irony is that after a summer of heavy spending, the inability of top signings Kai Havertz and Timo Werner to integrate into the team could eventually cost Lampard his job.
In this somber spell, people like Mount, James and Abraham were in the foreground and Callum Hudson-Odoi started to shine again. That won’t save Lampard in the long run if the results don’t improve. But it should at the very least be at the forefront of Abramovich’s mind when we weigh the pros and cons to stick or twist.