Chelsea’s renaissance under Antonio Conte, which has manifested itself as a club-record-equalling 11 straight Premier League wins and counting, has seen the club surge to the top of the table by six points.
Right now, Conte can do no wrong. From his now fabled 3-4-3, to turning Victor Moses from loan fodder to first team star and everything in between, including the mental re-mapping of David Luiz and Diego Costa, the Italian appears to have the Midas touch.
But there’s still room for improvement. An intriguing by-product of the run Conte has presided over is the nullifying effect it has had on the youth at the club. It’s one of the perennial debates to be had at Chelsea — their continued failure to find a player from within the academy to make a lasting breakthrough.
Conte’s current level of success is such that he has become virtually immune to criticism and supporters’ regular rants about playing the youth have evaporated because of the fine job he is doing.
But with the January transfer window about to open, rumours are starting to bubble up regarding players Conte might bring in to bolster Chelsea’s squad to sustain their challenge for the title. There seems little talk regarding a youth prospect getting his chance.
Among the names linked in the gossip columns are Paris Saint Germain’s Marco Verratti and Monaco defensive midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko, two players who possess the athleticism, physicality and ability that appear well-suited to Conte’s 3-4-3.
Oscar’s imminent transfer to Shanghai SIPG for a fee in excess of £50 million could pave the way for 25-year-old Real Madrid outcast James Rodriguez to move to Chelsea too.
All three players are still comparatively young, but all have significant experience playing at the highest level and this is something Conte clearly values. It’s understandable but if any of these signings materialise, the consequences for Chelsea’s academy players are plain to see.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a case in point. The versatile midfielder, 21 in January 2017, saw his career progress last season despite the trying circumstances. With 17 first team appearances and two goals, many fans thought he was ready for the big step up. Loftus-Cheek was going to be the player who would rewrite the unwanted record that shows John Terry, now 36, as the last academy graduate to make the grade at Stamford Bridge.
Preseason under Conte saw Loftus-Cheek fielded in a more advanced role and the experiment continued in the EFL Cup when Chelsea beat Bristol Rovers 3-2. He was involved in two of the goals and was given a standing ovation by the Stamford Bridge crowd when substituted towards the end of the game. Injury hampered further progress and a subsequent exit from the EFL Cup and Chelsea’s absence from European competition this season have further curbed first team chances restricted by the stellar form of Conte’s favoured starting XI.
The current scenario sees Conte openly discussing a January loan move for Loftus-Cheek but it remains to be seen if this will materialise. If it does will it be with a club whose playing style matches Chelsea’s? The early rounds of the FA Cup will present an opportunity for players like Loftus-Cheek and fellow academy graduates Nathaniel Chalobah and Ola Aina to start for the first team but they will almost certainly remain on the fringes of Conte’s plans.
Loan spells with Watford, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading and Napoli couple with progression through the England national team’s junior ranks have helped Chalobah mature as a player. He has also impressed when given first team chances this season by Conte, albeit featuring mainly from the bench.
While Chalobah appears to have overtaken Loftus-Cheek in the seemingly never-ending race following Terry’s footsteps from the academy to the first team at Stamford Bridge, the likelihood of such an eventuality happening remains mired in doubt.
It’s one of the harsh realities of life at Chelsea which looks set to be underlined as the season progresses.
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