After the spending spree last summer that brought Michy Batshuayi. N’Golo Kante, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso to Stamford Bridge for a total of £112 million, there was more than a hint of irony in Antonio Conte’s taunts to Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola on how vast sums of money do not guarantee success.
“Try to spend that money in the right way to take players with the right characteristics for your idea of football” he said, “but, for us, this season is very important because we are trying to build something for the present, to put down the foundations, and be stronger for the future.”
Investing in the ‘right characteristics’ as he put it is crucial but as he will attest, with the struggles to integrate £33 million Batshuayi into his first team, it isn’t always easy. The managers of both Manchester clubs have endured their own difficulties this season after respective summers of spending big to huge expectations, but both have seen improvements to build on as they too seek stronger futures for their clubs.
The Italian coach has been shrewd with his dealings but to claim the moral high ground over transfer spending seems very hollow while the club he serves continues to be propped up by over £1 billion in loans from a Russian oligarch. Still, plaudits must be sent his way for guiding a team that hugely underachieved last season to the brink of a league and cup double.
24 hours after Conte’s men took another step towards a second title in three years with a 4-2 win over Southampton on Tuesday, the Italian was back at Stamford Bridge alongside Roman Abramovich watching the under-18s triumph over Manchester City in the FA Youth Cup.
It was the third time in a row the final had been competed between the two clubs and Chelsea’s 6-2 aggregate win delivered the Blues their 8th Youth Cup in a decade.
John Terry, the last player to graduate from the club’s academy to establish themselves with the seniors, was also in attendance and his presence should send a warning to the players that found it so comfortable on Wednesday.
Conte was an animated spectator, celebrating goals and his passion saw him into the dressing room afterwards to deliver a rousing speech to Jody Morris’s young team, though one suspects the players will not have much interaction with the same players from now on.
Not when none of the members from Chelsea’s triumphant side of 2015 have gone on to play regularly for the first team and that side have clocked up just 11 appearances between them.
Tammy Abraham netted in that final, one of 74 goals in 98 games for the youth teams, and has impressed in a loan spell with Bristol City in the Championship, but nobody can conceivably imagine him replacing Diego Costa this summer should the Spaniard depart as expected.
Kelechi Iheanacho netted for City in that same final but is the only player to find regular game time for the seniors at the Etihad but now finds himself side-lined by Pep Guardiola as the £27 million signing of Gabriel Jesus stunted the Nigerian’s progress.
The Premier League’s wealthiest clubs are dominating the youth scene, with Manchester United having won the under-21 league 3 out of the 4 years before it was reformed to the under-23s Premier League 2, but seemingly only out of their own vanity as managers seek ready-made answers, often to huge cost, to their first-team problems.
United have unearthed the likes of Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah but they are exceptions to the rule that has seen Tyler Blackett, Donald Love, James Wilson and many others drop by the wayside.
Adnan Januzaj and Ashley Fletcher have moved on to Sunderland and West Ham respectively but have made little progress. For every Jesse Lingard, who had to wait patiently for his chance there is a Michael Keane, nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year, who had to move to Burnley to discover his potential.
At Chelsea there are the sad stories of Patrick Bamford, contracted to the Londoners for five years without playing a single game while he was packed off to various loan spells, and Josh McEachran, a starter in the Youth Cup win of 2010 but now injured at Brentford after touring the country on loan.
These clubs have been the main beneficiaries of the FA’s Elite Player’s Performance Plan (EPPP) that came in to effect five years ago, giving the category one academies license to hunt for under-18s from outside the previous regulations of a 90-minute radius.
“Suddenly it’s like kids in a candy shop” is how Swansea’s chairman Huw Jenkins described the rule change and big clubs are flashing the money at parents to prise their kids away before they find the way blocked when it comes to crossing the bridge between youth and senior teams.
The English Football League have presented ways to aid that step, bringing in the controversial EFL Trophy, but only 10 top flight teams met the invitation to participate with their academy sides.
The Trophy’s inaugural season has been met with apathy and farce but it has been to the benefit of clubs like Swansea and Norwich whose strikers Oliver McBurnie and Josh Murphy scored 5 goals each while Reading, who beat Southampton’s academy on their way to the last-16, saw the chance to play against full strength League One and League Two sides as a “phenomenal experience” for their younger players.
The Premier League 2, widened to include under-23s to prevent players aged 21-23 from falling through the cracks if they have failed to break through, has provided a better level of competition and the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea would be well positioned to glance at this year’s winners, Everton, who have elevated Tom Davies, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Matthew Pennington into their first-team this term.
Ronald Koeman has reaped the benefit of emerging talent, albeit at a lower expectation level of Chelsea and Manchester City, but it does not help development of teenagers if they are stockpiled and shunned out once they move through the academy.
City for instance have plunged buckets of cash into their state of the art Etihad Campus but have not seen a player breakthrough into their first team since Micah Richards did so in 2005. The loss of Denis Suarez, their young player of the year in 2012, to Barcelona has been the norm, not the exception.
With 3 senior appearances, it is believed 19-year-old Tosin Adarabioyo is close but there is a reason why Guardiola has not yet trusted him despite the defensive flaws of his side.
In Adarabioyo, a representative of England throughout all junior age groups, City are discovering the pitfalls of their current academy vanity, with the defender, with his contract due to expire in the summer, wanting a financial package the club can’t justify.
If he departs then it appears to the onlooker as another wasted opportunity, another teenager the club has failed, but if he stays there is no assurances to the defender’s representatives of first team role. See Karim Rekik, now at Marseille, or Jason Denayer, previously primed for a breakthrough but now enduring a torrid campaign at relegation-bound Sunderland.
Guardiola believed that Adarabioyo was not yet ready after watching the teenager in the 1-1 Champions League draw with Celtic this season but with Nicolas Otamendi and Aleksander Kolarov playing regularly despite consistent errors, it is bound to send a deflating message to the 19-year-old.
City spent £28.5 million to sign the 29-year-old Otamendi from Valencia in 2015 but has made no obvious improvement despite all the work done on his positional play or his habit of diving to ground. Would the same patience be shown to Adarabioyo if he was given the chance to make errors?
Those calling for an overhaul of the academy system, those not satisfied with the pitfalls of the EPPP, those who bemoan England’s performances at major tournaments every two years know the answer.
With Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna failing to follow the complex instructions of their manager this season City are likely to buy two new full-backs, the club has not signed one since Maicon in 2012, in the summer. Despite Guardiola’s close relationship with the development squads, they will not come from the youth side despite a third successive cup final appearance.
Of Morris’s final winning team many, if not all, are likely to see their way into the first team blocked by expensive foreign talent. Ike Ugbo, with 20 goals this season, sparked an animated celebration from Conte with his acrobatic volley in the final, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Dujon Sterling all have potential but are destined to go the same way as many before them; packed off on loan.
Chelsea currently have an eye-watering 38 players out receiving their footballing education elsewhere.
Trevor Chalobah, a fellow scorer in the final, can ask his brother what awaits him with Nathaniel having done his time on loan with a different spell each year since 2012. This, his first full year with the seniors at Stamford Bridge, has yielded 71 minutes of first-team football.
Money, as Conte rightfully claimed, does not equate to success but it certainly helps. The Italian has invested more shrewdly than his counterparts but would have struggled without the assistance of his Russian billionaire boss.
Competition at the top comes with the immediate expectation of success. Time waits for nobody, not in the Premier League, and the latest batch of talent at Chelsea, City and United, as well as other top-flight clubs, will be the latest to discover that lesson.