Chelsea FC and the Cobham academy: Is a cultural change on the cards at the club?

A fair and fickle argument that has emerged for Chelsea fans is how to best use the youth academy for the future; Recent times have shown the success of Cobham graduates, particularly within the Chelsea FC first team itself.

Several breakthrough players highlight this new and exciting wave of youth talent at Chelsea. These players include Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham, and Fikayo Tomori. There are key underlying reasons why this breakthrough occurred.

Chelsea's Champions League winners from the Cobham academy. (Image: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Chelsea’s Champions League winners from the Cobham academy. (Image: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

How the transfer ban helped the Cobham academy

Chelsea were hit with a transfer ban for the 2019 summer window for ironically signing youth players illegally, according to FIFA. This ban came at the same time that the most prolific and legendary player in the Chelsea squad – Eden Hazard – decided to bid the Stamford Bridge faithful farewell in Baku after defeating Arsenal in the Europa League Final. The aftermath saw Mauricio Sarri leave the club for Juventus, the appointment of Frank Lampard as manager, and an aging squad in key areas being replaced by younger players, primarily from the Cobham Academy.

Importantly, Lampard had familiarity with several of these youth players, namely Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori from their mutual time at Derby County FC. This move to play the youth – Mount, Tomori, James, and Abraham – was an early success given the circumstances surrounding the club and Lampard.

However, this is not a linear narrative and progression. The youth were not trusted as much once the ban was lifted. Immediately, talented veterans and highly promising, young players alike were brought into the squad for Lampard’s first proper transfer window. These included Hakim Ziyech, Edouard Mendy, Thiago Silva, Malang Sarr, Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner, and Kai Havertz. Many of these players represented direct opposition to existing youth players and subsequent players in Cobham trying to make their breakthrough to the first team as their predecessors did in 2019/2020.

The season continued to progress with all of the new signings until it all blew up just as quickly as it ascended. The January 2021 window saw the departure of academy graduate, Fikayo Tomori, and he went on to displace club captain, Alessio Romagnoli, at Milan and win a starting place through great play. The question started at this time to creep into the minds of many fans: Will more youth make it or not at Chelsea? Were we all fooled by the specific and unique circumstances that surrounded Lampard when he was hired? Can the club continue to be a serial winner while relying on academy graduates year-in and year-out?

These questions are still debatable. However, there is history at Chelsea, other clubs, and the challenges of building a winning side from the youth academy to discuss the questions. Specifically, what is the main purpose, on average, of a youth academy at a European super club?

Three of the Cobham academy players celebrating a victory together in their first senior season at the club. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Three of the Cobham academy players celebrating a victory together in their first senior season at the club. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The role the academy at Cobham can play

Historical use of the academy products at Chelsea since Roman Abramovich has been quite dire. Besides John Terry, there was a long period of time with little to no academy graduates in or around the first team. Instead, many of these highly promising and talented young players were used in more transactional methods to better the financial interests of the club. For example, the academy produced many players, yet almost all of them were loaned out to other clubs domestically or abroad, or retained in the developmental or U23 or less squads. Why do this instead of give them a chance?

The transactional methods with loans and eventual sales of the youth products made intuitive sense in the larger scheme of it all at Chelsea from 2003 onwards. Loaning and selling players does more than create a source of reduced cost and/or revenue for Chelsea FC. It also creates a working business relationship with other clubs. This can be crucial: it is a direct way of “networking” in the footballing business world. A prime example of this is the relationship that Vitesse from the Eredivisie (Netherlands topflight league) developed with Chelsea and how many of our academy/youth products – Mount, Matt Miazga, Armando Broja, etc – have been loaned to Vitesse to develop their game through consistent minutes at a topflight club.

Few youth and/or academy players were given chances at Chelsea due to this pursual of the transactional business model with these players, but the transfer strategy was also integral to this methodology. The transfer strategy with Roman Abramovich has mostly been to buy established veterans that immediately help the squad win more trophies. Why would he do this instead of playing youth that could develop into an established veteran? It is directly linked to the immediate pressure and expectation to win. It is relatively a lesser gamble to purchase an established player and plug them into the first team than it is to promote a youth player based on the prospect of what they could become. It is hard to fault Abramovich for this strategy: it has led to unprecedented success for the club and allowed them to firmly take up a seat at the table of Europe’s elite clubs. Perhaps Abramovich looked at other clubs and decided to make this decision and philosophy for how and why to use the youth in the way the club did during the 2000s and 2010s.

How European superpowers use their academies

The historical use of academy players from Cobham abroad at other clubs is variable. In a case by case basis one can find successes and failures, players that made it at their academy club, and players that were sold to other clubs and had subsequent success. The most successful European club, Real Madrid, has very much followed a similar path to what Abramovich forged for Chelsea during their successful run of trophies.

For example, Madrid have produced many highly successful players from their academy, yet many of these players obtained the success away from the Santiago Bernabeu. Madrid in recent times have produced the following list of players from their academy: Juan Mata, Marcos Alonso, Saul Niguez, Daniel Parejo, Marcos Llorente, Pablo Sarabia, Alvaro Morata, Marcos Asensio, and Jose Callejon. All of these players, except Asensio, are currently playing elsewhere than Real Madrid. Why would Madrid sell all these top, young talents? This is because of Madrid’s culture and standard to not only win, but to have the best, the “Galactico” players, and this in turn greatly softens the blow of missing out on talented academy players in the Madrid XI.

There are other examples of talented youth and/or academy products being given a chance but still moved on in the end. Manchester United are a great example of this. Some of the more notable United players to have been hyped or highly promising are: Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba, Michael Keane, Adnan Januzaj, Wilson, Jesse Lingard, Tyler Blackett, Andreas Pereira, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe, Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay, and Angel Gomes. Many of these players did get some resemblance of a chance in the United first team, yet many were ultimately moved on for various reasons. Rashford and McTominay have been mainstays in the recent United teams, and Paul Pogba was purchased for a then world-record transfer fee from Juventus after United had previously discarded Pogba as an academy player. Ultimately, United recently have had variable success with using academy players in the first senior first team.

There is one club in Europe who is not only a powerhouse, elite club, but also uses youth/academy players in abundance. This is none other than Barcelona and the almighty La Masia (academy). Not only have Barca produced many first team players from La Masia, but they have arguably produced, in recent times, more world class and/or elite level players from their academy than any other club in Europe. The list includes: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedri, Puig, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes, Jordi Alba, Pedro, Sergi Roberto, Bojan, Navarro, Mikel Arteta, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Motta, Gerard Pique, Pep Guardiola, and possibly the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi. When Pep Guardiola took over as manager of Barcelona in 2008, he built a formidable side by playing many youth products. This is atypical for a super club in Europe to do. Why?

The path to illuminating the effectiveness and winning ways of the La Masia players at Barcelona required drastic, overarching, top-down changes at the club. These overarching changes did not happen coincidentally. Even the hiring of Pep Guardiola was not at-first favored by the Barcelona board: they had Jose Mourinho at the top of their list of candidates and Pep was fifth choice. But, Barcelona decided to use a club culture as a competitive advantage and felt that Guardiola was the best choice because he focused on pitching almost non-football based ideas and reasons as to why he was the best candidate in his interview.

Guardiola won over the board because the board created a checklist with nine points, with their ideology to use a cultural overhaul as their top competitive advantage, and only two of the nine points were related to football itself. Guardiola checked the most boxes for the revolution the Barcelona hierarchy were striving for, despite being an almost entirely unknown quantity as a manager and being the least qualified candidate from an accomplishment and footballing perspective. But, the cultural fit was too perfect to pass up for Barcelona.

Pep immediately began his conquest for the cultural revolution at Barcelona by ordering the sale of the 3 star players in the team: Ronaldinho, Deco, and Eto’o. He then ushered in many La Masia players, got them to have the correct behaviors to correspond with the “Barcelona Way” culture that was being developed, and the rest is history. Barcelona went on to win a wealth of trophies and in Pep’s peak years at the club, were arguably one of the best squads in football history. Barcelona are currently still using this approach to some extent, as players like Puig and Pedri are emerging superstars for the Catalan club.

Do other, current top clubs in Europe employ a similar, cultural model like the Barcelona Way? The short answer is no. For example, Arsenal, Manchester City, Juventus, Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint Germain, and Spurs do not have an abundance of youth/academy players in their first team XI. But, the important question is: why do most super clubs not follow the Barcelona Way?

Chelsea's current crop of graduates from the Cobham academy. (Photo by Clive Howes – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Chelsea’s current crop of graduates from the Cobham academy. (Photo by Clive Howes – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

How modern clubs operate

Simply put, the Barcelona Way is incredibly difficult to achieve and therefore replicate. It is difficult to replicate for more reasons that can be listed, but the short of it is that it takes such an overarching, top-down alteration and control of the club itself. This means from the highest board member and owner all the way down to the least-regarded and talented youth player, everyone has to buy in and subsequently model their behaviors each day in the mold of the culture being conjured at the club.

This is almost an incomprehensibly difficult task in the modern era of football that is dominated by player egos, rapid competitiveness, and demands for instant success and trophies. The culture of winning at all cost does not align with the Barcelona Way and culture. Hence, many clubs try and fail to replicate a culture as a competitive advantage, let alone reproduce the Barcelona Way. This begs the question: is the La Masia revolution spurred by the Barcelona Way cultural approach the exception to the norm in football?

Chelsea are at a hinge point for their own culture. With the rise of the successful Cobham graduates from the academy in recent times, coupled with the prior loss of other talented youth players such as Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne, should Chelsea try to replicate the Barcelona way of promoting and better relying on the youth to win matches and trophies for the club? This question is multi-faceted if following along with the above examples and what is truly required to get youth involved en masse in the first team.

Ones who have missed out at Chelsea

Despite the recent successes of several of the Cobham academy kids, there are an abundance of failures that preceded the current youth to make the first team. For every Mason Mount, there is a Gael Kakuta. For every Reece James, there is a Josh McEachran. For every Tammy Abraham, there is an Izzy Brown. In fact, there are likely ten-fold more youth players from Cobham that were billed to be the next big talent who simply busted in their career trajectory than there are players like Mason Mount who became first team regulars, and this is a highly conservative estimation at best. It is likely an even greater factor than ten-fold in favor of players from Cobham who did not make it at Chelsea than players who did.

However, could Tuchel be the one to change this historical trend? Asking this question (in light of what the Barcelona way required) should answer it: Tuchel alone does not have the power or influence to change the historical status quo. It takes a top-down (i.e. Roman Abramovich and subsequent top board members) approach of altering the culture of the club and Tuchel cannot do that himself. Why can’t Tuchel try to convince the owner and board of a top-down change, though?

This question comes down to a simple fact: Abramovich does not deal in projects and cultural changes that are not focused on winning trophies. This may be debated by some readers, but history is on the side of the author in this argument. The only constant in Chelsea’s culture during Abramovich’s tenure as owner is summed up with one word: winning. It has been quoted before that Abramovich explicitly stated during Tuchel’s hiring that he just wants to win and that he does not care how that is accomplished.

Clearly, results and trophies at all cost is the top-down culture Chelsea have fostered, nurtured, prioritized, and created. This is why continually winning will always be more important for as long as Abramovich is owner, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. It is naïve to think that Chelsea can replicate the biggest culture revolution in football with Guardiola’s Barcelona. But, it is not naïve to think Chelsea can continue to make the hire-and-fire to win at all cost model and culture work. It has work too many times in the past to suggest it magically and suddenly will no longer work just because several Cobham academy graduates have bucked the trend since 2003.

The counterculture to the above assertions may want to argue that Lampard bucked the trend, so why can’t the next manager? A few reasons explain the holes in the logic of this argument, though. First, Lampard immediately reversed course and was in charge while the club spent more in a single window than almost any window in memory. This suggests that Lampard himself did not have the intention of changing the culture in a significant way to use it as a competitive advantage as Guardiola did in 2008 at Barcelona.

Secondly, a highly promising youth product – Fikayo Tomori – was just sold to Milan for a large profit. This also suggest that the historical status quo culture of using academy players as primarily financial and business networking assets has not substantially changed, as Tomori many times showed just as much capability as other players in his position in the first team.

Third, the abandonment of the supposed multiyear project with Lampard is yet another sign that historical status quo will march on at Chelsea. If a top-down, cultural change was truly underway, why would the board so readily abandon it? Asking the question answers the question. Finally, there is zero evidence that the pressure to win now and at all costs is ending or even subsiding at Chelsea.

So, revisiting the main question and thesis of this article: What is the main purpose, on average, of a youth academy, like Cobham, at a European super club and for Chelsea FC?

Many other clubs use the youth academy as a vessel to develop players, which directly benefits the player, without any true intention of using every youth player in the senior first team. Despite Chelsea’s recent breakthroughs, this is also the case for Chelsea when viewed in a historical sense. The 2019/2020 change seems more of an aberration to the system and philosophy at Chelsea, and this was born out of circumstances more than anything. If Chelsea want to be more like the Barcelona way, then an abandonment of the win now at all costs culture will have to be scrapped, and that means a complete overhaul of the owner’s and board’s current and past culture. This would take a long time and a lot of growing pains. Ultimately, the culture at Chelsea does not align with shifting to a consistent promoting of youth to the first team in a substantial capacity. Regardless of how one feels about this, the evidence is abundant this is the reality.

I am not advocating for Chelsea to cast aside all youth players. I am doing far from that, actually. I would hope that the highly promising youth players at the Cobham academy will be given a chance to go on important and successive loans for first team minutes as a starter, return to fight for a first team spot at Chelsea and seeing rotational roles and minutes until that breakthrough either does or does not happen. This is how many past managers have used youth players (see Sir Alex Ferguson). However, only time will tell, but do not get your hopes up that a highly invested owner will soon change his current and historical modus operandi.

Written by Travis Flock (@Crossroads_CFC)

Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)

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