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Whisper it quietly, but it would seem that things at Chelsea Football Club are beginning to change.
This is a change far more revolutionary than any formation or managerial switch. The very club that ruined football in 2003, as Roman Abramovich splashed the cash to transform the Blues into a global superpower, a club so famed for its short-termism is beginning to look ahead.
Chelsea is synonymous with big spending; in fact it has spent more money in the January transfer window than any club since 2011. A fact that makes Chelsea’s recent decision to recall Nathan Ake from his season long loan at Bournemouth all the more significant. It is a clear policy shift.
Chelsea has long been chastised for stock piling players. The west London outfit regularly have over thirty players on loan across Europe, indeed this season that number totals 38. Despite the enormous wealth of players at the club’s disposal, only Thibaut Courtois has forged a career for himself at Stamford Bridge.
In the past the club has so often opted for big-money imports rather than utilising the talent already on the books. There are clear examples of this, Romelu Lukaku was sold and one year later Chelsea replaced him with Diego Costa and Kevin De Bruyne left for Wolfsburg so Fabregas could come in a year later. As a Chelsea loanee/academy player you would easily be forgiven for believing that the day when you turn out in Chelsea blue might never come.
Chelsea hasn’t recalled Ake because of a lack of options in the market. The club has shown it has the ability to be boisterous in this particular window, especially when you consider Conte is armed with the Oscar money and has a title charge to see through.
Ake has been recalled because he is truly considered the best option to strengthen the Blues’ backline. This is unlikely to be a one-off situation either, the likelihood seems to be that Andreas Christensen will return from his loan in Germany this summer to compete for a place in the first team. Furthermore, Musonda and Kenedy are back after two underwhelming loans, and Conte wants to assess them this month before determining whether either of them could be of use for the title run-in. Finally, Nathaniel Chalobah seems to have secured his place in the squad as Mikel’s replacement, having been in the loan wilderness for five years.
It is not only the on-loan players who have been benefitting either; this is symptomatic of a wider reorientation from the club. Loftus-Cheek and Ola Aina are now on the fringes of the first team, and Conte’s recent comments suggest he isn’t willing to let Loftus-Cheek leave on a loan deal this month. Chelsea finally has a manager willing to place his faith in the youth at the club. Once Ola Aina was subbed on against Peterborough on the 57th minute Chelsea had three academy players on the pitch in one go for the second time this season, the first being against Leicester in October.
Roman is finally starting to see something from his £100m investment in the academy. It has come just in time too, in recent years Chelsea has been behind both Manchester clubs in terms of spending as the club tries to comply with financial fair play. The club has been be unwilling to pay much more than £30-35m for a player, recently Kante, Luiz, Fabregas, Costa, Batshuayi have all arrived for sums in this region, whilst both clubs in the North West have broken the £50m barrier in recent windows.
Chelsea finally looking to its younger talent, whether it be in the academy or out on loan, is an opportunity to adopt a Barcelona-style transfer model from the late 2000s. Prioritising promoting young talent from within the club and then supplement that with one or two superstar signings a summer. This system would allow Chelsea to compete financially with the Manchester clubs again as well as benefit from the wealth of talent already on the books.
Whether or not this comes to fruition remains to be seen. But for now we can say with some certainty that, under Conte, Chelsea’s dismal record with academy products since John Terry seems to be finally coming to an end.