With vast sums of money having been poured into Chelsea and Man City in the last decade or so, the development of youth players isn’t something which is particularly associated with two of the elite clubs of the English footballing landscape. However, as the projects of Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour respectively have progressed over time, there has been an increasingly great importance placed upon improving their youth facilities and nurturing their own talent; part of an overall plan which seeks to move the two clubs towards a position where they can become entirely self-sustainable.
So, for both of the teams to reach the 2015 FA Youth Cup final is a very positive indication that their plan is progressing well. More so for Man City in that regard, as this was their first final since 2008 (whereas it was, incredibly, Chelsea’s fifth in six seasons), but this success suggests that the pair have a number of players who could have what it takes to have impressive careers in the tough world of professional football.
Having watched both games, and particularly so after going to the second leg at Stamford Bridge, that suggestion certainly seems to be the case. Impressed by what I saw at the match, a game which ended with a 2-1 Chelsea win (helping them to win 5-2 on aggregate and lift the trophy), I’ve decided to pick out the four players on each side who I felt stood out above the others on the night.
Playing as the number 10 in the Chelsea system, possibly the most exciting aspect of Jeremie Boga’s admirable performance was the way he created space for himself. He made a variety of clever movements whilst utilising his two quick feet, avoiding challenges with ease and regularly bringing Tammy Abraham and Isaiah Brown into play as they drifted inside after they initially started in wider areas of the pitch. Though he was more inconsistent and frustrating than the other Chelsea midfielders who performed in (albeit deeper) central roles, Charlie Colkett and Charly Musonda, he was the instigator of a lot in the final third – and the moments he did produce were very exciting to watch.
With a well-built physique and a dominating kind of running style, Isaiah Brown certainly looks like one of the most developed players in the Chelsea youth academy. Whilst that can often lead to performances being somewhat misleading at this level, due to growth rates being very variable amongst teenagers, his technical ability and surging runs with the ball at close control complements his athletic attributes well and he’s undoubtedly got a bright future. His decision making is something which needs improving on, and he was a little insistent on cutting inside rather than mixing up his game more, but his equalising goal in the first half (a header from a corner after rising well above his marker) was indicative of another promising performance from the home side’s left winger on the night.
Chelsea predominantly played on the front foot throughout both legs of the tie, and a lot of the reason for that control can be accredited to Charlie Colkett. Playing at the base of the midfield alongside Charly Musonda, Colkett dictated the pace of the game with great composure and evident calculation over every move he made – rather than acting largely on instinct as many players at such an early stage of their development do. He has a wonderful left foot which he put to use very effectively, moving the ball quickly to bring his teammates into play when space emerged; but also slowing the game down in the periods when Man City tried to up the tempo as they tried to claw back the deficit. It was, overall, a very assured performance from the captain of Chelsea’s U18 side.
Where Colkett’s role in the midfield was much more refined and subtle, Charly Musonda operated in a very vertical and powerful manner from the deeper areas of the pitch. Whether to support Colkett in shutting off space defensively or to make sensational darts forward into space whilst in possession, his energy – in combination with great technical ability and his partner’s calmness – helped to establish a lovely balance in the home side’s midfield. The array of attributes he showed suggested there are a variety of central roles which Musonda could take up, and perhaps his best position could yet still be determined, but what is very clear is that this is a player who is deadly when space opens up for him to burst into.
The combination play between Angelino and Brandon Barker down the left is something which has been highly talked about throughout the season, and their understanding was certainly on show during the second leg of the final. Blessed with good pace and evidently very gifted technically, most of his threat at Stamford Bridge came when creating width, going down the line and looking to pull it back for midfield runners. However Angelino also showed that he has the ability to, with a bit of work, become lethal inside the half-spaces in slightly more central areas – and if he can do that then there’s a real possibility that the left-back could go on to become an enormously consistent nightmare to defend against. Abraham did find space to attack in behind him after the Spaniard’s forward ventures at times, but when placed one-on-one with his direct opponent he defended pretty well.
Seen as one of the true gems of this crop of Man City youngsters, Brandon Barker (despite a very notable drop in his performance as the second half wore on) showed real glimpses of his enormous potential throughout the match. He linked well with Angelino down the left as mentioned and, perhaps most impressively, demonstrated a great variety to his game in a number of ways. Comfortable going on either his left or stronger right foot, he was happy to continuously receive the ball; on some occasions opting to carry it forwards on his own, on others to release it quickly and make the run for a possible one-two. For now his play with Angelino is too good to pass up on that side, but it would be no surprise to see Barker moved into a more central role in the future where he could control his side’s attacking play to a greater extent.
Unlike Angelino and Barker, Kelechi Iheanacho has been unable to make much of an impact this season due to injuries. Based on this performance though he can be a real handful for the opposition defenders, and – like with the opening goal – he showed some excellent movement to peel away from players in order to create space for himself. He was very lively in periods, using those drifting runs in tandem with his physicality to keep the Chelsea centre-backs on their toes for the first half in particular. At times he did give the ball away too easily and he could do with improvement to his game when he has his back to goal, but considering his injuries and Chelsea’s domination of the midfield battle he did well for the 70 minutes he played until being subbed off.
Like his fellow Spanish full-back Angelino, Pablo Maffeo put in a very good display on the flank for Man City. He was a brilliant attacking outlet on the right and regularly called for the ball whilst hugging the touchline in a clever area between Jay Dasilva and Isaiah Brown, almost always controlling it with great comfort before generally using it progressively. A truly wonderful cross for Iheanacho in the middle of the first-half particularly stood out from his attacking contribution, but he combined his forward-thinking instinct with some good defensive positioning and restraint when called upon. It was a well-rounded performance from Maffeo, the slightly more defensive of their two full-backs, and he coped with great maturity against a strong Chelsea left side.
How many (if any) of these players make it in the first-team at their respective clubs remains to be seen, but there’s a set of extremely talented youngsters who, if given the chance which their quality is deserving of, may be able to make a strong contribution towards the projects of these two super clubs. If not, it wouldn’t be of any surprise to see them make it elsewhere.