Not only did Chelsea use up six members of their academy to beat AC Milan on Wednesday, the rotated XI that went out to face Wolves several days later had a backbone of Cobham graduates. Throughout the week, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mason Mount, Trevoh Chalobah, Conor Gallagher and Reece James have all started matches, whilst Armando Broja came off the bench and Carney Chukwuemeka also made his first appearance.
There’s a quote in there somewhere. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. That’s been the overriding feeling at Chelsea for a while, with more academy players appearing on a matchday at Stamford Bridge than in most elite teams, but still the demand for more.
Chukwuemeka himself hasn’t come through the training base at Cobham, having signed as an 18-year-old for £20million from Aston Villa this summer, but his age is still worth noting.
Chelsea have known that they have one of the richest talent berths in all of the world. The amount of players for top end clubs they produce is staggering, even if they don’t go on to make their way in blue. The same players that impressed most under Frank Lampard are still at the club – Mount and James – and went on to become regulars under Thomas Tuchel as well. They both look set to be Graham Potter’s prefered options as well.
It’s harder than it seems to just trust the youth though. Tuchel struggled to fully implement the pathway desired and was always focused on the here and now, the short term. He felt warmth with experience. Potter already looks to have brought a differing approach.
It has only taken him four matches, with two wins and two clean sheets now coming in a row, but the 47-year-old is standing by his early message for young players at the club. “I think that our goal is to make sure that we can show pathways for our young superstars to get onto the Chelsea pitch while getting them real game time,” he said. Now, with a first home league win, Potter has already surpassed a feat that Tuchel didn’t manage.
Albeit with less than five minutes to go, Chukwuemeka took his first steps onto the pitch as a Chelsea player and made his debut for the club. His league debut came two years ago for Aston Villa, and he made 12 appearances last season as well. But this was Chelsea.
“It feels amazing,” he said afterwards. “I’ve dreamed of playing for the club I supported growing up, so for it to happen is a dream come true.” Chukwuemeka’s debut signifies something deeper. Not that Tuchel was against having youth around, but his trust in senior players meant that even with the 18-year-old and Billy Gilmour on the bench against Southampton earlier this season, Tuchel said he had no more midfielders to turn to. It was damning. In his 19-months, Tuchel didn’t give a league minute to a Chelsea teenager.
There were cup appearances for Xavier Simmons, Harvey Vale, Lewis Hall and Jude Soonsup-Bell, but none of them came particularly close to truly getting the league outing under their belt. Pitty minutes doesn’t really count for much, but offering time towards Kenedy and Michy Batshuayi instead of players for the future felt like another admission from Tuchel. The pathway may have been there, but it wasn’t obvious enough, hence the battle to keep Callum Hudson-Odoi and Levi Colwill permanently despite their loan moves
Now Chukwuemeka has had his first taste, he’ll be eager for more over the next six weeks of fast-paced matches. “I thank God, all my team-mates, my family and the Gaffer for trusting me. Hopefully it’s the first of many. The Chelsea fans have been really supporting me since I joined the club and the reception from them today definitely gave me a boost.
“Before coming on he [Potter] told me to express myself, to play how I have been in training and to play with a smile on myself. I think I did that so it was good.” Broja scored his first goal for the club with Chukwuemeka on the pitch. Gallagher got his first for the club last week against Palace. These are players Tuchel had around but didn’t turn to properly, Potter has shown early willingness to, and he’s getting the reward that comes from the perceived risk