Rafael Benitez's tenure as Chelsea manager is well underway, with noticeable differences between his vision for the team and those of his predecessor, Roberto Di Matteo. Where the Italian took on the challenge of securing league success by fielding a side characterised by dynamism and zeal, epitomised by the thrilling 4-2 victory at White Hart Lane in October, Benitez has begun by encouraging discipline and restraint from his players, resulting in two goalless draws. As the new manager begins to introduce his footballing philosophy to his players, the blueprint set out by Di Matteo at the start of this campaign will gradually be disassembled and rebuilt, except for one key area; a disinclination to blood homegrown talent.
Roman Abramovich's tendency to quickly lose faith in his manager is incontrovertible, and arguably justified by the statistical evidence. In the period since he became owner at Stamford Bridge in June 2003, Chelsea have won 10 major trophies, compared to the nine won by Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. Chelsea supporters were uninhibited in their public disapproval of Abramovich's actions in the draw against Manchester City, but their wealth of silverware in the past decade will be viewed enviously by supporters at Arsenal and Everton, who have kept faith with their managers in the equivalent period with little tangible reward. Nonetheless, Abramovich's eagerness to undergo managerial transitions is open to criticism. Especially due to the fact that his coaches continue to be unwilling to gamble on young players.
This is especially the case after Andre Villas-Boas' attempts to dismantle the spine of the Chelsea team ended in such spectacularly catastrophic fashion. Benitez, like Di Matteo before him, will understandably not risk giving Daniel Sturridge an extended run in the team, or opt to recall Josh McEachran or Sam Hutchinson from their loan spells, as the pursuit of silverware cannot be derailed by time spent developing young talent. In the pressurised atmosphere created by Abramovich's hunt for success, it is understandable that the Russian's coaches feel too inhibited by the fear of failure to take the time to give young players first-team opportunities.
A strong counter-argument would be to look at the array of youthful exuberance that now runs through the team; Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard, and Cesar Azpilicueta, are all aged under 25. Yet crucially, not one of those players was developed by Chelsea's own youth system. Only John Terry stands out as an academy graduate who has made the successful step into the Blues' first team; his Chelsea debut came over 14 years ago.
Abramovich's project is a fascinating one as it challenges the dominant narrative in European football that a flourishing youth set-up results in success. The well-established and prevalent belief that investing in a youth academy will bring success on the field was strengthened following the Champions League victory earned by Manchester United's team of the late-nineties. The view was further reinforced by the creation of the current Barcelona squad at the La Masia youth academy, arguably the greatest homegrown collection of players ever assembled. A third example can seen by the successful Nantes team of the mid-1990s which provided a footballing education to the World Cup winning trio of Didier Deschamps, Christian Karembeu, and Marcel Desailly.
A strong youth system does not directly equate to success, however. Barclays Premier League stars Mata, Michu, and Santi Cazorla all began their careers at Real Oviedo, a club which has now spent over a decade outside Spain's top division and has only recently found a solution to their severe financial difficulties. Graduates of West Ham's academy system include England internationals Paul Ince, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, yet the Hammers have struggled to maintain their place in the top flight.
These two examples certainly buttress the strong challenge presented to the hegemonic discourse by Abramovich's Chelsea. Following Benitez's appointment, the limited opportunities to young players at Stamford Bridge will continue, and with it the challenge to footballing orthodoxies. These instances appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, however. Nevertheless, although Alan Hansen's declaration that "you can't win anything with kids" has been discredited, Abramovich's Chelsea continue to suggest you can win plenty without.