“We’ll give them a season” is what most level headed supporters said of Chelsea’s academy graduates finding their way in the first team.
With a transfer ban, Frank Lampard had little option but to make use of the most successful academy of the past decade.
On the opening day of the 2019/20 season, Lampard picked three academy players in his starting XI, Andreas Christensen, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham.
The 4-0 defeat brought the optimism of Lampard’s young side crashing down to earth, but as the season developed, those youngsters came into their own.
In addition to the three that started that opening day defeat, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori and Billy Gilmour all made their Chelsea debuts and the injured duo of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek also made their way back into contention.
Lampard (and Chelsea) find themselves in a situation where a third of their squad could be made up of academy players.
While this is obviously fantastic, these players must be there on merit, which is something Lampard has been to stress throughout the season.
Out of all those academy players to play this season, only Mount has been an ever present. With Lampard not afraid to take any under performing player out of the team.
The ever present Mount was dragged off at half time in the FA Cup Quarter Final clash with Leicester City.
Tomori, despite some promising performances didn’t feature at all after the restart. James was in and out of a rotating defence as Lampard tinkered with a back four or back three.
Gilmour had back to back man of the match performances before lockdown, but found opportunities limited after the restart before injury curtailed his season.
Abraham, who finished the season as our top scorer, lost his starting place as the experience of Oliver Giroud, who almost left the club in January, was needed to get us over the line in the race for the top 4.
Now the transfer ban has been lifted, the pressure will increase on those youngsters to perform, but having said that, the main benefit of having a large proportion of the squad coming from the academy means you can save yourself a lot of money on squad filler.
You don’t need to spend £23 million on Davide Zappacosta to provide cover for Cesar Azpilicueta because you’ve got James.
You don’t need to spend £35 million on Danny Drinkwater because you’ve got Gilmour.
You don’t need to spent £33 million on Michy Batshuayi because you’ve now got Abraham.
That £91 million saving allows you to bring in the type of world class players you need to challenge for the elite honours.
We’ve already spent big money on Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, good replacements for the departing Willian and Pedro.
There’s still problem areas to solve, most notably in central defence and in between the sticks, but we can focus on those areas knowing that the other areas of the squad are covered.
For Tomori, James, Gilmour, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi, there’s enough quality in the senior players competing for places that will allow them another season to continue their development at the top level.
For Mount, his importance to Lampard’s ideas was proven in the fact that he became the first academy graduate to make 50 appearances in his debut season.
Whatever you might think of Mount, he’s central to Lampard’s press and will likely make 50 appearances next season as well.
For context, it took Christensen 6 years to reach 100 appearances, a feat he achieved last season. Mount could do that in just two.
But there’s one academy graduate who now doesn’t have the luxury of time, and that’s Tammy Abraham.
Being the centre forward means scoring goals, and you can’t deny that Abraham has done that. 18 goals across all competitions is a decent return for your first proper season in the Premier League.
To put some context into that, only Diego Costa (21) has scored more goals in their debut season at Chelsea (in the Roman Abramovich era).
Didier Drogba (16), Alvaro Morata (15), Hernan Crespo (12) and Nicolas Anelka (2), all produced a lower return than Abraham did, and they all had a great deal more experience at the top level than Abraham.
Despite these goals though, it’s the all round game that saw Abraham out of the side more often in the second half of the season.
As the fast paced quick football we’d seen early on in the season began to slow down, Abraham found it more and more difficult to make an impact.
Once Giroud replaced him, the difference in the team was huge.
The wingers were able to play off Giroud thanks to his link up ability. Something that was noticeable in the FA Cup semi final win over Manchester United.
It’s an intelligence you get with more experience, to able to know when to drop deep and be point of reference for the team, or when to attack the near or far post when the ball gets crossed in from out wide.
Against Bayern Munich in the second leg, Abraham got on the score sheet, yet this was only because Manuel Nurer made a mistake.
Time and time again Mateo Kovacic helped us evade the Bayern press, but Abraham wasn’t giving himself as an option.
When your backs against the wall, you want to see everyone pulling together and running through brick walls for each other.
It seemed for the most part that Abraham was just a bystander.
And given his position on the pitch, that doesn’t bode well for his future chances.
Lampard’s main idea, based around the press in the opposition’s half starts with the striker and if Abraham isn’t pulling his weight in that way, then he’ll find himself behind Giroud and new signing Werner in the pecking order.
The pressure on Abraham to be the full package comes a lot earlier for him than the other academy graduates, simply because goals win games, and given our defensive struggles, we certainly need to score in every game.
Abraham, to his credit, spoke very positively at the end of the season about his need to improve overall, and you can certainly see a difference in his physique post lockdown.
Unfortunately for him though, time is not on his side, and if he really does want to be Chelsea’s number 9 in years to come, next season needs to be his season.
Strikers are judged on goals and there’s no argument against Abraham in that respect, but what makes elite strikers elite is everything that happens without the hall, and that’s where he needs to make the biggest leap.
For the other youngsters in the side, they’re surrounded by experience on the pitch, when you’re the lone striker you’ve got to work it out for yourself, and that’s why Abraham has found himself reduced to an impact sub in the business end of the season.
I don’t think there’s any proper Chelsea suppporter that wants Abraham (and the other academy players) to do well and succeed, but unless he hits the ground running next season his minutes will be limited.