Manchester City, Chelsea facing youth development dilemmas
Towards the end of the past season, one of the most senior figures at Chelsea was in a reception room at Stamford Bridge discussing the "dilemma" of how exactly the club start to regularly bring youth graduates into the first-team.
"We don't have a solution to that yet," the official said. "This is the issue we're wrestling with."
It is an issue that will only be underlined this weekend, when a full-strength Chelsea team host a youth-filled Manchester City in the FA Cup. The Stamford Bridge officials won't necessarily be looking at Manuel Pellegrini's team with much envy, however, because it's not like City have found a solution either.
Instead, sources have told ESPN FC that City have been forced into playing a young team because of their frustration with a fixture list that sees them travel to Chelsea just three days before a Champions League away match in Dynamo Kiev, already with many first-team players struggling for fitness. Manuel Pellegrini admitted as much on Friday.
It doesn't suggest deep faith in the current youth crop. It does, however, sum up the many complications about when and how to bring youth players through.
The FA Cup tie brings together not only the past two Premier League champions but also the two wealthiest English clubs. These clubs are trying to use that wealth to best serve their long-term futures, but they are at very different stages of the process.
For all the arguments about how the 2003 takeover of Chelsea and 2008 takeover of City afforded the clubs typically nouveau riche "superficial" new identities, they have both -- somewhat admirably -- made concerted attempts to underlay that sudden flash of cash with the substance of proper youth academies.
They have both invested an awful lot in it. The total cost of the City Football Academy -- built just across the road from the Etihad -- is £200 million. Chelsea meanwhile pump £8m a year into their academy -- not counting capital expenditure.
So far, the returns have been limited. Both clubs have seemingly hit ceilings with their youth development and, since those investments, barely anyone has properly broken through to the first-team, with City striker Kelechi Iheanacho being the exception.
The Etihad hierarchy are "relaxed" about this and taking a long-term view. High-level City sources told ESPN FC that they expect it to be another three or four years before the academy starts regularly producing elite players. The fact that so many figures in the hierarchy have come from Barcelona -- especially sporting director Txiki Begiristain and CEO Ferran Soriano -- has granted them patience, and many at the Etihad point to how the Leo Messi-Gerard Pique generation didn't come along at the Camp Nou until 15 years after Johan Cruyff restructured the club in the late 1980s.
But what happens if the academy produces players incapable of reaching a first-team level, as they have found at Stamford Bridge? If that's the case, City's "relaxation" could transform into the "frustration" Chelsea officials have already endured.
The problem is there is no way to guarantee the production of a first-team player. It's impossible. All a club can do is set the best possible conditions, scout the best possible kids and then hope for some luck.
This is what Chelsea have done and City are in the process of finalising. It is reflected in the fact that the Stamford Bridge side have won four of the past six FA Youth Cups, including beating City in the 2015 final -- the Manchester club's first appearance at that stage in seven years.
However, that hasn't had the carry-through. As one source told ESPN FC about the famous Manchester United side: "Not every youth crop is going to be a class of '92 -- far from it."
Those at the top are doing all they can and just need a bit of luck with the right player. The question persists, however, as to whether the managers can do more to try to lower the odds. That senior figure at Chelsea confided to ESPN FC that the constant change of coaches clearly doesn't help.
This means there is always a short-term necessity to win, and that isn't conducive to offering young players the patience to adapt to the first-team. Chelsea sources have admitted they have had huge problems over how to give the 18-to-23 age group that decisive next step.
It is a dilemma summed up by the starkly different approaches of Jose Mourinho and Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino. The Portuguese said it was up to young players to show him they were immediately ready for the first-team. "You don't need five matches in a row," Mourinho said. "You need 10 minutes."
Pochettino is the total opposite. He feels it is up to the managers to show faith -- and that is the only way they'll develop. "You need to translate the feeling that you believe in them," he said.
Pellegrini, meanwhile, seems to be more on Mourinho's side than Pochettino, even if some of his frustration at this specific situation is understandable. "Young players have the option, and they must take their chances," the City boss said on Friday while adding that his team were prioritising the Champions League over the FA Cup.
Guus Hiddink has said that Chelsea's dismal season will mean more graduates get chances, even if it hasn't happened yet, despite Bertrand Traore's substitute goal against Newcastle United last week. It is unlikely to happen on Sunday, either. There will be "not many" changes to the Chelsea team, Hiddink confirmed, "because we take it very seriously."
That is always the rationale, and it is understandable, but it might mean Chelsea don't treat youth production with the full seriousness they intend. And that might prevent them from finding the solution they are so desperately seeking.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.