Chelsea policy targets winners over youth
While last season was all about transition and building a team that was able to compete and gain experience of the big occasion, next season Chelsea will be unashamedly gunning for the big prizes. Upon his return to the club Jose Mourinho told anyone who would listen that his first campaign back in England would be all about development; the second would be all about silverware.
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The 2013-14 season certainly saw the team improve and a genuine flirtation with the two biggest trophies in the club game has given all Chelsea supporters the belief that they will be back celebrating in May 2015. For that to happen, the final step of the process needs to take place, namely the continuing evolution of the current squad and intelligent activity in the transfer market.
Looking at it that way, it is tempting to say that Mourinho is simply doing the job that Andre Villas-Boas was brought in to do three years ago when he was asked by Roman Abramovich to carry the squad from one era to the next. The reason why the Special One is likely to succeed where his protégé failed is because of the level of respect he commands from both his players and the fans. The imminent departure of Ashley Cole is a wrench for all Chelsea supporters due to the magnificent service that he has given the club, yet fans have understood the rationale behind the decision even if not everyone has agreed with it. The same grudging acceptance will also be the case if Frank Lampard has indeed played his last game for the club and if Petr Cech is sidelined in favour of a returning Thibaut Courtois.
Out of the quartet of grizzled warriors that have guided the club through the last decade, only John Terry will definitely be playing a key role next season, with the need to continue refreshing the squad increasingly obvious. But that is not to say that Mourinho will be pinning his reputation on a collection of vibrant youngsters that are still wet behind the ears. For all the success of Chelsea's younger age groups in the season just past there will still not be too many people holding their breath that the first team will soon be flooded with those that won the FA Youth Cup or the Barclays U21 Premier League. Of those that starred, the influential and free-scoring Lewis Baker represents the likeliest to feature, although Jon Swift did make his debut for the senior side during the final day win over Cardiff City and should see some Capital One Cup action next term.
Tomas Kalas and Kurt Zouma will likely be members of the first team squad, but they will be the junior partners at centre back to Terry, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic. Nathaniel Chalobah's future is not yet sorted out and he could well be integrated into the club's collection of midfielders though another loan deal, this time to a Premier League club, is the most probable outcome.
Mourinho knows that the bedrock of a title-winning team is a cohesive mix of youth and experience and in Eden Hazard, Oscar, Andre Schurrle, Cesar Azpilicueta and Mohamed Salah, the manager has five players under the age of 25 that are already grounded in the demands of playing for Chelsea in the Premier League. It is perhaps for this reason that some of the reported transfer targets are more toward the prime of their careers than the very beginning.
As is always the case with Chelsea when the silly season rolls around, the club is being linked with a telephone directory's worth of names with some of them rather surprising. The most curious of these is former Blue, Tiago Mendes. The Portuguese has just enjoyed a La Liga-winning season with Atletico Madrid to go with the Premier League crown he lifted with Chelsea in 2005 and two Ligue 1 triumphs with Lyon, though at 33 his rumoured return to Stamford Bridge on a free transfer has raised a few eyebrows. His experience, familiarity with the club and lack of a transfer fee are the obvious attractions, but his age and occupation of a place that might be filled by an academy graduate count against him in many people's eyes.
The bottom line that Mourinho will be taking into account, should he be forced to choose due to injuries and suspensions, will be his team selection for a match that might decide the title or earn passage though the Champions League knockout stages. Would he prefer to field someone with four championships and 58 caps to his name in Tiago or Chalobah, who has certainly impressed though only internationally at youth level and domestically in the second tier? While the obvious argument is that players cannot gain the requisite experience if they are never afforded the chance, we all know what Mourinho's answer is going to be given the incessant pressure to win trophies at Chelsea Football Club.
Chelsea's friendly relationship with Atletico Madrid could also see Tiago's teammates Filipe Luis and Diego Costa arrive. At 28 and 25 years of age, respectively, they are clearly being targeted to make an instant impact as opposed to being earmarked as ones for the future. Others to be linked to the club include PSG's human Duracell bunny, Ezequiel Lavezzi, who might be 29 years old but has always had the look of Mourinho player. With the transfer of David Luiz between the two clubs conducted in a cordial atmosphere and the French casting covetous glances at Hazard and Oscar, the chance of the Argentine swapping Paris for London must be relatively high.
There have also been some youthful names mentioned in dispatches most notably Juventus' Paul Pogba and yet another Atletico Madrid player in Jose Resurrección Merodio -- or Koke, as he is more commonly known. But similar to the names listed above, they have each been the cornerstones of title winning side's in their respective leagues and require little in the way of development, even if some allowance for adaptation to English football might be required.
What Mourinho is looking for is winners and virtually every single one of those linked with a summer move to West London has just lifted a piece of silverware. If the youngsters at the club are good enough and impress the manager during the hard graft in preseason and during training at Cobham, then they may well get a sniff of first team action. Though coming off the back of a rare trophy-less season and with a reputation to maintain, do not be surprised if the Special One once again relies on pragmatism over romance.
Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell