In Focus: Academy stars proving their worth at free-spending Chelsea
Todd Boehly’s first summer as Chelsea owner was all about big-name signings, but it is the club’s academy stars who are grabbing the headlines right now.
The Blues spent over £250million on new arrivals during the last transfer window as the American businessman looked to put his stamp on a new era at Stamford Bridge.
But since Graham Potter’s arrival as manager last month, Cobham graduates Reece James, Mason Mount, Conor Gallagher, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Conor Gallagher and Armando Broja have earned plenty of the plaudits.
Ahead of the Blues’ clash with AC Milan at the San Siro tonight, we put their homegrown stars under the spotlight.
James ‘one of world’s best’
Arguably Chelsea’s most consistent performer across the current campaign, 22-year-old James continues to scale new heights for his boyhood club.
The England international was one of the few to shine under predecessor Thomas Tuchel this term and his dominant displays on the right flank have continued since the new manager’s arrival.
Another scintillating showing in a 3-0 win over Milan last week, in which he grabbed a goal and an assist, left team-mate and fellow academy graduate Trevoh Chalobah to claim there are not many better in world football in James’ position.
He said: "We are lucky to have him. He is an unbelievable player who can do all sides of the game. He can defend, get us goals and get us assists.
"It’s a pleasure to play with him. He’s definitely one of the best in the world, I’ve said it from day one. And, right now, he could be the best in the world."
The only thing able to stop James’ continued rise to stardom in West London seems likely to be a move, with links to Real Madrid not going away despite him signing a six-year deal with the Blues in the summer.
Mount back to his best
A winner of back-to-back Player of the Season awards, attacking midfielder Mount, 23, has been a man who can be relied upon whoever is at the helm.
That is why the Portsmouth native would have been so disappointed with his form in Tuchel’s final weeks and months in charge.
But in the Blues’ four games since Potter’s appointment, Mount has looked every bit that player once again — grabbing two assists across four games in all competitions.
If Potter is to be a success at Chelsea, Mount will surely be key and the former Brighton tactician’s possession-based approach looks to be a match made in heaven for the playmaker.
He said: "I do not doubt Mason Mount at all. It’s just like anything, sometimes the team doesn’t function as well and so the individuals don’t function as well.
"I never like to put ceilings on players. I try to help them enjoy their football. I think if the team is playing well it helps individuals in the team, and that’s the job, that’s what we have to do."
Loftus-Cheek finding his place
Injuries and loan spells aside, Loftus-Cheek has now been around the Chelsea first team for the best part of five seasons.
But there has always been the sense that the midfielder has never found his place in the side.
Often shifted around to play on the right or even occasionally at centre-back by Tuchel, he was never trusted by the German to be a regular starter in his natural central midfield position.
That is exactly where he has been deployed by Potter in the Blues' last two outings, with regulars Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic forced to settle for time on the bench in place of the former Crystal Palace and Fulham loanee.
Courted by Milan for another loan move in the summer, Chelsea’s No12 showed the Rossoneri exactly what they are missing with an all-action display at Stamford Bridge last week.
He continued to showcase his composure, physicality and progressive running from the centre of the park against Wolves and looks primed for another start at the San Siro tonight.
Despite being two more to come off the Cobham production line, both Gallagher and Broja’s returns felt like new signings following impressive loan spells last term.
Midfielder Gallagher, 22, impressed so much at Crystal Palace in 2021-22 that he returned to Stamford Bridge this summer as an England international.
He did not get off to the best start after a red card against Leicester but he came off the bench to score an exceptional winner back at Palace before an influential display from the start versus Wolves at the weekend.
Striker Broja was another exciting addition to the squad following his stint at Southampton despite the task of becoming a regular starter up top looking a tall order given Chelsea’s penchant for a big name leading the line.
But a fine finish in the 3-0 reverse of Wolves, his first senior goal for the Blues, showed he has all the makings of a top centre forward and the Albanian will now be desperate to buck that trend.
The victory over Wolves saw an impressive six academy graduates feature over the 90 minutes, an impressive feat for a club with a reputation of discarding their prospects in favour of high-profile signings.
And it seems as though there will be chances for more bright young things to make their mark in the coming years as long as Potter is in charge.
After that win, he said: "They're vital. They bring an understanding of the club, of the culture of the club, its demands and what is required in terms of environment.
"They've come through fantastic education in the academy. They are good people and good footballers.
"Our job is to help them maximise their potential which is really exciting."
While the big-money signings will no doubt continue to come through the door at Stamford Bridge, the homegrown stars are proving there is room for them to shine too.