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Chelsea’s U23s are staring down the barrel of relegation but where has this rapid slump come from?

Amid turmoil and overhaul in the boardroom at Stamford Bridge, a sense of normality and continuity in the first team in the past few months has moved to temper off-pitch concerns among the Chelsea fanbase. 

Look deeper though and problems – some financially-driven, some not – are surfacing. Where this is most notable is in the club’s Under 23s team, who are on the brink of relegation from Premier League 2 Division 1 with two matches left. 

Some might say, so what? After all, Chelsea stars such as Reece James, Mason Mount and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have all progressed from the club’s academy, with the first team finally reaping the rewards of a decade of heavy youth-team investment. 

Chelsea U23s (pictured conceding to Everton this month) are on the brink of shock relegation

Ruben Loftus-Cheek is among those who have progressed into the first team

Mason Mount and Reece James have also stepped up from the youth system into first-team regulars

Ruben Loftus-Cheek (left), Mason Mount and Reece James (right) have all progressed into the first team 

Yet the dramatic demise is eye-catching. Two years ago, the Blues won England’s top-tier ‘reserve’ league irrespective of a Covid-impacted ending, while even last season they finished second to an imperious Man City team led by star youngsters Liam Delap and Cole Palmer.

Now in the final weeks, they are battling to avoid the drop to Division 2, trailing Leeds United safely above them by one point. But, how has this happened? 

There are a whole load of factors at play, some club-driven, some player-driven and some politically-driven. Sportsmail takes a deeper look at a glaring anomaly of a season within Chelsea’s esteemed academy upheaval in recent years. 

YOUNG STARS WANT OUT 

Chelsea’s best player in the U23s last season was Tino Livramento, a right back whose threat going forward was exemplified with six assists and two goals throughout the campaign. 

Yet despite the Blues competing towards the latter stages in four different competitions, he never made his first-team debut. In fact, he was only named in the matchday squad twice, last May for Premier League games against Man City and Arsenal. 

So, aged just 18, Livramento forced a move away in the knowledge that if Chelsea wouldn’t fast-track him into the first-team squad, plenty of other Premier League teams would. 

He signed for Southampton for £5m, with a £25m buy-back clause, and until a cruel ACL injury last weekend which will see him miss the rest of 2022, he was one of the Premier League’s standout teenagers this season with 28 appearances under his belt. 

Chelsea's best player in the U23s last season was Tino Livramento, a right back whose threat going forward was exemplified with six assists and two goals

He signed for Southampton for £5m, with a £25m buy-back clause

Tino Livramento went from Chelsea’s U23s to playing against the first team for Southampton

Livramento is not the only one who moved to the south coast either. Centre back Dynel Simeu also moved to the Saints for £1.58m having played 23 times too for the U23s. 

Elsewhere from that squad, highly-rated central midfielder Lewis Bate joined Leeds for £1.58m, fellow midfielder and joint top-scorer with seven goals Myles Peart-Harris moved to Brentford and Marcel Lewis joined Union SG in the Belgian First Division. 

Losing this bedrock of a title-challenging squad, with no prospect of the players dipping in and out given their permanent departures, has unequivocally had a detrimental affect on the overall quality of the squad.   

Highly-rated central midfielder Lewis Bate joined Leeds United last summer for £1.58million

Highly-rated central midfielder Lewis Bate joined Leeds United last summer for £1.58million

Centre back Dynel Simeu also moved to the Saints having played 23 times for the U-23s

Centre back Dynel Simeu also moved to the Saints having played 23 times for the U-23s

LOANS GALORE 

This factor is not so much of a surprise. 

Chelsea are somewhat famous for their vast amount of players out on loan, with Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem’s relationship with the Blues as a feeder club no secret.

Yet despite that relationship disintegrating this season, Chelsea still have numerous players out on loan – a mammoth 22 in fact – and while some of these are first teamers, others are players who would definitely be plying their trade in the 23s if they were still training week in, week out at Cobham. 

Some are not a surprise. Crystal Palace’s Player of the Year contender Conor Gallagher was always going to find a Premier League move given his impressive campaign for West Brom last season, while Billy Gilmour also needed regular first-team football at the highest level. 

Armando Broja has thrived at Southampton, scoring six Premier League goals this season

Armando Broja has thrived at Southampton, scoring six Premier League goals this season

Tino Anjorin, pictured with the Champions League trophy last May, is now at Huddersfield

Tino Anjorin, pictured with the Champions League trophy last May, is now at Huddersfield 

Similarly, Armando Broja has thrived at Southampton, with Ethan Ampadu experiencing life in Italy with Venezia, Matt Miazga in Spain. Tino Anjorin, having started the season at Lokomotiv Moscow, is now playing in the Championship at Huddersfield. 

No matter how many players you have on your books, the number of outgoings last summer as Chelsea looked to recoup money and squad space amid signings like Romelu Lukaku and Saul Niguez is bound to have an impact. 

The question now though is, why hasn’t the quality been replaced?  

CHELSEA OUTGOING LOANS, 2021-22  

Conor Gallagher – Crystal Palace 

Billy Gilmour – Norwich City 

Armando Broja – Southampton 

Tino Anjorin – Lokomotiv Moscow 

Ethan Ampadu – Venezia 

Danny Drinkwater – Reading 

Tiemoue Bakayoko – AC Milan 

Matt Miazga- Alaves 

Emerson – Lyon 

Kenedy – Flamengo 

Michy Batshuayi – Besiktas  

Nathan Baxter – Hull City 

Henry Lawrence – AFC Wimbledon 

Jamie Cumming – Gillingham 

Ian Maatsen – Coventry City 

Jake Clarke-Salter – Coventry 

Karlo Ziger – Rudar Velenje 

Baba Rahman – Reading

Dujon Sterling – Blacpool 

Thierno Ballo – Rapid Vienna 

Levi Colwill – Huddersfield 

Juan Castillo – Birmingham City   

BREXIT RULE CHANGE 

A rule change triggered by Britain leaving the European Union which was enforced from the start of 2021 has stopped Chelsea – and all English clubs – in their tracks in terms of signing young worldwide talent. 

Last year, under FIFA rules, English clubs were banned from signing under 18s having previously benefitted from an exemption while in the EU that allowed them to be brought over at 16. 

There is a frustration among them about the top young players and better-value deals they are missing out on to their continental rivals.

No longer able to sign them for cut-price fees at 16, they fear the huge sums they could be forced to fork out for the same players at 18 and beyond who they wanted earlier and when cheaper.

The U23s are unable to strengthen their squad with top foreign talent under the age of 18

The U23s are unable to strengthen their squad with top foreign talent under the age of 18

The Blues have tended to fall short against the likes of Harvey Elliott-led Liverpool (right)

The Blues have tended to fall short against the likes of Harvey Elliott-led Liverpool (right) 

In some cases the valuations could result in those players being financially out of reach by the time English clubs are allowed to sign them.

While the Premier League’s top clubs are looking for the new regulations to be eased somewhat – perhaps with the introduction of a cap allowing clubs to sign two or three elite talents ‘a year’ at 16 – it has forced a change of hand in Chelsea’s youth-team recruitment strategy. 

For all the outgoings spoken about previously, star incomings from abroad have been difficult to come by. 

REPLACEMENTS NOT UP TO SCRATCH?

As for the signings they’ve brought in, it isn’t too simple to say that they have been unable to replace the quality that has departed. 

A total of 11 players have made the jump up from the U18s squad; a team which is a far cry from the period when they won five FA Youth Cups on the trot from 2012-2018. 

As for signings, they brought in Jayden Wareham on a free transfer from National League side Woking and Bradley Ryan from Welling United, in the tier below at National League South. 

Wareham has played 21 matches and is the joint top-scorer with five goals alongside 18-year-old Harvey Vale, who made his first-team debut in the Carabao Cup quarter-final victory against Brentford in December.    

Chelsea brought in Jayden Wareham on a free transfer from National League side Woking

Chelsea brought in Jayden Wareham on a free transfer from National League side Woking

Harvey Vale made his first-team debut in the EFL Cup quarter-final victory against Brentford

But five goals for a team’s top scorer is always a sign of trouble. They did not register a win until their sixth game of the season – coinciding with a raft of outgoings from the club – and a sticky period from November-March saw them win just once in nine matches in Premier League 2. 

As such, they are needing points from their final two matches when they face mid-table Blackburn on Sunday and Tottenham seven days later. 

Relegation would be a blow not just for this current crop’s chances of first-team development but for another few years at least, given the decrease in quality in Division 2. Keep an eye out to see how this one unfolds. 

The state of play at the bottom of Premier League 2 Division 1  with the bottom two going down

The state of play at the bottom of Premier League 2 Division 1  with the bottom two going down 

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