Who faces the toughest challenge in football?
It’s often said that the England manager’s job is the hardest of all, simply because every fan in the country has an opinion on who should be picked.
Then again you could argue that whoever referees a game involving Jose Mourinho should get an extra fee, just for the criticism he can expect before, during and after the match.
But if you want a really tough challenge, try making your way from the Chelsea academy to the first team.
Frank Lampard spoke about it recently, suggesting there used to be a divide between the youth set up and the first-team, across which no young players were able to step.
Andreas Christensen | Chelsea FC | FWTV by FootballWhispers
Lampard is starting out on a coaching career that may see him working with Chelsea’s youth sooner rather than later, and he insists the club are working hard to bridge the gap between youth team and first team, the way Mauricio Pochettino has done so successfully at Southampton and now Tottenham.
But there is precious little evidence to suggest Antonio Conte will give youth a chance this season, as he pursues another quartet of expensive foreign signings to add to the captures of Antonio Rudiger, Alvaro Morata, and Tiemoue Bakayoko, not to mention the ageing Willy Caballero.
What hope is there for Chelsea’s kids, who have won the FA Youth Cup four times in succession?
Some of the foreign billionaires who own football’s elite clubs don’t seem to care about trophy-winning youth players while there are trophy signings to be made in the nuclear-sized arms race at the top end of the Premier League.
But can it happen at Chelsea? John Terry’s departure leaves the first-team squad without a single Londoner or home-grown player.
And the four youth products who scraped a game last season – Nathan Ake, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ola Aina – have all been shipped out either on loan or permanently, along with Kurt Zouma.
There are plenty more highly-promising players out on loan who are as likely to get a game alongside N’Golo Kante as Josh McEachran, once the wonderkid of Chelsea and England who now gets the odd match down the road at Brentford.
Carlo Ancelotti saw McEachran as a future Chelsea star and gave him a real chance at the club. He played 17 games to rave reviews in his breakthrough season.
But once Ancelotti departed and was replaced by Andre Villas-Boas, McEachran’s chances of making a career at Chelsea were over and he only played five more times for the club.
It is not just a problem for Chelsea but for England too, with a clutch of the youngsters who enjoyed success with the various England youth teams this summer coming from west London.
Lampard was in the West Ham first-team at 17 and had racked up over 150 games before he joined Chelsea at the same age as Zouma and Chalobah are now.
He admits: “We’re in a new era where it is very difficult to play in the Premier League. A lot of young players of a high level are not managing to get into their club sides for obvious reasons now, that there is such high quality in the Premier League.”
So where does this leave England’s young players, who are so far behind their counterparts in Germany, Italy and Spain when it comes to first-team experience at a young age?
Lampard says: “What the FA can do, and I know that Dan Ashworth has done it brilliantly, is to create the right environment for them when they go away with their country, learning the system, how to play in tournaments, how to improve and test themselves against the best players from around the world.
“So for a young player now it’s a different environment to the one that I grew up in. I managed to get in our first team at 17 , but I wouldn’t have done if I was playing at that age now.”
So does he want to see Chelsea’s young players given a chance?
“I would like to see that and I think the club are working hard towards that goal. A few years ago there was probably a bit of line between the academy and the first-team and players were not crossing that, but you can see that Conte was trying to bring through young players last year.”
The problem comes when the man in the ultimate executive box upstairs demands trophies.
“Listen, we all know that Chelsea want to win and you can’t bring in young players at the expense of that, but there are certainly times when you can incorporate them, integrate them, help them improve, and all of a sudden you might see something that you hadn’t seen before.
“You can see players develop really quickly, and I think Chelsea will try to do that.”