Chelsea FC are one of the biggest clubs in the world, attracting some of the highest profile players and endorsements. They currently hold the British transfer record after buying Fernando Torres for £50m from Liverpool, they have one of the richest owners in world football and their training facilities are the envy of everybody.
Despite this, Roman Abramovich (the billionaire owner of the club) wants to concentrate on youth. This is not only to appease the much discussed financial fair play rules that clubs now need for Europe qualification, but also to create an effective spine in the team.
This view is shared by manager Jose Mourinho, who recently said:
"So we are working on that (new generation). We have some players on loan, like (Nathaniel) Chalobah, and we have some others working and growing in the under-21s. Their standard is improving. Before, these age groups in England did not have a good level of competition at that age, but now there is a national championship, an under-19s Champions League, and it's improving them. The conditions in our academy cannot be better – the facilities and coaches are amazing – but while the quality of the coaching and the philosophy can be excellent, you really need competition to develop the kids."
The importance of youth at Chelsea is evident with the investment that has been made in the academy and new technologies.
At the centre of this is Ben Smith, Head of Development Performance Systems.
Helping to develop players at a young age is of vital importance in this new strategy and Ben's team are utilising new technologies to make this as effective as possible.
Ben tells me that one of the most important factors for this is not to use the data that is collected to set specific targets for the players, but to optimise their training time in order to make the most of the areas that need to be developed.
One of the ways that this has increased is through the introduction of an academic school at the training centre. This means that young players no longer have the problem of training, travelling to school, travelling to training again and then travelling home. It also means that coaches have far more opportunity to have one-on-one training with the players.
The fact that Ben can identify the areas where coaches should be spending the most time to increase the effectiveness of the training gives the players a significant advantage.
The programme for this works in six week blocks, areas are identified, worked on for six weeks and then re-evaluated. This is not a six week block where targets need to be achieved but a simple timeframe whereby the players and coaches know what would be best for them to work on.
In addition to this six week process, there is also an onus on visualisations. This is to allow coaches and players the best possible opportunity to understand and make data actionable.
Video analysis is also an important part of tracking the progress of a player and is utilised by Ben's team in most of the youth level matches. Combined with the GPS tracking systems that the players wear, allows truly unique insight into a performance that could easily be missed by a coach on the sidelines. A great example given to me was during a match it was noticed that one player was making considerably more runs with maximum effort. When this was brought to the coach, he started looking at the player and realised that he was making too many runs at this speed. This meant that when he needed to make the vital runs, he was tired from the previous unsuccessful ones. This kind of synergy between analytics and coaching can create a profound effect on the ways in which players develop.
Another aspect of development that is often overlooked is the mental state of players, something that these six week blocks allow for. By sitting down with coaches and analysts who record the outcomes of the meeting, areas where mentalities can be improved are identified and worked on. This could be anything from workload being daunting through to breaking up with a girlfriend. This kind of identification of issues and the ability to act on them is something that could easily be overlooked when reducing actions down to data and numbers.
Of course the most important area of developing players is the identification suitable candidates in the first place. Ben's team’s involvement focusses on their knowledge of analytics to improve Chelsea's scouting network.
The use of data in the recruitment system allows scouts to be deployed in an effective way, identifying genuine targets quicker and allowing untapped areas to be pinpointed. An example that Ben gave me was when they were looking through the scouting data, they noticed a hole where neither they or other large clubs had been scouting. After sending scouts to the area they saw that this was an area of untapped potential and have now set up scouting initiatives that are seeing significant results. The use of analytics for multiple purposes across the club only creates a better understanding of the importance that they can play in the overall success of the teams from first team down to youth.
The level of data collection at Chelsea at the moment is significant, but is nothing compared to what it could be. Talking with the youth development team there, you realise that despite being blessed with significant amounts of data, there is always more to come. If we compare sports analytics to medicine, we are in the leaches and experimentation stage. Despite the technology around at the moment, we are only in the infancy of this growth area and in the future we will be seeing even more improvements.
With the kind of work that Ben and his team are doing with the youth team at Chelsea, it is entirely possible that Abramovich and Mourinho's vision of a locally grown spine to future Chelsea teams is within grasp.