Not many can claim, in recent times at least, to be a Chelsea youth academy graduate who went on to play regularly at the club, leave alone becoming a –in colloquial terms – legend. Since making his debut in 1998, and having played for the Blues for the past 17 years, John Terry is a notable and yet almost solitary exception. For a club which boasts of a world-class youth facility at Cobham and many distinguished names who moved on to greener pastures at other clubs, it is a number bordering on shameful.
However, if Jose Mourinho and his coaching staff are to be believed, we will be seeing a lot more of such academy graduates making the first team soon enough. The Portuguese manager took personal responsibility for some, even going to the extent of saying he “should be blamed” if some don’t go on to represent their club and country with much distinction. One of those names that Mourinho spoke of was Dominic Ayodele Solanke-Mitchell or Dom Solanke as he is better known.
Who is Dominic Solanke?
Born and brought up in Reading, Solanke joined Chelsea as an 8 year-old boy in 2005 and has since then remained with the London club. Having come through all age groups with Chelsea and England, he already has a very impressive resumé.
Starting with the Chelsea under-8s, he progressed through the ranks and even represented the Chelsea under-18s when he was still playing for the under-15s. He is a regular in Adi Viveash’s U-21 Reserves team and also at the Chelsea youth team – known as the Development Squad at Cobham. His impressive goal charts earned him call-ups from the national team’s under-16, under-17 and under-18 management. His only senior Chelsea appearance to date came in the Champions League against NK Maribor in the group stages. More recently, he was named on the bench against Manchester United and earlier on in the season against Crystal Palace.
Talent Radar Accolades:
As recently as this month, Solanke and his Chelsea youth side won the inaugural UEFA Youth League where the young Englishman scored goals for fun. A return of 12 goals in 9 matches in the tournament, including a goal in the final, was preceded by him being the joint top scorer at the UEFA Under-17 Championship in 2014, managing four goals in as many appearances. With another FA Youth Cup Final on the horizon against Manchester City, Solanke will be looking to continue his hot streak and help complete a cup double for Chelsea. In recognition of his sensational form throughout the season, he collected the gong for England’s Young Player of The Year as voted by the English coaches at the senior and youth levels.
Clearly, it has been an eventful year for Solanke and possibly, for him, the icing on the cake would be a Premier League appearance before the season ends – if Chelsea seal the title with games in hand. Every Chelsea fan that I know is excited about Solanke and rightly so. After a long time, someone they can finally call “one of their own” is graduating to the next level and is odds-on to play regularly next season.
Solanke featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2016.
Style of play, Strengths and Weaknesses
Having made his Chelsea debut in 1996 –a year before Solanke was even born – Gianfranco Zola went on to become a club legend by the time he left in 2003. Probably too young to even remember the great Italian, Solanke has developed a style of play more or less similar to him.
He is mainly a centre-forward who can also play on the wings and even sometimes behind the main striker in an attacking midfield role. Though his preferred position is that of a centrally-based striker, he has teamed up this season with Tammy Abraham (the pair of them boast an impressive combined haul of 71 goals this season in all competitions) in a 2-man forward role too – thus showing his versatility.
Equally adept at using his right or left foot, Dom fits the bill of the classical “poacher”. A loose ball here, a loose ball there and you can be assured that Solanke is somewhere around it preparing to unleash a strike towards goal.
Standing at just less than 6 feet and of a diminutive frame, he isn’t exactly in the Didier Drogba mould, but like the Ivorian he has the ability to hold the ball up and have attacking players feed off him. Also, much like his hero in his prime, Solanke has the ability to run the channels and create space for midfielders by drawing defenders towards him. Another added advantage that the young Englishman has is his impressive pace. The ability to beat defenders with a burst of pace and a goal-scoring finish to boot is what every Premier League striker dreams of having. Although he is not a finished product yet, under a coach like Mourinho in the coming years, if given a chance, Solanke will continue to flourish.
If there is one thing that stands out it is his adaptability to play in any attacking position as per the need of the team. He has been deployed as a winger many a time this season, but still managed to find the back of the net acting as a focal point in the build-up play. It also helps Solanke that this Chelsea youth team is probably one of the best around. Names like Isiah Brown, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andres Christensen are already being spoken of highly in and around England. To play with them regularly has been a huge fillip for Solanke and an ever-growing hunger to improve has been instilled in him.
It is, I believe, unfair to criticize a player who is so young and still learning the game but if there is one thing that Solanke needs to improve is his ability to provide goals along with scoring them. It would be harsh to call him selfish but that is one area of his game he needs to improve. Although any coach would love having a striker who is hungry for goals, in competitions like the Premier League and more importantly the Champions League, assists count for so much more than just another number.
What does the future hold?
A wind of change is blowing at Stamford Bridge and youth players stepping up to take over the mantle from their senior pros is a huge gust in that direction.
In a recent interview, Solanke said that he considers the aforementioned Drogba, Fernando Torres and Diego Costa as his heroes. Chelsea wouldn’t mind him developing into a combination of the three – taking just the right qualities from each. It is much too early on in his career to say who he will end up like but if the scouts around the training ground are to be believed, Chelsea could have finally found their next home grown star.
Written by Alok Kulkarni
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