Dominic Solanke has found the net for fun at youth level and is itching to make his mark in Jose Mourinho's first team, writes Yannick Hesse...
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- Date of birth: September 14, 1997
- Place of birth: Reading, England
- Height: 6ft
- Position: Forward
- Club: Chelsea (1 app, 0 goals)
- International: England U18 (4 apps, 3 goals)
Reading-born Solanke joined Chelsea’s youth setup at the age of seven in 2004, and hasn’t stopped impressing since.
He made his under-18 debut as an under-15, and was the first Blues academy player to score 20 goals in that age group.
In 2014, the 17-year-old grabbed nationwide attention. Not only did he secure Chelsea the FA Youth Cup with a late brace in the final against Fulham, but he also played a key role in England’s Under-17 European Championship victory, finishing the tournament as its leading goalscorer. At the same time, Solanke had to study for his GCSE exams – and passed all of them.
Last October he ascended to the elite: due to a shortage of strikers, Jose Mourinho named him in the senior squad for the Blues' Premier League match at Crystal Palace.
He didn't get game time on that occasion, but three days later made his first Champions League appearance in Chelsea’s 6-0 home win against Maribor, where he replaced Oscar for the last 17 minutes.
"I’m so over the moon to make my debut," beamed a delighted Solanke post-match. "I nearly made it the other day, but this was a more special at Stamford Bridge."
Why you need to know him
Since Roman Abramovich’s acquisition of the Blues in 2003, talent development at Stamford Bridge has been forced to wait in line behind the signing of big stars. However, the emergence of players like Solanke and Ruben Loftus-Cheek prove that jewels are still put on display.
All eyes were on him when he turned match-winner in the FA Youth Cup final. With only eight minutes remaining of the two-legged tie, the Blues were 6-5 behind on aggregate against Fulham when Solanke equalised with a towering header. In injury-time he rattled in the winning goal that handed Chelsea their third youth title in five years. In 2014/15 they've reached a fourth successive final.
During the UEFA European U17 Championship in Malta, Solanke first played as a deep No.10, later moving forward to the central striker position. The fact he ended the tournament as top marksman shows his versatility in the final third. In the current UEFA Youth League championship his name is again high on the scoresheet with nine goals (making him joint-top scorer) and three assists in the first seven games.
In October 2014, John Terry tweeted a photo of himself and a seven-year-old Solanke. That picture neatly represents a potential changing of the guard at Stamford Bridge. Terry was the last academy member to successfully join the first team and stay there back in 2001, and Solanke is among a group of players who might end this prolonged absence of homegrown talent. Isaiah Brown and Lewis Baker are highly praised by Mourinho, while Loftus-Cheek has already been announced as a first-teamer for next year.
It looks as if Solanke won’t be far behind – not least having trained with Roy Hodgson's senior England squad this week after collecting the FA's Youth Player of the Year award.
Solanke is good at the most important thing in football – scoring goals. It might sound like an empty phrase, but he always appears to be on the scene when the ball enters the box – on the ground as well as in the air. His ability to quickly stop and control passes gives him the crucial split second he needs to be one step ahead of defenders. He's equally strong with both feet, while his robust stature gives him the ability to hold the ball up. Topped by an effective shooting technique, Chelsea have some player on their hands.
To become a powerful, ball-shielding, Robert Lewandowski-like centre-forward, he needs to put on a bit more weight to compensate for his lack of dribbling skills with a strong physique.
Furthermore, although Solanke is good at distributing balls to the wingers, unexpected and lethal passes into the defensive line are not among his strengths. In fairness, it's not required quite so much now after moving from his deeper role to a sole striker position.
Did you know?
Having only been capped for England’s under-18 team several times, Solanke is still eligible to play for Nigeria, where his father was born. Hodgson would be wise to dissuade him from doing so.
After Solanke made his first senior squad appearance against Maribor, Mourinho promised the youngster it wouldn't be his last. "For sure, he’s going to play many Champions League matches," said the Portuguese. "Because he will be a good player." Mourinho also made a great claim on his own behalf, declaring that if Solanke wasn't a senior international in the next few years, he would "blame himself".
What happens next?
When a young talent shines in a big club’s youth setup – especially at Chelsea – you mostly consider loaning them out in order to develop, but Mourinho has already spoken out against such a decision. "At 16 and 17 I don’t think it’s good for them to go somewhere else to play, like in the Championship," he said. "At 17 they have to train with us and they have to learn with us. They will learn a lot."
It will be interesting to see how quickly Solanke manages the transition from learning to performing, because only then will he be able to assert himself in the senior squad.
Mourinho has already warned that his fledgling youngsters won't just play for the sake of it. "This club is a very demanding club," he said. "It's a club where it's not easy to play football.
"The level people demand is high, the pressure is big. It's not the same to play in a club where people just accept a so-so performance, or people accept a so-so result. Or accept that you finish 5th, 6th, 7th or 8th.
"This is not the best habitat for a young player to be developed. For a player to play in the Chelsea first team, the player must be ready."
It remains to be seen if Stamford Bridge is the best place for Solanke to develop. For now all he can do is carry on scoring.