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Rahul Warrier takes a critical look at Chelsea’s infamous loan policy and wonders if joining the London club is the right move for football’s bright, young stars.
Popular messaging app WhatsApp increased the number of people a group could have from 100 to 256 earlier this year. That must have come to relief to the Technical Director at Chelsea, Michael Emenalo. Why? Patrick Bamford, who is currently at Burnley for his 6th loan spell, revealed in November 2015 about the existence of a ‘Chelsea loanees’ WhatsApp group, where loan player analyst Fabian Unwin will post weekly updates from the various matchers and stand-out statistics. What is amusing that Chelsea’s loan brigade saw 37 players spend time away from the Bridge at different parts of last season, which definitely let Unwin earn his buck. They even have a page on their website devoted to the players out on loan. Jokes aside, Chelsea are the masters of the loan market. This season, it’s gone up a notch with 38 players loaned out, 30 of which are season-long loans. Some loans make sense, some loans are an indictment of the loan purgatory. How and why the likes of Piazón, Wallace, Cuevas, Joao Rodriguez, Pašalić, Delač, Kalas, Hector and Omeruo are still at the club is confusing. Chelsea’s loan policy, no matter how they spin it, is chaotic. It helps them in finding a loophole with FFP, but does it help the players? Lucas Piazon for one insists that the Chelsea loan system makes ‘no sense’. Now at Fulham (on loan, of course), he believes it hasn’t aided his development. To be in a different city/country every year in his early years isn’t helpful. Of course it isn’t. How has no other player realised this?
It must be a matter of consternation when none of Chelsea’s youth products are able to break into the first team. This is all the more highlighted when the Chelsea Academy side has won the UEFA Youth League in the past two years and the FA Youth Cup 5 times in the last 7 years under Adi Viveash. The likes of Tammy Abraham, Kasey Palmer, Charlie Colkett and Dominic Solanke have shown potential in abundance, but still find themselves on the periphery of the first team. Rather than show trust in them, Chelsea prefer to bring in stars with big wages such as Radamel Falcao and Alexandre Pato, who contributed nothing significant to the first team. There are some English academy players who could break into the first XI: Lewis Baker, for one was expected to stay at Chelsea this year, but hasn’t (Ruben Loftus-Cheek is instead). Isaiah Brown, Kasey Palmer and Jake Clarke-Salter have potential, while Tammy Abraham is the best performing loanee (11 goals in 14 games for Bristol City in the Championship). Patrick Bamford is an example of the poisoned chalice: starred for Middlesborough in 2014-15, struggled at Palace and Norwich in 2015-16. Found out of his depth? Maybe, but the lack of stability may also be a factor.
The situation of Dominic Solanke reflects sadly on both the player and the club. 50k pounds and regular gametime is a huge ask for someone like Solanke, but even then, asking for gametime is not unreasonable. His ambition to play at Chelsea is significant. If you compare Solanke to England’s poster boy Marcus Rashford, there are similarities. The only difference is that Rashford was afforded an opportunity (forced or not) while those don’t exist at Chelsea. If Chelsea lose someone like Solanke on a tribunal next year, it could cost them dearly (again, depends on the player’s attitude elsewhere). They are doing the right thing by holding strong against his demands, but high wages are a result of the money the club give to everyone. It’s a chain effect.
Chelsea are currently suffering a defensive crisis, prompting similarities to last season. For a manager like Antonio Conte, that must be be tough to take, and an unfamiliar situation. His Italy and Juventus sides were built on the bedrock of Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci; his Chelsea side has David Luiz and Gary Cahill. Not too most convincing or assuring. In the summer, Conte naturally noticed this and had his targets laid out for everyone to see, but his paymasters could not deliver them, and instead gave the Italian David Luiz and Marcos Alonso as fall-back options. Sure, Marcos Alonso is a fairly accomplished left-back who can fit into left midfield or central defense and is the versatile option Conte needs to implement a 3-5-2 if need be. Luiz, on the other hand, is more questionable as he is 29-years-old and was only sold two years ago. Fan favourite or not, when Chelsea committed daylight robbery to get the money they did out of PSG for Luiz, it was for a reason. Has 2 years in Paris and Ligue 1 improved him? It remains to be seen. The irony is however, that two equally good players are on the club’s books.
Nathan Ake impressed at Watford last year at left-back under Quique Sanchez Flores and won plenty of plaudits for his work through the season. He was one a number of Chelsea fans were hoping would get a chance this year, but Conte thought otherwise and sent him to the south coast. A sound decision for Chelsea if they planned to get a much better left-back. Alonso doesn’t really make that list. For free, Chelsea could have kept Ake at the club and saved money on Alonso. From Ake’s perspective, this could have been his chance to break through. Will he get another chance next season or will he be sent off on loan again?
Another player who’s out on loan is Andreas Christensen. Chelsea sent him out on a two-year loan to Borussia Monchengladbach in 2015 with no recall option. That is significant. It is clear Chelsea did not foresee Christensen’s rapid development in the Bundesliga, and the initial agreement they signed handcuffed them. The Germans displayed commendable foresight to keep him for 2 years (unfortunately for them, with no option to purchase); the Dane has grown leaps and bounds in the last season to win Player of the Season ahead of Granit Xhaka. It’s ironic that Chelsea courted John Stones heavily in 2015; Christensen is a similar player: modern, dynamic and forward-thinking who prefers to play with the ball at his feet. Guardiola is rumoured to be interested in him and it’s no wonder why, given his silkiness. Chelsea have suffered once after selling Kevin de Bruyne prematurely; they have to keep Christensen next year and integrate him into the first team. If not, it could hurt them bad. A partnership of Zouma and Christensen brings together contrasting styles and is a mouth-watering idea. The question is whether it will materialise. Theoretically, Christensen could come in to replace John Terry at the end of the season and maintain the status quo, but things rarely work that way in real life.
The summer of 2015-16 was a frustrating one for the Chelsea board for their publicized courting of John Stones and their failure to get him. Out of the 10 signings they made across both windows, only 2 are part of the first-team (Begovic, who’s a back-up keeper, and Pedro). Baba Rahman’s defensive shortcomings were exposed in the Premier League and was promptly sent back to Germany (Schalke). Given his attacking nature, it is no surprise Conte advised him to leave, but the signing reflects poorly on the board. Chelsea have spent 37 million pounds on the left-back spot in two years, but Azpiliceuta, originally a right-back, is still being deployed there. Questions must be raised about this. Surely Ryan Bertrand, a veteran of 7 loan clubs and now permanently at Southampton, would have been a more experienced and superior option to what they had. Overlooking English talent has cost Chelsea dearly.
Loaning out talent is one thing, but loaning out players that are unlikely to ever make a first team appearance? If you look at centre-backs, in addition to the already discussed Ake (who can play there) and Christensen, there is also Tomas Kalas, Kenneth Omeruo, Michael Hector, Matt Miazga, Alex Davey and Jake Clarke-Salter. That is 6 players. 6! Hector was signed from Reading on deadline day last year. What was the point, if he was going to be loaned out to Frankfurt this year? Matt Miazga, a highly-rated American prospect is now at Vitesse. There are decent odds he could develop into a future first-team player, but if not, expect him to end in a loan purgatory. It would have made more sense to join a side like Ajax or PSV; Miazga has his work cut out now.
Of the loanees that didn’t leave this year, there is Todd Kane and Marco van Ginkel. Kane, 23 now, suffered a long-term injury in Netherlands last year. He recently extended his contract. Why? Pride at being a Blue and the ambition to shine. Perhaps, if afforded the opportunity (will he?), he could make his way. As for van Ginkel, he definitely needs a permanent move elsewhere lest he stagnates permanently.
So where should players move on loan instead? Ideally England, to gain experience of the English game (eg. Abraham). If not, Spain, Germany and Italy (eg. Musonda, Boga) and less Netherlands and Belgium. Surely not Turkey, like Omeruo and Marko Marin (whose career was ruined at Chelsea- he’s now permanently at Olympiakos).
If a young player gets an offer from Chelsea, they should consider it and perhaps take a leaf from Andrej Kramaric’s book. The Croatian had a choice between Leicester (before the title-winning campaign) and Chelsea (in their title-winning campaign) in January 2015. He chose Leicester for the game time they would be able to offer him. A record signing, Kramaric was unable to do much for Leicester and is now at Hoffenheim, but the idea is sound. He turned down Chelsea as he was in all probability aware he could not play in London and would be loaned out for a number of seasons. Leicester didn’t work out, but it was the better choice of the two.
That is the choice faced by most youngsters who impress Chelsea’s worldwide array of scouts. They sign to play for Chelsea, not Vitesse. The lack of pathways from the academy to the first team is detrimental for the club. Chelsea need a manager who is willing to give young players a chance and stick with them despite the risks. And there is a choice that could face one of Chelsea’s former loanees in a few weeks: Thorgan Hazard. The younger brother of Chelsea star Eden, Thorgan was loaned out to Zulte Waregem before making his loan to Gladbach permanent (where Christensen is also at). Thorgan has impressed in the early part of this season, prompting ideas of a recall. Chelsea reportedly have a buy-back option of a fee between 10 and 15 million- cheap in this market. Would that be the best move for Thorgan? Reconciliation with his brother may be nice but what about his career prospects? He’d be wise to turn down Chelsea a second time and follow the likes of Kevin de Bruyne. That could maybe show Chelsea that for all the hype about their youth, they have let go enough talent to form a decent Premier League XI. This article may come across as overly critical of Chelsea’s policy, but it’s the harsh truth. That is enough food for thought.