At one point or another during the 2012-13 season, Chelsea have had 32 players playing away from Stamford Bridge on loan.
Some are first-team players who have had to find their football elsewhere, and some are aspiring young professionals who don’t necessarily meet the work permit criteria to play in England, but the vast majority of them are young prospects with the potential to develop into very good players somewhere down the line.
This has been an approach which has been rapidly accelerated in the last decade, for whilst loaning out a player to help round out his game has long been a part of the development process, the scale on which it now occurs is dramatically bigger than it ever used to be.
Yet whilst nobody is kidding themselves that the majority of those youngsters will make the grade in Chelsea blue, it’s increasingly imperative to utilise the system to its full effectiveness. A lucky few might find their way into the first team squad, but the club can still make good of those who aren’t quite up to standard by receiving healthy transfer fees for their home-grown talent.
It’s not an exact science and it never will be, but there have been more than a few bugs in the last few years. Croatian goalkeeper Matej Delac will attest to this, having seen his burgeoning talent go to waste as he sat on the bench in the Dutch, Czech and Portuguese leagues in the last three years, and has had to return home in search of a chance of playing any notable football.
Frank Arnesen had his struggles and Michael Emenalo has had them too, although it’s to the Nigerian’s credit that some players have found very good homes indeed. Thibaut Courtois is receiving an excellent footballing education with Atlético Madrid, whilst Romelu Lukaku, Jeffrey Bruma, Kevin De Bruyne and most recently Lucas Piazon have found homes at good sides in marquee leagues.
There are a number of things which can be done to aid Chelsea in their quest though, with one in particular resonating as the most apparent and desirable. In an ideal world, they will be able to earn the trust of a talented manager in either a top-tier European league or one of England’s top two divisions, and send a regular flow of players to them.
A perfect example of this can be found in the form of Nigel Pearson, currently manager of Leicester City and before that, Hull City. In his four and a half years managing the two clubs, he has become increasingly fond of players developed by Manchester United.
His current Foxes squad features Danny Drinkwater, Matthew James, and Richie De Laet as permanent signings, whilst Michael Keane is on loan and Jesse Lingard was earlier in the season. His fingers are still clearly imprinted on the Hull squad too though, with Cameron Stewart, James Chester, Corry Evans, Paul McShane, Joe Dudgeon and Robbie Brady all on the Tigers’ books.
Hull have felt confident enough in this plan to continue it under former United player Steve Bruce, with Ben Amos joining on loan earlier this season and Brady joining on a full-time basis for £2.5m earlier this month. Throw in spells for Joshua King (Hull) and Tom Cleverley (Leicester, 2008-09) and you can see that there is a marked confidence in what these players can bring to clubs competing for promotion to the Premier League.
You could even throw in Darren Ferguson’s name as manager of Peterborough and Preston North End, but he has the very obvious benefit of being the son of the man in charge at Old Trafford. Still, he doesn’t have to turn to daddy for help, but has benefitted from the use of Chester, Amos, James, King, De Laet, Danny Welbeck, David Gray, Danny Pugh, Scott Wootton, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Nicky Ajose and Davide Petrucci in his career to date.
And, whilst Bruce and Ferguson have an obvious connection to United, Pearson doesn’t (aside from a spell assisting former Reds captain Bryan Robson), and so we’re forced to examine exactly where his faith in this pipeline comes from. It’s not particularly hard, for they remain the most productive academy in English football. They have been for the last fifty years and currently sit atop the Premier League with a first-team squad including Cleverley and Welbeck, who have gone from plying their trade at one of the clubs mentioned above and become England internationals at still tender ages.
The success of the club’s academy, particularly with the opportunities they get at first team level, means that managers can view their developing talent as more of a known commodity. They know they’re likely to get a well-schooled, versatile, technically capable young player who can be an asset to their squad. They get consistency, reliability and the potential of a permanent signing in many cases for an agreeable fee; and in many cases these players have a markedly higher sell-on value should they develop as expected.
From the loaning club’s perspective, they’re able to send their players to a trusted club at a good level of football and at times surround them with familiar faces, a useful bonus considering that the advent of B Teams is unlikely. It puts them into an environment where they stand a stronger chance of succeeding and progressing, and even if that’s not to the tune of a player capable of playing at the top level, it can pay off in the form of a decent permanent fee and/or sell-on percentage.
This is where Chelsea would love to be, there’s little doubt of that. There are managers around who regularly come to Cobham asking for help (Yeovil’s Gary Johnson and Colchester’s Joe Dunne to name but two) but the closest they’ve come so far is their relationship with Vitesse Arnhem, borne out of a friendship between billionaire owners Roman Abramovich and Merab Jordania. Since the two struck an agreement in 2010, we’ve seen Slobodan Rajkovic, Nemanja Matic, the unfortunate Delac, Ulises Dávila, Tomas Kalas (twice), Patrick van Aanholt (twice) and Gael Kakuta head to the Gelredome, and with some degree of success too.
In a way it encapsulates the Blues’ current philosophy; a top division move in central Europe appears to be more preferential than a spell in England’s lower leagues. Perhaps the clubs are simply more accommodating, for they have tried without a great deal of success to get George Saville, Billy Clifford, Conor Clifford, Milan Lalkovic, Todd Kane and Patrick Bamford to Championship clubs, with only Kane ending up there in the last fortnight or so. Most of the club’s moves, at least in the first instance (for those they’ve brought through the age groups at Cobham too, rather than having imported), come at League One level. It’s a decent league but the step up in quality at Championship level is tangible.
That’s not to say that the current approach isn’t without a number of merits either. Exposure to top level competition is always beneficial and there can be little doubt that playing against the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Ajax, Benfica, Porto, Bayern Munich and Dortmund will stand those who do so in good stead. And, as we’ve seen before, the potential sale value across the continent is often higher than at home.
If they’re to make a real breakthrough in England’s second tier – a league which is generally viewed as a fantastic breeding ground for prospective elite players – they need to earn the sort of trust Manchester United (in particular, but other clubs have made good strides in this area as well) have with Pearson, Bruce and Ferguson. The players are good enough to compete; they do so throughout every junior age group against contemporaries who then go on to secure better loan moves for any number of reasons.
The good news is that the stars may be aligning to their favour. They have former players present in Gustavo Poyet and Gianfranco Zola who are building their sides around Blues former (Liam Bridcutt) and future (Nathaniel Chalobah) and who would, given the right circumstances, be agreeable to taking more on board. For that to be a realistic possibility though, the Chelsea academy must become a more recognisable and trustworthy entity, and that begins and ends with the flow of players into the first team.
Perception is everything, but patience is needed and progress will be made. After all, this iteration of the youth setup only really began in 2005, with a great flurry of investment, and we’re not yet ten years down the line to see the first true fruits of the process. There’s a lot of good going on, but there’s a lot which can be improved upon with a few tweaks and a bit of luck. Let’s hope it all comes together eh?