One of the more common sub-plots to Chelsea’s season has been their prolific activity on the loan front. With more than thirty players away at other clubs, their largesse in the outgoing temporary market has attracted considerable attention; not least because it’s unheard of within English football.
As the Blues’ title challenge faltered with a lack of top quality striking options, critics have been quick to point out the folly of Romelu Lukaku being sent to Everton and outscoring all of Jose Mourinho’s centre forwards, and the Thibaut Courtois debacle only served to provide the more vocal dissenters with another platform from which to cry foul of the Stamford Bridge policy.
But as in most aspects of the game, things are never quite that easy. Youth development is an incredibly complicated and nuanced art with no guarantees and a broad range of approaches. To really understand why Chelsea go about their business as they do, we need to look into what they want from their setup, what it takes to play first team football at the top level, and how to get to that point. To do so, we have to start from the bottom.
The club’s Cobham academy takes players into regional development centres from as young as six years old but it’s at the first full time level where it’s most appropriate to begin. The Elite Player Performance plan classes youth team football as the Professional Development Stage where ‘Learning to Win’ is at the top of the tree. You’re really looking for talent to make clearly definable progress from the start of the season to the end, and the best of the bunch should be looking to break into the Under-21 setup after a year.
Over the last decade Chelsea have signed their brightest and best to professional terms no later than the end of their first scholarship season (by which point they’ll be seventeen and eligible) and it’s very rare for a player to get past that point without a deal and still have a future at the club. Only one such player at this time is without a professional deal (Ambrose Gnahore) and instead they’re moving to tie players down at the earliest possible opportunity with the likes of Ola Aina and Charlie Colkett signing theirs days after coming of age to do so.
Whilst it’s still a long way from the adult game, Under-21 football is a big step up for most as they find the increased physicality and quicker tempo a shock to the system. A 16 year-old might find himself giving up five years of development to an opponent and that’s without making allowances for the occasional over-age player featuring. It’s a steeper learning curve and one that usually takes much longer to adjust to than the leap from Under-16 to Under-18 football, with at least two seasons required at most clubs.
Simply showing that you belong isn’t enough now. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got something about you as far as having a career in the game goes, but to progress through the ranks at Chelsea you need to stand out above the competition on a regular basis. It requires professionalism, physical and mental superiority, and end product. The environment often isn’t ideal – playing at non-league grounds in front of a few hundred hardy souls isn’t the best way to prepare a player for what’s to come – but it is what it is and those that make the best of what they’re given are usually easily identified.
In the past, a good run at this level would have led to a first team debut, but the standard is so high now that it’s almost impossible to expect that to be the case. Scarce few Premier League players jumped straight into the top flight and for every Raheem Sterling or Luke Shaw who broke the mould of the last decade there’s a Ross Barkley or a Daniel Sturridge who took the long way round and went on loan to refine their game. The technical level of football can be good to watch, but it remains an isolated environment of youth versus youth with little tangible reward and little by way of replicating the environment in which they aspire to eventually work.
It’s important to remember that Under-21 football is not the immediate precursor to first team football. It’s merely a step along the way and part of the bigger picture but the players are low down on the totem pole and still have the hardest work ahead of them. The loan market is far more important; those that can hack it will show as much, and those that can’t will view it as an opportunity to earn a permanent contract elsewhere and begin the process of moving on from Chelsea Football Club.
The thirty-one current loanees are spread far and wide; from the Premier League to the Isthmian Premier, from La Liga to Segunda B Group One. Expectations are managed accordingly and for every genuine first-team prospect there are probably two that are viewed as a commodity to eventually make a profit on.
The best Under-21 performers get the more challenging loans. Sturridge and Lukaku both proved themselves capable and earned Premier League deals, whilst the preference for English youngsters is to send them out no lower than The Championship to keep them playing a good standard of football. Arguably the strongest second tier of football in the world, it’s viewed as a ‘safe’ option, especially after being burned with situations like Gael Kakuta (Bolton, Fulham), Josh McEachran (Swansea) and Patrick van Aanholt (Wigan) wasting their time with top-flight deals that failed to work out.
An expansion into the overseas loan market has exploded in the past three or four years and it came largely off the back of those ‘failed’ moves within the Premier League. That combined with a transfer policy incorporating the acquisition of foreign potential like Christian Atsu, Wallace, Thorgan Hazard and many many more meant it made sense on a number of levels to have them playing in a top division abroad. One of the many benefits of the highly-publicised arrangement with Vitesse Arnhem is that the Eredivisie features a very ‘English’ style of football and is viewed as good experience before heading to UK shores.
Whether the youngsters ‘impress’ whilst away from the club comes down to what they’re being asked to achieve, as Michael Emenalo explained in 2011:
“You want to send players on loan to gain experience and see where they are in their development. If they are in touching distance with the first team we like them to go to the Premier League and see how close they are, how mentally developed and tactically aware they are.
We feel when we recruit these players it is because they have a certain quality that is above and beyond the average Premier League team, so we want them to go out and show that quality and gain experience.
When you buy a quality young player, the competition is really heavy and there is no chance of them making any progress if they will not be playing regularly. We may feel they have too much quality to be in the reserve squad where they could stagnate, so you can make a decision even before you sign them that this can be the case, and you agree with them what will happen.”
Somebody like Patrick Bamford quickly proved to be far better than League One quality with a slew of goals for Milton Keynes Dons so he was moved up a level to Derby County, where he’s thus far showed that he at least belongs there, even if he has a way to go before mastering it yet.
Lukaku returned a respectable tally of Premier League goals last season and upon moving to Everton this term would have been expected to perform at least as well given he was joining a better team whilst being further ahead in his own personal development. The same goes for Thibaut Courtois in Madrid; now in his third season with Atlético, merely winning a domestic cup or the Europa League wouldn’t have been enough. He had to show his world-class ability as part of a team that was able to compete for the highest honours and he’s done just that.
Courtois is the only loanee who can legitimately be considered good enough to return to Stamford Bridge and make a notable impact next season. It may sound harsh but the reality of the situation is that the standard expected by Jose Mourinho is high for a reason. Whilst his 2013-14 squad isn’t as strong as he’d have liked it to be, it is stronger in terms of quality than at any point since Carlo Ancelotti’s first season in charge, and some of the breakout performers of the last ten months reflect the challenge ahead of those aspiring to join the group.
Want to be considered an option in central midfield? You’ve got to be on Nemanja Matic’s level, because if you’re not, there’s a ready-made player out there to buy as the Serbian was in January. Anyone hoping to replace Ashley Cole at left-back needs to be at least as good as Cesar Azpilicueta has been for Mourinho to even think about moving the Spaniard back to the right side of the pitch. Chelsea want to win the Premier League; they want to win the Champions League, and the relentless pursuit of the game’s most prestigious honours means that only the best will do.
Some amongst those away from the club might be able to fill out the squad but given that Victor Moses, Ryan Bertrand, Marko Marin and Oriol Romeu have attempted to do so only to find themselves in different colours this season speaks volumes as to the realism of such an idea.
Why can other teams do it though?
By now some of you might be wondering why other clubs seem be able to assimilate their own produce into the team and continue to be competitive. Why have Liverpool been able to thrive with Sterling and Jon Flanagan coming through whilst finding a way to utilise Sturridge properly? Why have Manchester United been bastions of youth development for decades and been able to maintain it in this era of billions with Welbeck, Evans, Cleverley and friends as key contributors and Januzaj emerging this season? Why can Southampton produce a Shaw, a Chambers or a Ward-Prowse and Everton a Barkley?
The answer can found back in the discussion about the pursuit of glory. The Abramovich decade has seen Chelsea establish themselves as the most successful English team of the period and the only one to compete for at least one major honour each and every season. Only in 2011-12 did they finish outside of the automatic Champions League places and the consolation prize of finally lifting the Champions League was more than enough vindication for turning a blind eye to the final weeks of the domestic calendar.
At one point or another all of the other contenders have fallen away. Manchester United recovered from an early 2000s malaise to win three consecutive league titles but the David Moyes era has thus far been a monumental failure. Liverpool enjoyed more continental success under Rafael Benitez with only one realistic challenge for the top spot in England before this season, and Arsenal are only now close to ending a nine-year wait for a trophy and even then it’s the FA Cup and not the one they truly crave.
Tottenham have never worried Chelsea for anything other than the twice-a-season date on the fixture list whilst Manchester City, as one would expect given their backing, have been there or thereabouts every year since 2009, but whether they can sustain that for another five years remains to be seen. In each case those fighting for supremacy with the Blues have managed to find some form of reward whilst bringing one of their own through, but only Chelsea have been there year in and year out battling for the top prizes at home and abroad. Seven Champions League Semi Finals in eleven years is a statistic only Barcelona can even equal.
A carousel of managers has accompanied the development of a habit and with job security anything but guaranteed, it takes a brave manager to have the conviction to give youth its head and then live or die by the results. Ancelotti won the league and cup double in his first season but a year later with a compromised squad was forced into using McEachran, Van Aanholt, Kakuta, Jeffrey Bruma, and Fabio Borini; ultimately failing to win a trophy and being given his P45 moments after the season’s final whistle.
So what’s the point of Chelsea’s academy existing in the first place? Their youth teams have proven themselves to be as good as any of their European contemporaries at every age group up to the Under-21s and their loanees have combined for well over 100 goals this season. Neil Bath is seen as one of the leading names in his field in all of football and there can be little doubt that the academy is elite in every area except first-team production, but there’s little they can do about that themselves. They produce inarguable talent that has often thrived elsewhere but have no control about what happens when they send a boy across the road into the first team building, and have often lamented that over the years as Bath and Dermot Drummy demonstrate:
“You can only speak for your own club and speaking on behalf of Chelsea, we have a plan here to bring young players through which has been made with the club’s senior staff involved. The plan understands that our youth development policy is a long-term strategy and that without the young players being given a chance, it is never going to happen.” (2007)
“The Academy is playing a wonderful style of attacking football, the culture in the building that Neil Bath has set is outstanding and it is onwards and upwards. What we haven’t quite got yet is that player pathway into our first team.” (2013)
Could Jack Cork have made it at Stamford Bridge? Could Miroslav Stoch or Liam Bridcutt? How about Borini or Bruma? We’ll never know the answer to that just like we don’t know now if Bamford, Lewis Baker or Ruben Loftus-Cheek will either. Each class that comes through the ranks features an abundance of expertly-trained talent with burgeoning potential waiting to be harnessed, but it’ll take a change of philosophy at the top level. They could be brave and force the issue, but why would they need to?
It’s fine to talk a good game but the proof lies in the lack of opportunities to this point, and it can hardly be considered a major problem when balanced against the consistent and historic successes of the last ten years. If it’s a choice between winning trophies or having a productive youth setup there’s nobody who’d rather be an Arsenal than a Chelsea, but the dream for many – not least those inside the academy – is to see the two succeed together.
Perhaps Eddie Newton – an academy product who helped Chelsea some memorable moments in the late 90s before retiring and working with the next generation – sums it up best:
“With what we’ve got at this club, we have to do everything possible to develop them and get them into that first team building and stay there. What we’re really looking for is boy of 5, 6 and 7, we want a generation to go there and really go from young boys into men and be successful. That’s when you know this academy has done its job.”