Learning to Evaluate the Loan Army

With more than fifty players having embarked on well in excess of one hundred loan moves over the past three years, Chelsea fans are well-versed in understanding the loan market, and the moves a young developmental prospect now must make if he is to realise his ambitions of a career back at Stamford Bridge.

It’s an increasingly interesting/futile (delete as applicable) exercise and, with each passing year, the standard of football these players are being sent to is constantly increasing. The club have prospects stationed in the Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A, whilst there are a slew more in more traditional educational leagues like the Championship and the Eredivisie in the Netherlands, and we can even delve down as far as the Ryan Premier League – England’s step eight – to find Nathan Baxter plying his trade amongst semi-pro men at the age of 17.

Across all of this, there are a handful of important lessons everyone should consider when it comes to understanding and appreciating what’s going on.

What stage of their career are they at?

Tammy Abraham has scored 13 goals in his first half-season in adult professional football at Bristol City, playing challenging and meaningful football every week in England’s second tier. That’s a tremendous achievement and one we can rightfully get excited about. We’ve seen Patrick Bamford establish himself as a prolific goalscorer at the same level over the past two or three years, but the difference between the two is that Bamford was doing it at the age of 21, whilst Tammy only just turned 19 in October.

That’s no knock on Bamford, who many still maintain simply needs a trusting manager and real opportunity to play in the top flight to realise his (ever-dwindling?) potential. It’s also no guarantee that Abraham will build on his fine first four months and scale new heights, but Bamford at the same age had just signed for Chelsea and didn’t step foot out of the door on loan until closer to his 20th birthday.

Lewis Baker has scored ten goals in his second season at Vitesse and it’s not even Christmas, and quite well he might too. Given his level of talent and his growing experience, this is about par for what you might have wanted to see from him in year two at Arnhem, and so the second half of the season becomes an exercise in taking his game even further still; can he score 20? Can he drive Vitesse to a first major trophy in their history in the Dutch Cup? Can he help them qualify for Europe? Being able to focus on each individual’s career path to date and set targets accordingly is one of the most important tasks the loan department back at Cobham face, and as we watch as supporters, it’s important to hold the same considerations.

Look for traits, not performances or statistics

Or in other words, the Jeremie Boga section. Watching Granada matches exclusively to keep tabs on the exciting young Frenchman can be excruciating at times, with his technique, close control and thought process often quite clearly more advanced than the players he’s been tasked with collaborating. His recent performance away to Málaga is an excellent case in point:

Not everyone is going to grab the headlines with stellar performances week after week out on loan. It’s hard enough to do that for your parent club, harder still for a displaced teen trying to make a career for himself. What does count, though, is being seen to be doing the right thing, exhibiting traits that stand the test of each and every level, traits that blend well with what Antonio Conte’s first team squad are doing at Stamford Bridge.

Nathaniel Chalobah and Victor Moses have both been through the loan mill with more downs than ups but have come out of it as increasingly influential members of Conte’s squad. They’ve done so because they’ve been able to consistently assimilate those traits into their game, be it on the training ground or under the bright lights of the live game environment. And, for the Bogas, Charly Musondas, Kenedys and even Bamfords, there is always hope that they too will catch the eye for what they’re doing rather than what they’re seen to be doing.

Know that not playing isn’t always a bad thing

Chalobah made just two Serie A appearances for Napoli last season in a year where a future at Chelsea looked pretty bleak, but he’ll tell you it was one of the most important times in his burgeoning career. Training in a new and varied way in another culture, one where he was further away from home than before and had to grow up fast, turned out to be the making of the man who Conte now readily calls upon as his go-to guy to help close out games in a defensive midfield capacity.

We all want the loanees to play early and often, but there are lessons to be learned by sitting on the bench. For a lot of them, it’ll be the first time in their careers that they’ve faced any tangible adversity; cruising through a successful academy career with trophies and winners’ medals in abundance can leave a rose-tinted view of the game, but when you’re out on loan and not playing, things get very real all of a sudden.

Now you’re faced with having to work harder to impress your manager and get (back) in the team. It’s a different world, one where points mean everything and your team-mates are often playing for their own livelihoods. Even if you spend more time out of the side than in it, these are valuable moments that shape the course of their development, and how they react to it tells a story in itself. For the likes of us following from afar, we have to ask ourselves if they’re good enough to be playing at their current standard, if they’re further away than we thought, or if – like Chalobah – they’re just in need of an opportunity. The answer changes for every one of the 38 loanees out there, but it could just well be that some of those not playing are in a better place than those who are.

All of this might ultimately mean nothing at all

And, really, that’s the most likely outcome. If Chelsea can get three squad players out of the 38 on loan – including several who were bought with that express intention – that’ll probably be deemed a success. The loan army’s returning success stories of the last five years can be counted on one hand and that’s always going to be the case as long as the programme is more about quantity than quality. Roughly a quarter of those out right now have never appeared in a Chelsea shirt at academy or senior level and were speculative purchases at best, more likely to turn a profit than to ever stand a chance of representing the Blues.

It also might mean nothing because the determining factor in impressing Conte, or whoever happens to be the first team manager at any given time, has little to do with what goes on out on loan. Certainly, it helps with name recognition, and everyone’s game comes along whilst playing elsewhere, but to play at Chelsea you’ve got to show up at Cobham, train better than the guy in your position, and earn the collective trust of the coaching staff and the playing squad.

That could happen to a Nathan Aké and it could happen to a Nathan Baxter, regardless of the chasm between their respective clubs right now. That’s why this whole process is equal parts fascinating and exasperating. None of us really have a clue at all.