The last three seasons have returned almost 3000 appearances and some 300 goals from dozens of Chelsea youngsters embarking on more than 100 individual loan moves. It’s an operation of immense logistical ambition on a scale never before seen in England (and only occasionally anywhere else) and yet, for all of that, can we really say it’s been a success?
Speak to ten people with some level of knowledge and you’ll likely find ten different opinions on quite why Chelsea have gone about their business in this way. A natural development path to bridge the gap between academy and first-team football. A neat way to get ahead of the pack in the Financial Fair Play era. A simple ‘speculate to accumulate’ exercise. A series of favours to agents, hangers-on and other associates keen to make a quick buck from a transfer. A profit-making venture. And they’re all probably right to some extent, but with the network stretching far and wide across multiple continents, much of it remains shrouded in mystery.
The time, money and effort put in has, though, only really yielded Thibaut Courtois as tangible reward so far and even then he looks both a pale shadow of the dominant figure he cut in goal for Atlético Madrid as well as a questionable long-term successor to Petr Cech. Sure, a healthy profit was made on two more Belgians in Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne – a duo whom many have questioned the ambof – but they might have been cut adrift too soon with that profit already dwarfed by the fee Manchester City paid for De Bruyne, and similar is expected when Lukaku leaves Everton.
They represent the very tip of the iceberg, the big-name internationals wheeled out as vindication of a process that remains flawed and fraught with inconsistency and baffling decision-making. If it isn’t of benefit to Chelsea on the pitch and is reaping diminishing returns on the balance sheet (after all, acquiring and maintaining so many players comes at a significant price in the first place), what exactly is the point of it all?
The 35 – thirty-five – players sent out this past season can be roughly divided into three groups, with each group then generally split again by age. There’s your first-team cast-offs, those who haven’t been able to find a permanent departure and are forced into temporary measures; then there’s the club’s own academy produce who fly the nest to garner senior experience, and finally the speculative, (generally) foreign signings who rarely step foot back in England, let alone Cobham, as part of a more financially-incentivised enterprise.
At least some of the first-team flotsam and jetsam have actually turned out in a Chelsea shirt. Granted, none of Juan Cuadrado, Mohamed Salah, Marco van Ginkel, Victor Moses, Marko Marin or Papy Djilobodji set the world alight whilst there, but they got closer than most. Cuadrado and Van Ginkel finished the season as domestic title winners with Juventus and PSV respectively whilst both featured in Champions League Quarter Final ties, which was quite the turnaround for Van Ginkel after a stodgy and depressing few months in Stoke.
Arguments can be made in their favour as Antonio Conte appraises his options this summer but Roma have already triggered their option to sign Salah and, for Moses, Marin and Djilobodji, the hope isn’t quite as strong. Moses and Marin have been in and out of teams well below the required standard and although Djilobodji fared pretty well at Werder Bremen, the fact that his goal in the final minute of the season saved them from relegation tells a story all by itself.
And so if a £20m+ buy like Cuadrado struggles, what chance do any home-grown young Blues have? We sat and watched as a 17 year-old Nathaniel Chalobah set the Championship alight, as Tomas Kalas walked into an Eredivisie side at 18 and played like a grizzled veteran, as Patrick Bamford cut a goalscoring swathe through the Football League and became the Young Player of the Year in the second tier. Now, we ponder their futures after a campaign in which Chalobah made precisely zero Serie A starts for Napoli, as Bamford failed to find the back of the net for either Crystal Palace or Norwich, and as Kalas, promoted though he may have been with Middlesbrough, spent much of his time at the Riverside as an unused substitute.
All 21 or older, they face a summer crossroads along with Mitchell Beeney, Jamal Blackman, Alex Davey, Islam Feruz, Jordan Houghton, Todd Kane, Alex Kiwomya and John Swift. Each has left their teenage years well behind them but have failed to hit the right notes on loan and a number of them will be leaning towards a clean break and a fresh start elsewhere.
Kane had a terrific season at NEC Nijmegen and earned plenty of interest from some pretty sizeable clubs across Europe only to suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament in late April, and although Swift had a respectable stay at Brentford, his contract is set to expire without a renewal offer on the table. Napoli would like to keep Chalobah and loan him out within Italy to gain further experience but he will explore his options further, and with so much competition in the striking department these days Bamford looks further away than ever after questions about his mentality and desire were raised by both Alan Pardew and Alex Neil.
Theirs is a cautionary tale to those following the same well-trodden path and coming up quickly on the outside. Andreas Christensen and Nathan Aké have just completed very impressive campaigns in the Bundesliga and Premier League, Charly Musonda sparkled in a handful of months in La Liga with Real Betis, Jeremie Boga grew into himself at Rennes, and Lewis Baker, Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke went from boys to men at Vitesse. Individually they all have merits towards Conte’s cause but the smart money is on spending at least another year away to smooth off those rough edges.
Chelsea know this too and have begun to act accordingly. The deals for Christensen and Musonda came with clauses allowing their loan clubs to extend their stays into 2016-17 and Rennes appear keen to do the same with Boga now they’ve lost Ousmane Dembele. Baker has already spoken of his interest in a second year in Arnhem and Vitesse captain Guram Kashia previously urged him, Solanke and Brown to do so to prove themselves capable of playing amongst men.
There’s something to be said about doing just that but there are cautionary tales in players going back following a successful stay only to become complacent without the same level of challenge facing them and instead stagnating, sitting on their potential. Christensen is the one most at risk of doing so having established himself as the best young defender in a top three league worldwide but the others should all be able to go back with work to do and a point to prove.
So, what of the rest? Players many fans would struggle to name or recognise if stood next to them; the Victorien Angbans, Joao Rodriguezs and Danilo Pantics of this world. There are senior internationals amongst them in Angban himself, Christian Atsu and Michael Hector, but even with the best will in the world only Hector has the smallest of chances of making an impression and that in itself owes much to him being the most recent signing.
Atsu did well at Vitesse two years ago, like many others, but a terrible run of injuries since have left him as a directionless 24 year-old, and Angban, as well as he did for Sint-Truiden in Belgium, picked up three red cards this season and has a lot of refinement to do before even thinking about the long-term .
He was one of three sent to STVV along with South Americans Rodriguez and Cristian Cuevas; the former saw his time there maligned by injury but Cuevas played more than thirty matches in a dutiful left-sided role and is likely to seek a permanent deal within the Jupiler League this summer.
At least all three have actually turned out in a Chelsea shirt in friendly action back on domestic shores though. Many never get that far, including Croatians Stipe Perica and Matej Delač (who did get one pre-season match in Ljubljana). Delač is one of Chelsea’s longest-serving players having originally signed in 2009 and taken in ten different loan moves. FK Sarajevo projects to be his best bet of a move now having spent the last two years with them, and having recovered from his torn ACL this season, he can go into the summer with renewed confidence.
Veteran scout Piet de Visser will tell anyone who’s willing to listen of how he has unearthed gem after Brazilian gem down the years and, to his credit, that was once true. Amongst his more recent pet projects however are Lucas Piazon, Wallace and Nathan, for whom the phrase ‘flatter to deceive’ appears to have been made for. For their undeniable technical ability there has often been a distinct lack of heart in their play and it would be a mighty turn-up for the books if they stick in SW6.
Nathan’s fellow Vitesse loanee Pantic, meanwhile, rather severed his ties with the club back in March when he accused them of disliking Serbians in an interview that will not have done his future prospects much good at all. All in all it’s a group that has failed to deliver even remotely as Chelsea threw mud at the wall hoping some of it would stick, but to finish on a positive note there are two more who have shown enough to maybe return a profit.
Kenneth Omeruo was a rock for Nigeria as they won the 2014 African Cup of Nations and he carried that form into the World Cup, where he was once again genuinely very good for the Super Eagles. Fast forward two years and the wheels have come off a bit but a useful year at Kasimpasa in Turkey has given him confidence and put him back in the shop window. Croatian midfielder Mario Pašalić also went from strength to strength this year, building on a fine 2013-14 at Elche by going to Monaco and scoring seven goals for a Europa League side challenging at the top of Ligue 1. His season was ended by a back injury but at his best he looks capable of offering something akin to Marco van Ginkel and, only 21, he’s worth investing a bit more time in just yet.
About one in three of the players covered will say goodbye to Chelsea this summer but the Loan Army is here to stay as new faces replace them. A couple of new overseas imports will doubtless replenish the supplies and that’s before factoring in that Reece Mitchell, Dion Conroy, Fankaty Dabo, Jay Dasilva, Jake Clarke-Salter, Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham, Charlie Colkett and Kasey Palmer are in position to get a taste of men’s football.
Let’s hope that the next batch of moves prove more fruitful than the dozens that have preceded it, for making the same mistakes over and over again without addressing the flawed process behind it is, after all, insanity.