The Loan Report: Reflections on the 2016-17 Season

After more than 1000 matches, 72,000 minutes and 126 goals from more than 40 players on approaching 50 individual deals, perhaps the most frustrating part of Chelsea’s expansive loan policy is that there’s little closure. We’re no closer to knowing whether many of them are ready to play for the first team or not than we were back in August.

At best, we’re able to whittle away the bottom third of the list in any given year, but doing so merely confirmed what was already well-know when they signed, let alone before they joined teams several rungs away from the Blues on the football ladder. Their places will doubtless be taken by fresh new academy faces and a sprinkle of new signings in the coming months but, at the other end of the scale, can we really say we’re in a better situation to appraise some of the best and brightest than we were a year ago?

In June 2016, Tammy Abraham was coming off the back of another productive season in front of goal for the academy, playing a significant role in another FA Youth Cup and another UEFA Youth League triumph, ready to go out and dip his toes in the waters of the professional game. His goalscoring prowess had earned him a burgeoning reputation and a long line of suitors gathered to seek his services for the coming season.

Twelve months later, 26 goals for Bristol City saw his star shine even brighter, and excitement spread like wildfire amongst Chelsea and England supporters. He’s well on his way…but will be going back on loan next season too. Ever the pragmatists, his parent club would prefer to see him garner Premier League experience for a year before being assimilated into Antonio Conte’s squad shortly after the 2018 World Cup, a tournament it’s not unreasonable to think he has an outside chance of going to if everything falls into place.

Yet we’ve been here before. In 2013, Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea for a second spell and was asked about Nathaniel Chalobah, who was fresh off a stunning campaign in the Championship with Watford, falling one match short of helping them to promotion as an 18 year-old. Rarely one to make room for youngsters, the Portuguese told the assembled media that Chalobah was “for sure” a Chelsea player but “we think one more season will help and then he will come back for 2014-15”.

Some weeks later, Chalobah joined Nottingham Forest, back in the second tier. All the momentum built up at Watford went to waste and his career meandered through frustrating spells at Middlesbrough, Burnley, and Reading before a year spent at Napoli got things back on track somewhat. Ten appearances this season earned him a Premier League winners’ medal as a squad option but it’s impossible not to look back on the entire episode and wonder what could have been.

And so, perhaps naturally, the same fears pervade the atmosphere surrounding Abraham. Whether it’s Brighton or Newcastle, or someone else benefitting from his services in 2017-18, his wonderful performances at Bristol City ultimately mean very little in the grand scheme of things. Scoring goals in the second tier doesn’t guarantee that he can do that at the next level, nor does it mean Chelsea should immediately find room in their first team squad for him, but you equally only discover exceptions to rules by actually wanting to find out.

Dele Alli skipped the second tier entirely in going from MK Dons to Tottenham, whilst Harry Kane rarely excelled to the same standards as Abraham in his myriad of lower league loans, yet the duo are amongst the most dynamic performers in world football, all because they were given the chance to do so rather than remain ensconced into the ‘wait and see’ cycle.

Certainly, many Chelsea fans will point to the big fat zero trophies won by them, compared to the healthy haul over in SW6, but that’s also missing the point. If the Blues have a prospect capable of scaling those same heights – one that could take them to the next level themselves – it’s incumbent upon them to use them rather than lose them. They’re about to find out if that’s the case with Dominic Solanke joining Liverpool, and he might not be the last to go.

Andreas Christensen‘s two years at Borussia Mönchengladbach have marked him out as one of the best young defenders in the world. Talk of interest from Bayern Munich and Barcelona might not be worth the paper it was written on, but a versatile, well-built international defender with Champions League experience at the age of 21 would ordinarily be high on Chelsea’s shopping list. John Stones commanded some £50m in transfer fees from Manchester City, and did so with much the same profile as the Dane, who could return to Stamford Bridge to play a part next season at no cost whatsoever.

So, naturally, his name has been linked with Southampton in a mooted big-money transfer involving Virgil Van Dijk, who doesn’t come with quite as impressive a CV. If Christensen can’t make the final leap into the first team squad having achieved all he has whilst in the Bundesliga, is there really hope for anyone at all?

The goalposts are forever being moved. Loans serve a purpose, but not forever. The argument for Van Dijk over Christensen consists of his superior physical traits and Premier League experience, but the latter doesn’t come readily. Playing every week in the German top flight, a league quite arguably superior to the best the English game has to offer, is an acceptable alternative.

A bundle of other hopefuls are hammering away at the glass ceiling hoping to be the one to break through, but many of them are another year away at least. A Premier League loan is the holy grail but, in a division where each team is limited to two loans from their contemporaries in total, and a maximum of one from each club, the logistics don’t add up. There were seventeen such moves in total in 2016-17 and, with as many as half a dozen Chelsea youngsters seeking a home for next season, the options are scarce.

Once you rule out Manchesters City and United, Arsenal and Tottenham, Liverpool and West Ham, you’re left with thirteen teams. If Abraham goes to one and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to another, there are eleven teams left for Charly Musonda, Lewis Baker, Nathan Aké, Kasey Palmer, Izzy Brown and Jeremie Boga. It’s simply not going to happen, and the concerning thing is that they’re hardly tripping over the alternatives.

Musonda spent a year in Spain with mixed results, as did Boga. Both are mesmerising talents with the ball at their feet, but lack consistency, in no small part down to playing alongside markedly inferior team-mates. Baker’s two years in the Netherlands marked him out as a scorer of great goals and a midfielder with the potential to be a real force, but one who needs the challenge of a combative environment to really take his game to the next level. Palmer and Brown have sparkled for a Huddersfield Town side that rode the crest of a wave all the way to promotion yet, as join the country’s elite next season, only one of them can return there for a second loan. Aké was brought back from Bournemouth as an insurance policy and provided just that, but at the age of 22 he’s keen to get on with his career.

French and German clubs are often more inclined to develop their own youngsters than somebody else’s. Italian clubs will typically only use a loanee if there’s an end game for them, a chance for them to sign them permanently at the end of the stay, as we’ve just seen with Juan Cuadrado. Spanish clubs are amenable but volatile; Musonda had three managers in his twelve months at Betis, Boga just as many down the road at Granada, and both clubs are appointing new supremos this summer to underline that fact.

The Eredivisie is a proving ground first and foremost, and the Portuguese league has generally been ignored by Chelsea despite offering intriguing possibilities. Opting to sell players whilst retaining reasonable buy-back clauses might be the future; the prospect of owning the player rather than loaning them is enticing for the buying club, and the chance of doubling the return on their investment over two or three years is a sweetener. Chelsea are no strangers to negotiating such clauses (as they did with Jeffrey Bruma and Thorgan Hazard) nor bringing back former players (Nemanja Matic and David Luiz), so it’s a logical progression to make, but one that isn’t quite in the forefront of everyone’s minds at this stage.

And so, for immediate possibilities, we’re left with the Championship. A league that throws youngsters in at the deep end over 46 matches, a perfect development opportunity, yet even coming out the other side smelling of roses as Abraham and Palmer have done still leaves them at a very familiar career crossroads.

The top end of the division was littered with Chelsea players this past season. Christian Atsu helped Newcastle to promotion before ending his four-year stay in London with a permanent departure to Tyneside. Fikayo Tomori did the same with Brighton and will likely spend the duration of next season back down at the same level honing his craft. Lucas Piazon and Tomas Kalas became fan favourites at playoff semi-finalists Fulham and, with both entering the final years of their contracts, it would not be surprising to see them swap West London blue for white full-time.

Brown and Palmer are on a knife-edge as their current ability lies somewhere between the top two divisions, a recipe for disappointment if they don’t get the right move. Bertrand Traore‘s third season in the Netherlands swapped Vitesse’s black and yellow for Ajax’s red and white, returning with a Europa League losers’ medal, but the Burkinabe has had enough of the transient lifestyle of a loanee. He, like the rest of them, craves stability. Kenneth Omeruo starred on the international stage for Nigeria in 2014, first at the African Cup of Nations, then the World Cup. Two years at Middlesbrough pushed him into the spotlight, but the two subsequent seasons in Turkey firmly closed the door on his Chelsea future. This season will be his last as a member of the loan army.

Academy products Mukhtar Ali, Nathan Baxter, Jake Clarke-Salter, Charlie Colkett, Fankaty Dabo, Jay Dasilva and Miro Muheim will all be back out next season having made decent progress, but the likes of Jamal Blackman (23), Jordan Houghton (21), Mitchell Beeney (21), Islam Feruz (22 in September) and Alex Kiwomya (21) could cut the cord and depart if the right opportunity comes along. Houghton, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in February, was an integral figure in Doncaster’s promotion to League One, and they would love to have him at the Keepmoat Stadium for the long-term future.

Michael Hector, Matt Miazga, Nathan, Mario Pašalić and Marco van Ginkel are all a lot closer to being in a position to play for Chelsea, yet none appear all that likely to. Miazga’s emergence as a fine centre-back at Vitesse bodes rather well but, as he turns 22 in July, he’s at least another season of regular football at a higher standard away from challenging, as is the 21 year-old Nathan, who must surely move on from Arnhem after two years there. Pašalić (22) and Van Ginkel (24) play mature midfield games and both have spent time at AC Milan, but have more questions than answers and would appear to be happy to remain in Italy and the Netherlands respectively next season.

Hector, meanwhile, has probably spent less than a fortnight at Cobham in total since being signed from Reading at the end of the 2015 summer transfer window, but starting 14 Bundesliga matches for Eintracht Frankfurt is impressive enough. He turns 25 in July though, so time is of the essence, though he still represents the more speculative aspect of the operation than a player for whom the club has a finely-tuned plan. Victorien Angban, Joao Rodriguez, Danilo Pantic, Wallace and Matej Delač all know that feeling – Delač is eight years strong in the system now – and it would be monumentally surprising if any of them ever turn out at Stamford Bridge.

Loic Remy will be allowed to leave for whichever club is prepared to take on his injury-prone services, whilst Baba Rahman presents an interesting proposition for Conte as an option for the left wing-back spot. His best assets mesh well with the demands of the role and, despite being halfway through his own cruciate ligament rehab, staying at Chelsea and training with the group whilst recovering could be just what he needs to get his career back on track in 2018.

Finally, there’s the next batch, those who will be going out for the first time. The average Development Squad player has embarked upon their first move after 35 appearances at Under-23 level, meaning Loftus-Cheek, Ola Aina, Brad Collins, Josimar Quintero, Kyle Scott and Iké Ugbo are all primed and ready. Trevoh Chalobah and Mason Mount, both 18 at the start of next season, are a handful of games shy of that threshold, but arguably have little left to learn in academy football and would be better served by getting out and finding out what level they’re at; Vitesse would not be a surprise for either or both, with whispers pushing Mount in particular as a ready-made replacement for Baker.

They’ll continue on their journey with the same hunger to succeed that those have gone before them have had, hoping not to lose it along the way. The loan process separates those who really want it from those who don’t, but by the same token it’s perfectly understandable that one or two will question the merits of it all somewhere along the way. They’ll see Christensen still having questions asked about his readiness, they’ll see Abraham being asked to come back later, they’ll see Chalobah and Loftus-Cheek spend a season as glorified cheerleaders, and wonder if they’re not better out of it altogether.