This summer is reportedly set to be a seminal moment in the grand history of the Chelsea ‘Loan Army’.
For a decade or more now, the Blues have been at the forefront of the organised outsourcing of youth development for 18-22 year-old prospects considered too good for academy football but not quite ready for the big-time at Stamford Bridge. Those prospects have occasionally yet consistently been joined by overflow from the men’s first-team squad; ill-conceived signings not wanted by yet another new manager, and, while there are success stories littered throughout, the history books will likely reflect on the journey with plenty of uncertainty.
FIFA’s new rules came into effect last summer, limiting clubs to a smaller number of international loans, while making exemptions for players who are both club-trained and Under-21 (they must fulfil both criteria, not one or the other). The magic number for 2023 is seven such loans overseas, before we finally settle on six next in 2024. At a time when Chelsea are also pursuing multi-club arrangements, no one club may loan more than three players in or our from another, which will factor into their thinking there too.
A scaling-back of the operation is therefore seen to be soon in effect. Suggestions that players will be moved on permanently after two moves without making progress towards a Chelsea future might be premature or misplaced but, in principle, a long-standing programme that continues to be refined and reevaluated may take on another look in its forever chameleonic existence.
This is all to preface a review of the 2022-23 class of loanees; one that had the usual mix of successes and failures so to speak, as even the most disappointing of moves can still teach the player a lot about themselves on and off the pitch, and one that informs plenty about next season.
First Team Overflow
Romelu Lukaku returned to Inter after a forgettable and controversial year back at Chelsea, and he did what he generally does in Serie A; scores goals and plays well. The Belgian may well want to stay at Inter beyond this window but Mauricio Pochettino could yet have other plans and, with plenty of money still invested in him, it would take a brave soul to write off a future at the Bridge right now.
Ethan Ampadu and Tiémoué Bakayoko joined him in Serie A and had much the same experience as they did in 21-22. Ampadu swapped relegated Venezia for relegation-threated Spezia, got plenty of football in plenty of different roles, and goes into this weekend’s playoff against Verona trying to avoid back to back disappointments, although his individual performances have been quite fine. Bakayoko had to return to Milan having failed to find a team to take over the second year of his arrangement with the Rossoneri, and played just 38 minutes of senior football. Somehow, he still has a year left on his Chelsea contract…
Having found regular minutes hard to come by under Thomas Tuchel, Callum Hudson-Odoi headed overseas to Leverkusen a month before the first of three managerial changes were made at the club he left behind, a sliding doors moment that many may look back on with regret come the end of this transfer window. His stay in Germany was mostly a continuation of his recent story in blue; he did well most of the time on the pitch, but had his progress interrupted by injuries and changes of manager, and signed off before Leverkusen’s final game of the campaign. He is reportedly a prime candidate to move on permanently before September.
Callum Hudson-Odoi has created more chances (7) and made more successful take-ons (7) than any other Bayer Leverkusen player in the Champions League this season.#UCL
— The Athletic | Football (@TheAthleticFC) November 1, 2022
Malang Sarr joined Monaco on a deal that was set to trigger an obligation to buy for some £15m should he have reached a certain number of games played; he made 13 league appearances before injury ended things. Conveniently.
Baba Rahman is among Chelsea’s longest-serving players now, having signed in 2015, but much of that time was spent in the treatment room suffering through serious injuries. He went back to Reading for s second spell after a permanent exit fell through; the Royals were relegated, he was about average overall, and he too still has a year left under contract. The club have looked after him admirably during some exceptionally tough times but this is the juncture at which their paths should diverge, wishing each other well.
On the Rise
Levi Colwill was arguably the star of the loan army season; he got plenty of Premier League playing time for a Brighton team that qualified for Europe and asserted himself as one of the best young centre-backs in world football. A swift integration into Pochettino’s plans should follow, but we’ve said that before, haven’t we? The Seagulls will certainly test the Blues’ resolve, particularly as their own interest in Moises Caicedo intensifies.
Ian Maatsen would also make the podium of loanee triumphs this past year as he became an integral figure in a Burnley team that swept all before them in the Championship en route to a quick return to the top flight. Playing nominally at left-back with license to get forward and to also slide inside and affect the play in midfield, he is every inch the modern full-back with plenty of suitors should Chelsea not offer him the future he’s looking for, the Clarets chief among them.
Cesare Casadei spent the first six months of his new life in England settling in and playing Development Squad football, where he was able to show why some €15m was spent to prise him away from Inter, and where he was able to parlay that quality into a first senior loan move. Reading probably wasn’t the ideal destination or situation to land in; a points deduction led to a relegation that itself followed the departure of manager Paul Ince, who preferred a playing style that didn’t lend itself to midfielders being able to excel. Nevertheless, he contributed as effectively as he could, and headed into the Under-20 World Cup ready to take his game and reputation to the next level.
Gabriel Slonina joined him in impressing at the same tournament in Argentina in May, having started this season by agreeing a transfer from Chicago Fire and moving to London in November. He carried his strong MLS body of work into some good Dev Squad outings.
An exclusive wide-ranging interview with Gaga Slonina, Chelsea's new goalkeeper who is still on loan at Chicago Fire:
— Nizaar Kinsella (@NizaarKinsella) September 29, 2022
Bashir Humphreys also played in the World Cup, where he scored for England, and was able to keep building on a promising year’s work that saw him make his senior Chelsea debut before heading out on loan for the first time, to Paderborn in Germany’s second tier. He made twelve starts, playing every minute of those fixtures, and carried himself superbly for a team that finished a respectable sixth, their best finish in half a decade.
His one-time academy centre-back partner Sam McClelland stayed a little closer to home in joining League Two outfit Barrow last July, where he quickly became a fan favourite and became a key part of a team that recorded their best league campaign in fifty years.
Teddy Sharman-Lowe and Eddie Beach went into the English sixth tier for senior goalkeeping experience after Christmas; a route well-trodden by successful academy graduate stoppers of years gone by, and they both did well in the National League South. They each made 21 appearances; Teddy at 10th-placed Havant & Waterlooville, Eddie at an impressive Chelmsford City side that finished 5th and were involved in the promotion playoffs. Both will seek higher-level football next.
Lucas Bergström and Harvey Vale spent the pre-World Cup portion of the 22-23 story out on EFL loans before coming back into the Development Squad; Bergström did pretty well at Peterborough for a long time before poor results started to increase pressure on the team, mistakes started to creep in, and he lost his place in the team under the returning new manager Darren Ferguson. Vale, meanwhile, played just twice for Hull after suffering an injury while away with England in September soon after arriving. Once fit, he too had a new manager to impress and, while Liam Rosenior was a big fan, Chelsea opted to recall him, unable to find a new club as he had exhausted his eligibility having made an EFL Trophy appearance for the Blues back in August.
Jamie Cumming’s second year at Milton Keynes did not go as well as his first; a year ago, he was one of the best goalkeepers in League One for a team that fell two games short of promotion in the playoffs. Now, he was involved in a shock relegation; a team that had been considered title favourites in pre-season never got going and found themselves in deep trouble. As the first real setback in his so-far upwardly mobile career, it’ll be a good experience for him to go through but, as he turns 24 in September, it might be time for him to find a new permanent home.
Tino Anjorin also returned to the same club he was at last term as he had unfinished business at Huddersfield, and showcased all of his talent and game-changing ability early on, highlighted by a stunning brace at home to West Brom. Unfortunately, injuries struck again in mid-September, ending his season there and then, and the sense of frustration must have been compounded as Chelsea went on to spend big money on a slew of young attacking options in January, adding to the immediate uncertainty about a potential pathway ahead.
Soon to depart
Nathan Baxter, Henry Lawrence, Ethan Wady, Bryan Fiabema and Jayden Wareham are set to become free agents at the end of the month; they all spent time on loan over the past few months and will enjoy good careers in the game, but their Chelsea careers are soon at a close. Baxter was one of three Chelsea players at Hull, and the Tigers had an option to buy, but not for the first time he was waylaid by injuries and wasn’t able to kick on in the same way he impressively rose through the levels from Met Police in England’s seventh tier all the way up to the Championship, starring at each level along the way.
Lawrence was solid and dependable mostly at right-back for that same Milton Keynes team that Cumming suffered disappointment with. A swiss-army knife of a player capable of providing options on both flanks and in central midfield areas, many an EFL club will be queuing at his door. Fiabema briefly joined him in the same division, swapping a stint at Rosenborg for the delights of Forest Green Rovers, who were also relegated come May. By then, though, Fiabema was back at Chelsea, having scored just once for the Gloucestershire-based team before ending his stay in the winter transfer window.
Wareham also came back to Cobham in January after a similarly frustrating time at Leyton Orient, where he took his chances impressively when they came in cup competitions, but he couldn’t get as much playing time as he wanted for a team that ran away with an early lead they never yielded en route to promotion. A purported switch to Wimbledon didn’t materialise and, when back in blue, he missed the PL2 run-in through injury.
Wady spent the first half of the season at Woking as Craig Ross’ backup in goal, then came back to Chelsea, trialled at Millwall, and found himself named on the subs bench for Frank Lampard’s first team away to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. Quite a journey for the dual national English-American stopper.
Gone but not forgotten
Xavier Simons signed permanently for Hull in March during his spell at the MKM Stadium while Dujon Sterling finished up a third successive Championship stint (at Stoke, following similar North-West trips to Blackpool and Wigan) before penning a permanent deal at Rangers in Scotland, where he reunites with one-time Chelsea academy coach Mick Beale.
Welcome to Chelsea
Malo Gusto will join the Blues in July having remained at Lyon after his €30m transfer went through in January. He goes straight into Pochettino’s plans while Jamaican international striker Dujuan Richards is perhaps more likely to go into the Development Squad when he turns 18 in October and can officially switch from Phoenix Academy, where he has long since been a star. Andrey Santos may be destined for bigger things than Vasco da Gama if and when he secures a work permit to play in England and, even if he doesn’t, a move to Europe is expected to happen.
Kendry Paez, who could make his senior Ecuador debut in the next fortnight having barely turned 16, will become a Chelsea player in 2025. We’ll all be much older by then…