Amidst the usual stories of big money moves, the regulation transfer of a player from Southampton to Liverpool and Arsenal’s standing as one of the biggest teams in the country being challenged once more, this January window has cast more light on the strange goings on at Chelsea. Having brought in Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley already this season, their latest target appears to be a tall English striker – any tall English striker – to give manager Antonio Conte a Plan B without Roman Abramovich having to sell one of his superyachts. It appears Chelsea’s days of splurging on European superstars – think Andriy Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo – are over, but if Abramovich is so worried about the purse strings, why do Chelsea continue to farm their youngsters out on loan?
“You haven’t seen a player break into the Chelsea side from the academy for I don’t know how many years.” It’s rare that Sam Allardyce comes out with considered, sensible opinions, but when he spoke out against Chelsea’s “dangerous” loan policy back in October 2017 he hit the nail firmly on the head. The West London club’s tactic of scouring Europe for young talent, stockpiling them, loaning them out and selling them for a profit is nothing new, but the recent change in Chelsea’s transfer policy has brought the issue back to the surface. In the pre-Abramovich years, Chelsea jumped on the aging European superstar bandwagon that the Premier League’s new-found wealth and intrigue afforded its clubs. Ruud Gullit (33), Gianluca Vialli (32), and Brian Laudrup (28) all joined the club on free transfers between 1995 and 1998, and soon the whole culture of Chelsea had shifted as Gullit (and soon after Vialli) took the mantle as player-manager and began to build the multi-national, multi-cultural football club they are today. Between the late 90s and early 00s the club took something of a scattergun approach, as promising youngsters like Mario Melchiot and Eidur Gudjonhnsen were signed alongside the big ticket arrivals of Chris Sutton and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink. Aging European superstars were still on the agenda too – just ask Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly – but it wasn’t until Ken Bates sold the club to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003 that serious money began to change hands. In his first season at the helm, Abramovich signed off on over £150m worth of player purchases, as some of the biggest names in Europe arrived at Stamford Bridge alongside the brightest young British and Irish talent in the Premier League. Almost £50m was spent on Damien Duff, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, and Scott Parker, while the same amount went on Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo and Claude Makelele. Essentially, Abramovich took Chelsea on a shopping spree with the aim of hoovering up the cream of Europe’s elite to play alongside young and hungry homegrown players. Unfortunately, this scattergun approach was soon revealed to have some pretty massive flaws. It’s all well and good spending £21m on the emerging Shaun Wright-Phillips but if, after three years and a lack of first-team football, the club makes a £12m loss on him it the realisation might quickly dawn that Supermarket Sweep is not an ideal recruitment strategy for the long term. After several expensive mistakes, Chelsea’s scouting network began to hunt down cheap young talent that could be developed at the club’s academy and, perhaps, become key members of the first team. The likes of Scott Sinclair, Franco Di Santo and Nemanja Matic were all signed on the cheap, while Kevin De Bruyne (£6.7m) and Romelu Lukaku (£18m) commanded much higher fees but were considered long term investments. The only problem was that they needed competitive first team football in order to develop.
“We felt it is better for them at that age to go on loan to somewhere where they get visibility and good competition. For psychological and physical reasons that is the best thing to do at that age.”
Michael Emenalo – Former Technical Director at Chelsea FC
Since January 2009, Chelsea have been involved in 326 separate deals to loan their players out to other clubs – an average of over 36 per season. Counting their First Team, Development Squad and players out on loan, the club currently has 84 players on their books – not including those in the Under 18 set-up. With the largest squad in the Premier League it’s unsurprising that they make the most of a loan market that, in essence, is there to help clubs in developing their young players, but suspicions have been aroused as to whether Chelsea are all that interested in developing the youngsters on their books. The club’s transfer activity this season appears to speak volumes. In the summer they took the surprising step of allowing young midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah to join Watford on a permanent deal, with him having finally broken into the Chelsea first team last season, making ten appearances in the Premier League of the back of SIX separate loan spells – the first of which was at Watford. Before the window had closed, Chelsea had spent £35m on Danny Drinkwater from Leicester. A more defensively minded player than Chalobah, certainly, but surely an expensive replacement for an up and coming player that qualified as home-grown? Nathan Ake was another youngster that Chelsea decided to cash in on in the summer, and while Bournemouth’s £20m offer was surely too good to turn down, Conte still had to go out and find a replacement for a defender that had broken into the first team towards the end of the previous season – so £29m went on the purchase of Antonio Rudiger from Roma. Ross Barkley has joined the club in this window, having been moments away from completing a transfer in August before talks suspiciously breaking down. The fact that Barkley’s value has dropped significantly as his contract expiry approached was surely nothing to do with it, but eventually Chelsea got their man – and they were looking for a young English attacking midfielder, having allowed Ruben Loftus-Cheek to go on loan to Crystal Palace. Now they’re looking for a tall striker to offer something from the bench, and once they’ve exhausted players that have been on the fringes of the England squad for the past ten years, perhaps they’d be interested in an exciting young striker leading the line at Swansea. That’ll be Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham then. Even this week, as Brazilian wing-back Kenedy joined Newcastle United for the remainder of the season, Chelsea were reluctant to sign off the deal before they’d spent £20m on a replacement – someone needs to introduce Mr Abramovich to the Money Saving Expert.
In essence, Chelsea talk the talk of developing young players, but the statistics around their loan deals from the past eight years suggest that either their eye for a promising young player is dreadful, or their commitment to development is a load of hot air. In the 326 deals that have taken place, 117 players have been involved. Of those 117, 68 failed to make a first team appearance for the club – over 58%. A further 29, including Romelu Lukaku, Chalobah, Ake, Sinclair and Abraham have to date made fewer than ten appearances. The remainder of the list can be split into five categories: First team players developed on loan, players who’ve been sold and proved the club wrong, big money mistakes, nearly-men, and Michael Essien. Essien is the outlier, having enjoyed a fantastic career with Chelsea, but having been sent out on loan towards the tail end of his career as fresh blood was introduced to the first team, but those that follow him in the appearance list are each perfect examples of these categories. Nemanja Matic, with 123 appearances for Chelsea, is next in the list. Matic joined Chelsea from Slovakian side Kosice in 2009 aged 21. The Serb made two appearances in his first season before spending a year on loan at affiliate club Vitesse Arnhem, before being used as a makeweight in the deal to bring David Luiz to Stamford Bridge from Benfica in 2011. After three impressive seasons in Portugal, it dawned on Chelsea that they’d made a mistake in allowing the midfielder to leave, and so spent £21m on bringing him back to the club – a costly error, and the prototype player that proved the club were wrong to sell him. Matic is joined in this category by Daniel Sturridge, sold to Liverpool for £12m in 2013 and scorer of 21 Premier League goals the following season; Ryan Bertrand, who made his debut in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich but was sold to Southampton for £10m in 2014 and has become an England regular; and Mo Salah, bought from Basel for £11m and quickly dismissed as an inconsistent winger, Salah was eventually sold to Roma for £15m before Liverpool spent £42m on him last summer. He’s scored 24 goals in 30 games for the Reds so far this season. Matic is followed in the appearances list by Thibaut Courtois, who heads up the ‘developed on loan ‘category. Having been signed from Genk in 2011, Chelsea packed the Belgian ‘keeper off to Atletico Madrid for three years for him to gain significant first team experience. Upon his return, having played 111 games in La Liga, Courtois slotted straight into the Chelsea first team, usurping Petr Cech as first choice goalkeeper. Victor Moses, who had three separate loan spells at Liverpool, Stoke City and West Ham, also fits into this category, along with Andreas Christiansen, who has established himself in Chelsea’s first team this season. In other words, 2.5% of the players Chelsea have sent out on loan have actually established themselves as first team regulars. The nearly men include Kurt Zouma, who is currently on loan at Stoke but seems unlikely to have a future at Chelsea, Oriol Romeu, Baba Rahman, and Kenedy, while the expensive transfer mistakes make for incredible reading. Fernando Torres ended up out on loan at AC Milan after his £50m move from Liverpool quickly went south, while the aforementioned Shevchenko endured a similarly rough ride following his £30m move from Milan. Juan Cuadrado, at £1.8m per appearance, also proved to be a costly error from Chelsea’s scouts, and after just 13 games he headed off to Juventus.
With the evidence against Chelsea’s willingness to develop young players so damning, it begs a couple of questions. Firstly – why would a young player chose the West London club when the odds of them becoming part of the first team are so slim? The opening argument is likely to be that those who are driven to succeed in football will always back themselves. Even faced with a 97.5% chance of never making it as a first team regular at Chelsea, every young footballer signed by the club will believe they can beat the odds. Then, of course, there is the prestige of being on the books of one of the biggest clubs in the country, and a former European Cup Winner. But beyond all of that, signing for Chelsea and being farmed out on loan, from a player’s perspective at least, isn’t necessarily that harmful. Plenty of players from that list of loanees have gone on to enjoy careers at the highest level, undoubtledly off the back of being deemed good enough for Chelsea at one point in their careers. Jeffrey Bruma now plays in the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg, Scott Sinclair is winning trophies with Celtic, Betrand Traore is leading the line for Lyon in Ligue 1, Thorgan Hazard is one of the hottest properties in Germany, and Jack Cork has established himself as a consistent performer in the Premier League. Not only will these players have worked with excellent coaches as part of Chelsea’s development squad, but the links they have with clubs across Europe mean that players can work under some of the best coaches in Italy, Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Thibaut Courtois spent three years working under Diego Simeone which undoubtedly played a huge part in his development, while Nathaniel Chalobah spent a year at Napoli under Maurizio Sarri – these invaluable experiences might not have come along had these players stuck it out playing in the first teams of lower league clubs. It’s also worth noting that, at youth level, Chelsea have an excellent side. Since 2009/10 they’ve won the FA Youth Cup six times, and been runners up once. The last three finals have been contested between Chelsea and Manchester City, with the Londoners running out emphatic winners on each occasion – last season winning the final 6-2. The opportunity for a young player to play in a successful youth side and further their CV is extremely enticing, and being part of a cup winning team can only help their chances of success at senior level. In fact, and somewhat controversially, Chelsea’s Under-21 side are in with a chance of becoming the first academy team to win the Checkatrade Trophy, having made it to the semi-finals this week following a 3-0 victory over Oxford United. Thankfully Michy Batshuayi was left out of this one, having scored a brace in the side’s win over MK Dons in the previous round and sparking further criticism of the reformatted competition. The team that overcame Oxford on Tuesday included three of Chelsea’s most exciting prospects – Welsh defender Ethan Ampadu who has already featured for the first team this season but, at 17, has plenty of time ahead of him, Dujon Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Expect to see all three sent out on loan next season.
Secondly, is Chelsea’s strategy to build an enormous squad of players, often without the intention of ever playing them, giving them an unfair advantage? The Premier League have already looked into Chelsea ‘s transfer dealings and deemed them within the rules of the game – there are no laws around the number of players that teams can send out on loan per season, nor the amount of players allowed on a clubs books. A club can only register 25 players over the age of 21 for the Premier League, but beyond that they’re welcome to stockpile as high as they like. The only other barrier to building a massive squad is the bloated wage bill that comes along with it – presumably clubs that take Chelsea’s players on loan are contributing most if not all of the player’s wages, therefore saving the club upwards of £50,000 a week. A by-product of the club having so many players on the books is that it inflates their saleable assets beyond those of their rivals. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea lead the way in transfer revenue received in the past five seasons, with a whopping £410m. Much of this has been recouped in the big money sales of Diego Costa, Oscar, Ramires and David Luiz, but an insignificant sum has arrived via sales of players either on the fringes of the first team, or those not in contention at all. Kevin De Bruyne and Jeffrey Bruma, with seven first team appearances between them, earned the club £23m in 2013 following sales to Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven. The following season Romelu Lukaku and Patrick van Aahnolt (12 appearances between them) fetched £34m – handily exactly the amount Chelsea required to secure the services of Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid. In 2015 Thorgan Hazard joined Borussia Monchengladbach in a deal worth over £7m, yet he never made a first team appearance for the selling club. Patrick Bamford and Papy Djilibodji followed suit in 2016, earning the club £15m despite neither having turned out for the first team, and £99m of the transfer revenue earned by Chelsea this season has been through the sales of players that they have ‘developed’, whilst also managing to secure a £7m ‘loan fee’ from Stoke City for Kurt Zouma. Whilst it seems unlikely the Premier League will step in at any point, there is surely an argument to be had that the creation of a ‘player farm’ at Stamford Bridge allows the club to horde talented youngsters for nothing more than financial gain.
There has been a lot of talk recently of a new phase at SW6 – ‘Austerity Chelsea’. The rumoured arrivals of Peter Crouch or Andy Carrol have done nothing to dismiss this notion but, while Chelsea perhaps do not have the financial clout to pay Alexis Sanchez £500,000 a week, they’re still able to lodge a £44m bid for Edin Dzeko and Emerson Palmieri – the kind of money those at towards the bottom of the Premier League can only dream of spending in one fell swoop. Though they can’t keep up with the mega-riches of Manchester City and Manchester United, Chelsea have at least become something those clubs currently aren’t – self-sufficient. For as long as the Premier League allows Abramovich to inflate his team’s squad, Chelsea will be able to rely on a significant chunk of transfer revenue every year. And if the Premier League bubble ever does finally burst, Chelsea will be the ones laughing all the way to the bank.