Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Loan sharks - the curious case of Chelsea's three spare teams


Let's not, now, get into the full absurdity of the biannual transfer window, and the desperation yesterday of clubs trying to acquire last-minute reinforcements...or offload ballast.

There will be another time to question the IT literacy of staff at either/or Real Madrid and Manchester United, another moment in which to ask if Arsenal's "we did our business early" smugness will come back to haunt them (around January, most likely...). And only time will tell whether £58 million spent on Kevin de Bruyne is worth it, seeing as Manchester City were doing perfectly well beforehand.

But Chelsea? Last season they indeed did their business early - bought in the striker and creative midfielder they needed, got on with pre-season, came out of the traps like a rare gas at season's start and won the league. This season, however, things were left frustratingly late - and in the case of Pogba and John Stones, fruitless.

Nine players came in, of which Radamel Falcao, Asmir Begovic and Baba Rahman were straight replacements for, respectively, Didier Drogba, Petr Čech and Filipe Luis, while the other six - Pedro, Kenedy, Nathan, Danilo Pantic, Papy Djilobodji and Michael Hector - were added to bolster tired-looking midfield creativity and defensive weakness.

Chelsea's net outlay of just under £31 million might look smart under Fair Play rules, and especially within the context of the staggering £870 million spent by Premier League clubs as a whole during the transfer window. But it doesn't reflect one truly insane detail of its dealings in this summer's market: the club now has 33 players out on loan.

33 players. Three entire teams surplus to immediate requirements (and on top of the 'development squad' players the club has retained). While the business of loaning out players who either don't fit or need to develop their potential at clubs with first team opportunities makes some sense, Chelsea are starting to look like a cross between Hertz and an agency for supply teachers.

It has now become a standard Chelsea practice to bring in a player and then immediately farm him out on loan, a procedure exemplified best by the "must-have" goalkeeper Thiebaut Courtois getting shipped out to Athletico Madrid. Clearly, Chelsea brought him back as an exceptional talent, but could the same be said for the immense number of loan players who have been distributed throughout Europe like evacuated wartime children being sent into the countryside?

Some loans have made sense: Victor Moses signed a new contract with Chelsea before going out on a season-long loan to West Ham, though that presumably ensures the parent club some financial return if the loan is made permanent, as many expect. But Jamaica centre-back Michael Hector getting signed from Reading only to be loaned back doesn't make any sense.

Juan Cuadrado - loaned to Juventus - and Mohammed Salah - loaned to Roma - did make some sense, as they clearly weren't fitting in (though this surely reflects badly on the scouts who'd recommended them to begin with). But they are both further examples of the seemingly impulsive nature of Chelsea's acquisition strategy. Such as Dutch international Marco van Ginkel, bought from Vitesse Arnhem as, presumably, Frank Lampard's successor, only to end up loaned to Milan and, now, Stoke.

His near-namesake Marko Marin was another. Hailed the 'German Messi', the diminutive midfielder proved to be anything but, and, with only six appearances for Chelsea, he has been shipped off Sevilla, Fiorentina, Anderlecht and Trabzonspor, with nothing much to show for any of those loans.

Chelsea and José Mourinho have, at various moments in recent history, made much of youth development. The club's junior teams have delivered trophies with the same degree of regularity as the senior squad, and yet still the likes of forwards Partrick Bamford (loaned to Crystal Palace) and Dominic Solanke (loaned to Vitesse Arnhem) continue to indicate an iron-strengthened glass ceiling at Stamford Bridge.

Indeed Vitesse - whose owner, former Georgian footballer Merab Jordania is close to Roman Abramovich - is fast becoming a satellite training ground for Chelsea, with Solanke, midfielder Lewis Baker, newly acquired forwards Nathan and Danilo Pantic, and winger Izzy Brown - all there for the remainder of this season.

While this might create some sense of surrogate team ethic for their parent club, former Arnhem boss Ronald Koeman - now at Southampton - says that this is ultimately not in Arnhem's best interests. "Iit seems to me like people have lost a connection with the club since this agreement [with Chelsea] has been in place," he said earlier this year. "It is difficult to have really the spirit in the team, I think, because all the young players come to play, but they still like to go back to Chelsea. I don't know if I can work in that. I don't know."

Clearly, though, Chelsea have some sort of strategy at work with Vitesse. The same goes for Belgian club Sint-Truidense VV and Championship side Reading, who have both had their fair share of the Blues' loan players. There's no doubt that a player like the 21-year-old Brazilian forward Lucas Piazon will get plenty of games at Reading, as well as learning from working under a manager like Steve Clarke, the former Chelsea defender and assistant manager. And when you look down the ranks of the 33 out on loan, spread out all over Europe, it is clear that many, if not most, have youth on their side.

But the same could have been said for Josh McEachran, long touted as a star for Chelsea's midfield and impressive product of the club's much-vaunted academy. After being loaned out to Swansea, Middlesbrough, Watford, Wigan and Arnhem, wound up being sold to Brentford in July for just £750,000. A pitiful sum, perhaps, for a supposedly talented 22-year-old, when you have Manchester United taking a £36 million punt on 19-year-old Anthony Martial.

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