As Chelsea look to retool for the 2012/13 season, there's been some question as to the best approach to take with the youngsters. The Blues aren't exactly spoiled for prospects - Josh McEachran and Romelu Lukaku's stars may have dimmed last season, but the acquisition of Kevin de Bruyne as well as the successful loan spells for the likes of Tomas Kalas and Thibaut Courtois mean that we have a staggering amount of young talent coming through the ranks.
However, it's not clear how to best develop that talent while putting out a winning side. There appear to be two basic camps - and forgive me if I'm over-simplifying here. One group wants the kids sent on loan, and the other wants them to stay with the first team, playing as much as possible. Both, obviously, want nothing but the best for Chelsea in the short and long term, but they both can't be right about how to best develop youth.
While many point to the likes of Barcelona as the ideal for an academy, the simple reality is that Chelsea face a far different set of challenges in terms of prospect development than do our friends in Catalonia. The reserve league in England is nowhere near the level of a Barcelona B, which means that we can't give players competitive developmental matches once they reach a certain point. It's not clear just what level our reserve league is at, but it's pretty obvious it's not very good.
If Chelsea want to keep their young players and give them the time they need to develop, they need to find a way to play them in first team games. That's what the Carling Cup is used for, as are 'garbage minutes' in other competitions - McEachran's start in Marseille is an example. But, generally, we're not talking about much time at all unless a player's starting regularly for the first squad.
Playing time is, of course, exactly what a young player needs for development. Romelu Lukaku needed to play last year; so too did McEachran. Neither really did, partially because giving significantly minutes to youngsters when the season's not going well is something no manager in their right mind would consider and partially because they didn't do much of note in their time on the pitch.
Naturally, that led to some tension, and we're all well aware of the choice words Lukaku had at the close of the season for the way he was handled last year. But realistically, this is what you end up getting when you use the youngsters as backups - the established players need to play, and so there's very little time for the prospects to make an impact. You have to be very very good very very fast to push the likes of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba out of the lineup, and none of the current drop of young players are that good. Yet.
The loaned players had their ups and downs, but were generally more successful. Courtois and Kalas both had brilliant seasons, but McEachran's loan to Swansea went poorly, and the less said about Gael Kakuta's spell at Bolton the better (and indeed, more accurate). If you look at the way Manchester United and Arsenal handle their kids, it's mostly via the loan system, because it allows players to play at the level they're best suited to rather than trying to get them to Premier League standard immediately.
It's interesting to see the backlash against loan deals from many people, who seem to see a player going on loan as a sign that the club thinks that they're not good enough to play for the first team in any capacity. While there are certainly plenty of loan deals that simply don't pan out*, it's far from obvious to me that that's the case.
*Mostly because the club that's being loaned to has zero vested interested in developing that player - see McEachran at Swansea.
When you have a player who needs playing time, you're probably better off giving backup duties to a non-prospect and loaning the first player to a team who could use him as an upgrade. Assuming all goes well, everyone is much happier that way. If Kevin de Bruyne want to the Bundesliga and got 40-odd games as a winger, that would be a significantly better outcome than receiving ten with Chelsea, although we'd have to delay the gratification of seeing him take the field for a while.
As you can probably tell, ultimately I come down on the side of loaning players as much as possible. The youth setup in England makes it very difficult to develop players any other way, and I don't want another season of our best prospects spending most of the time on the bench. That means, however, that the club has to be very careful with the loan deals it does set up. Keeping young players to rot on the bench is an error, but it's even worse if they're on another team's.