I don't think many would argue anymore that Chelsea aren't among the elite football clubs on the planet. Every summer they are in the discussion for who will be crowned as Premier League champions for the upcoming season, and they are always among the handful of teams with a legitimate shot to win the Champions League. While there are years with greater expectations than others, competing for silverware is now expected in our corner of London rather than being something that's hoped for.
With expectation as high as it is at Chelsea, the level of talent required to meet that expectation increases. A club like Chelsea don't need just a class starting 11, they need a world class bench as well. Look at clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, or Manchester United. In general you'll find senior internationals filling their bench as well as their starting lineups, as these teams just can't afford to drop points if they want to meet their ambitions. There is a downside to this, as it makes it far more difficult for youngsters developed in the academy to force their way into the first team, as they have far more talented players ahead of them than they would at most other clubs.
Much can be made of what needs to be done to improve the quality of players coming out of the academy, as well as how to improve the system to give them more opportunity. I have some strong thoughts on both of those subjects, but I'm not going to get into those here. What I want to focus on here is just what the club owe to the youngsters coming out of their academy. Should the club feel a responsibility to make sure they have a clear path to the first team, or should the club continue buying talented established players to fill out their bench?
Reserving bench places for youngsters is a great idea in theory. It would allow the best players from our system a clear path to the first team, as bench players tend to get a good amount of minutes here and in other top clubs. Meeting Chelsea standards will always be difficult though, as many established internationals have a difficult time meeting them. To see the risks involved here, we need to look no further than Arsenal. For every Cesc Fabregas that becomes truly exceptional, there are handfuls of guys like Denilson, Carlos Vela, Armand Traore, and Fabianski that just have no business playing at a club with the expectation of winning things.
Giving youngsters minutes they haven't earned will also have repercussions financially. Again, look to Arsenal as an example. They have a ton of guys on their books that aren't up to Arsenal standards that they just can't move due to wages. Nicky Bendtner and Denilson are both prime examples of guys they'd love to dump and just can't because they are paid wages far greater than they should be. Forcing these guys to prove they were first team material rather than just giving them minutes at a young age would likely have resulted in them being paid a more reasonable wage, and neither would likely still be Arsenal headaches at this point in time.
Chelsea, on the other hand, are nearly impossible for a young player to break into. Romelu Lukaku is one of the most sought after young strikers in Europe. He'd have started regularly for more than 90% of the clubs in Europe last year, but only got 4 starts in meaningless games for Chelsea. It's hard to argue that he really "earned" more either based on his performance when he was on the pitch. While certainly younger and more raw, he never did anything to make me think he'd have been an immediate upgrade to Drogba, Sturridge, Torres, Kalou, or Anelka last season. Down the line, sure. Last season, no.
From the youngsters perspective, there are positives and negatives to both approaches as well. By giving youngsters a spot in the first team, you are giving them an opportunity to show that they are up to the standards expected of them. You are also putting them in a position where they can hurt the team if they fail, and the unfortunate reality is that most young players out there will never be up to Chelsea standards.
By giving a youngster a spot on the bench at Chelsea, you are giving the player a chance to help your team. You're also virtually guaranteeing him less minutes than he'd get on loan elsewhere. While bench minutes will help the player in his development, they won't help nearly as much as starter minutes at another club. The best interests of the player are usually far better served by assuring he gets as many minutes as possible even if it means they get them elsewhere.
Players sign at Chelsea for more reasons than just to eventually play for our first team, as well over 90% of the kids in the academy will never dress for a first team game in our shade of blue. They sign to train alongside some of the best prospects and players in the game. They sign to train at one of the best facilities available. They sign to work with some of the best coaches in the world. They sign because they will get plenty of exposure playing at the Chelsea youth ranks. Regardless of whether or not they ever play for Chelsea, these kids will benefit from developing at Cobham.
Because of the above reasons, Chelsea have a responsibility to their youngsters to assure they develop as much as possible. If the young player in question will have only a fringe role, Chelsea owe it to the youngster to send them on loan to a location where they'll be able to continue their development. Thibaut Courtois and Jeffrey Bruma would have both seen minutes at some point last season for Chelsea's senior team, but those few minutes would have come at the expense of the thousands they got as first team regulars on loan at their respective clubs. Would that have been fair for a youngster trying to make a career out of playing the game?
The current development system in England has plenty of room to be improved, but at the moment we can only work with what we have. The U21 league will only help so much, and stashing young talent there that is ready to help Chelsea only on a part time basis will likely stall their development some. Sending the kids on loan will make them unable to help the club that has been developing them. It's not an ideal situation at all, but it is what it is.
Because of that system, Chelsea have a responsibility to these young players to assure they are ready for the first team before they hand them a place in the team. Not signing a Marko Marin or a Victor Moses because of the presence of Lucas Piazon would just be silly. There is an off chance that Piazon could shine this year is he was getting regular minutes, but there is very little reason to believe that he would. The club owes it to him to assure he develops as much as possible as he attempts to make a career for himself, so they really need to be planning on allowing him to develop as much as possible. They also owe it to their fans to put out the best team possible, so signing the most talented players they can to fill that role is something they need to do.
Only the best youth in the world will ever be able to become regulars for a club like Chelsea, so despite having one of the best academies on the planet we're never going to be able to stop buying top players. Fans also have to realize, 18 and 19 year olds are just never going to play regular minutes here as they just aren't developed enough. Barcelona's La Masia is generally considered the gold standard, and even they don't generally see players become regular contributors to the first team until their early 20's despite a far less competitive league, a B team system that allows them to skip loans, and a massive advantage in the amount of hours they are allowed to train youngsters for. It's frustrating to keep seeing our youngsters sent out on loan as we buy players at the same positions, but it's just not fair to the player to shove them into a position that they aren't ready for at the cost of their development. It hurts the club, and it hurts the player. We owe it to these kids to allow them to develop as much as they can before putting them in a role that will stunt that growth.