Since Marca ran a story this morning linking Tiago Mendes to a Chelsea move, the reaction to the potential reunion has been mixed at best. Some fans love the idea, citing the experience and quality that helped Atletico Madrid reach new heights this season. Others hate the idea, as watching David Luiz depart for Paris Saint Germain for an eye-popping figure has them expected more than a free transfer.
There is one complaint which I've seen several times today which leaves me scratching my head though, specifically, that Chelsea shouldn't be looking at cheap veteran players like Tiago to round out the squad with so much young talent waiting in the wings. While I fully understand the desire to integrate more academy products into the squad, the idea that signing a player like Tiago would prevent us from doing that leaves me a little bit confused.
Integrating youth directly from the academy at a club the size of Chelsea presents a pretty unique challenge, and one that's pretty rare at clubs throughout Europe. The gulf in class between Premier League (and Champions League) football and the U21 league is just massive. Realistically, if a youngster is ready for Chelsea to be giving them a meaningful role with the first-team squad, that youngster has passed the point where playing against most of the league's U21 squads is going to offer any developmental benefit at all. Without the B team system that clubs in Spain and Germany have, Chelsea are faced with a decision with these youngsters to either keep them around in a backup role which could conceivably stunt their development, or to rely on them to fill a role and simply hope that they don't struggle.
This leaves Chelsea in a bit of a bind, as youngsters that have outgrown the U21 level that could probably help the first team at times still need regular minutes for development. The club has generally opted to send these young players out on loan, ensuring that they get the minutes that they need rather than potentially seeing them rot on the bench. Personally, I have a hard time finding fault with this strategy.
This loan strategy does leave the club in a bit of a bind, as they still need enough quality depth to ensure that the first team isn't left relying on players even further from being first-team ready. Injuries and suspensions do happen (just ask Arsene Wenger), and when they do, Chelsea still need to field a team that can win 70% of its games. As appealing as it sounds to just slot a guy like Ruben Loftus-Cheek or John Swift straight into a backup role at Chelsea, the reality of the matter is that there is a very good chance that they'll struggle mightily to adapt to the speed of the higher level.
If the plan is to keep guys like Swift, Lewis Baker, and Loftus-Cheek at the U21 level next season, players like Tiago Mendes are exactly the sort that Chelsea should be signing as depth. He's shown this season that he's more than capable of playing at the level Chelsea require for a part-time starter, and on a short-term contract with no transfer fee attached, he won't do any real damage to our pursuit of 1-2 elite talents from an FFP perspective. That short-term/inexpensive commitment also makes it easier to justify reducing his role if one of those youngsters impresses enough in training to earn themselves a spot on the bench.
Last season, Chelsea took the same sort of short-term approach by signing Samuel Eto'o as cover when they decided to send Romelu Lukaku on loan to Everton. Most Blues' fans (myself included) questioned the sense of this decision, as most Blues' fans (myself included) believed that the Belgian forward was better than any of the three options that Chelsea kept at the club. Our central midfield situation would be an entirely different animal, as if you're someone that believes that any of our academy or on-loan central midfielders are currently playing at a higher level than the Atletico man, you're clearly delusional.
If you're against signing this 33-year old player on a free transfer because you just don't believe he'd add anything to the squad, I can fully understand your reasoning. I personally like Tiago as a rotational option for the midfield, as he's a more versatile player than John Obi Mikel, more experienced than Marco van Ginkel, more consistent than Ramires, and simply better than the current Frank Lampard. Regardless, complaining about about signing a rotational midfielder on a short-term deal because it could limit the opportunities for academy players makes little to no sense, as playing academy players out of need rather than on merit is generally a terrible policy.