Every season at about this time, the English football media begins to run out of things to write about. The transfer window has slammed shut. The Champions League isn't yet underway, and games are generally limited to just one per week. The table hasn't taken shape enough for any clubs (United aside) to have reached full crisis mode, and the September international break is about as fun as watching paint dry.
Thankfully, this is about the time every year that they count the number of players top clubs have out on loan, and begin to moan about those clubs failing their youngsters. On Wednesday, The Daily Mail did just that, questioning why Gael Kakuta never managed to get an extended chance at Chelsea.
Articles such as this always make me chuckle, and this one was no different. Let's look closely at the case of Kakuta, who was widely regarded as one of the better prospects in Europe before watching his stock fall dramatically.
Kakuta joined Chelsea in 2007, when the Blues made their first serious push to bring top quality youngsters into the newly-built training facility at Cobham. He racked up the awards in the youth setup with the Blues, being named the academy's player of the year in his first season with the club. With the added notoriety because of the circumstances surrounding his transfer, it was easy to let expectations get out of control early on.
In his second season with the youth setup, Kakuta suffered a broken ankle that caused him to miss about six months. Just as he was returning from that injury, FIFA made the brilliant decision to ban the youngster from playing for four months. While Chelsea's transfer ban was immediately lifted when the club appealed the decision, Kakuta was not reinstated, and his development was further halted. When all was said and done, the young Frenchman had lost nearly a year to injury and FIFA incompetence, at least several months of which could have easily been avoided.
Still, with all the publicity that Chelsea's appeal received, it was hard not to turn Kakuta into a household name. When Carlo Ancelotti added him to the Champions League roster on top of that, fans became extremely excited. In his season and a half in the Chelsea first team, Gael made 16 total appearances in which he did little to make fans and pundits think the praise wasn't fair. While he never scored a goal and managed just a pair of assists with the Blues, he looked competent enough with the ball at his feet, even if the rest of his game was clearly nowhere near ready to see him getting minutes at a club like Chelsea.
This is where fans and pundits alike tend to start forming unfair expectations for the player. Kakuta wasn't awful by any stretch with the Blues, but if a guy like Marco van Ginkel or Mohamed Salah had given us the same displays after joining the club from abroad, you'd probably find very few fans who actually expected much out of that pair. It's easy to look at a kid breaking through from the academy and overlook the missing components of their game, and looking back at the initial evaluations of players like Josh McEachran, Nathan Ake, Ruben Loftus-Cheek (friendly), and Andreas Christensen (friendly) would probably all yield eerily similar initial reactions from the fanbase. The bad is overlooked as simple youthful inexperience, while anything promising is a surefire indication of the world class player they're destined to become.
The coaches, however, are in a bit of a different predicament. An academy kid such as McEachran or Kakuta doesn't suffer from playing U21 football, with the occasional look-ins with the first team. Unfortunately, there reaches a point where U21 competition isn't good enough anymore, but 99.9% of the time, the youngster is still going to be unpolished enough that he's likely to be attacked heavily by the opposition at the first team level. Results matter with the senior side, and the coaches selecting the lineups won't be employed for very long if those results start going the wrong way.
The loan system isn't perfect, far from it in fact. That said, blaming Chelsea or the loan system for the failure of Gael Kakuta to impress at any of his first five loan clubs seems beyond silly at best. Top players at the U17 and U19 levels wind up disappointing far more often than they become stars, regardless of whether they spend years away on loan or move straight from La Masia into the Barcelona first team. The jump from that level to the top is just so large that very few will make it, regardless of the development route taken to get there.
We, as fans, need to realize this and temper our expectations. Chelsea currently have 26 players out on loan, many of whom are among the better young prospects in Europe. That said, most of these players will never have meaningful Chelsea careers, and though it might be extremely disappointing to admit, most just won't develop into players capable of forcing their way into a starting role with the Blues. That's not a shot at the players or the system, it's simply the way youth development works. When we start expecting future greatness from players making semi-promising debuts, we're simply setting them to fail to meet those unreasonable expectations. If we start relying on them to do so when setting up our rosters, expecting better results than Arsenal have had for the past decade becomes absurd.
Where Chelsea have gotten themselves ahead of the curve in Europe is in accepting this basic truth. Coming through the Chelsea academy doesn't earn you the right to play for the first team by itself, as the gulf in class is just to large. Blues' youngsters are forced to earn their promotion based on their play with other clubs. While that leads to some players like Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne deciding to depart for greener pastures, it also leads to situations like the one involving Thibaut Courtois, who looks to be one of the better bargains of the past decade, and has likely solidified the situation in goal for the next 15+ years. Chelsea have been buying in bulk, finding appropriate, temporary homes for their youngsters as they develop, and if they want to leave the club due to lack of opportunity, allowing them to do so without much of a struggle.
As long as the expectation remains for Chelsea to be competing for every title, the vast majority of these youngsters are going to fail to make the grade. If the club manages to bring one starting caliber player into the squad from the loanees every other season, then frankly, they're doing remarkably well for themselves. That's just the reality of the level of expectation at Chelsea, but until fans accept that simple truth and temper their expectations on youngsters, we're going to be doing more of a disservice to those kids than the loan system ever could.