Despite playing very little tangible part in the club’s success in any given year, Chelsea’s youth inspire plenty of emotion and debate, rational and irrational, both among the fans and in the media at large. Unreasonable hopes, failed expectations, questionable narratives, and cold hard cynicism are a common feature of any discussion around player development at Cobham and beyond (wherever the Loan Army may roam).
"What is the point?" is a common refrain, especially following unceremonious exits such as Aké's or Traoré's or <name your favorite youth prospect from Chelsea>.
The root of this question stems from emotion, not the logic of Chelsea maintaining a system where a steady stream of profits is the expected outcome. Plenty of lip service has been paid to the ideal of developing players for the first-team as well, but outside of a few rare successes, that’s rarely been the case. For every Courtois or Moses or, hopefully, Christensen, there are ten Atsus and Traorés and Akés.
Back in October 2016, uMAXit released the video above on Chelsea's loan system, which remains as the best summary of the whole situation. While Chelsea hope to find and acquire and develop as many of the best youngsters as possible, all with the ultimate dream to potentially play in the first-team one day, the club’s main objective is to use player development as a good and stable source of income. The almost £50m received for Aké and Traoré and Solanke and Bamford and Atsu just in the past six months certainly highlight that.
We might cry foul, but it is a fair exchange between club and player. A youth prospect joins the club, gets a world-class education in football while also receiving guidance in developing as a person, in general, setting him up for a good career in the professional game. “If he’s good enough” is how another common cliché starts, but while the concept of “good enough” is not accurately defined, it remains a guiding principle.
In a perfect world, a successful loan stint, or certainly a strong of successful loan stints, would result in the player getting integrated into Chelsea's first team. But we all know that we do not live in a perfect world and previous experiences show that even repeatedly proving your worth on Premier League loans, like Romelu Lukaku twice did, does not guarantee a place at Chelsea.
Chelsea are not alone in this predicament. Arsenal, for example, just sold highly rated teenager Chris Willock to Benfica. Current Pride of London writer Travis Tyler wrote two articles at WAGNH comparing Chelsea to peers in England and abroad. While we might not be as good as our rivals at the top of the ranks when it comes to youth integration, we all share a common interest in keeping the club in the upper echelons of the league. This win-now reality usually translates into solutions through big signings and established players, rather than giving a chance for a youngster to prove himself.
This is exactly why Chelsea are looking at established players like Vrigil van Dijk or Antonio Rüdiger for center back help instead of relying upon (just) youngsters and returning loanees like Andreas Christensen. This may lead to silly amounts of extra moneys spent, possibly made even sillier if Christensen does prove to be the real deal, but Chelsea Football Club aren not concerned with profits before sporting matters.
The jump from youth football to the senior professional level is enormous. It’s why even the top players of the Academy tend to join clubs in lower levels of football rather than going instantly to top leagues. That’s no guarantee of success — players can struggle, for whatever reason, to make a good impression or get a run-out alongside their temporary teammates — but ideally they can provide the minutes and experience that Chelsea cannot afford to give.
Even once they return, there are no guarantees. Christensen, for example, remains unproven in the Premier League, which may be an over-weighted argument, but one that will play a part in his future this season and beyond.
At the beginning of the 2015-16 season, Chelsea's head of youth development Neil Bath gave a very revealing interview regarding the youth process at the club (emphasis mine).
"The ultimate [objective] is getting players ready for senior football. We know that a high percentage of players experience loans before playing in the Premier League, with a few perhaps jumping straight into the first team squad."
"It’s so important that those who are now starting to break into senior football realise they are still very much on the first step of the ladder in their careers. My personal view is that you can’t think you’ve made it as a professional until you’re reaching 100 starts in senior football at a decent level, so we all know there’s still much work to do."
-Neil Bath; Source: Chelsea FC
Although this is a "personal view" from Bath, it fits the pattern of signings Chelsea have made in the past decade or so. Of the 17 players aged 23 and under signed since 2006, 10 had over 100 professional appearances to their name already. Mikel is the only true outlier with just 6 appearances before letting Chelsea and Manchester United battle over his fate.
(Ed. note: we follow a similar rule of thumb in the Academy as well, preferring players to gain ~100 youth appearances before their first loans.)
We are now set to follow the same pattern with Tiemoué Bakayoko, who crossed the 100-game threshold last year in his third season as a professional player at Monaco. Notably, Nathan Aké, Tammy Abraham, Izzy Brown are not there yet, while Andreas Christensen and Lewis Baker need a bit of rounding-up to get into that category.
One of the players who has reached this level is Nathaniel Chalobah, who now wants assurances of playing time at the club and a wage matching his talents. Depending on what Chelsea offer, he may very well take the same path from Aké and Traoré out of Stamford Bridge.
This leads us to the major problem inherent in the loan system, which is the lack of stability it provides for a player who’s barely getting started in his career as a professional footballer.
Imagine you are a teenager who’s spent his entire life from age 8 to 18 going to the same school, studying with the same people and taking classes from the best teachers in the world in a truly world-class structure. It’s a school you very rarely leave, and when you do it is only to visit other schools to take field trips and exams. The school also has a great post-graduate program, one of the best in the entire world. However there has only been one student in the last 20 years who has managed to successfully complete it. You do have an option to burn some credits when you reach this stage by going to exchange programs at other schools and universities. But those schools do not always offer the same amount of support you get from your original school, and the teachers hold other students in higher regard even when they are not as talented as you, all of which leads you to a substandard experience, or even complete disaster and failing grades. Worst of all, once you are in the system, often the only way out is to leave the program entirely and start anew somewhere else.
That’s a lousy metaphor but it offers a good parallel to youngsters trying to become full-fledged professionals. Some will find success of course. However, they are still not the norm in our ever-growing loan brigade.
But thankfully for us and for those prospects, things have started changing for the better.
Aké and Traoré are (hopefully) the sign of a correction in course from Chelsea. As successful as the loan system has been as a money-making operation, it has yet to truly bear fruit as a player-generating (for Chelsea’s first-team) operation. In fact, it’s hard to not be cynical given the number of highly talented players who’s passed from our ranks to become good or great players at other clubs.
Eventually, all loanees grow tired of the loanee life. Aké and Traoré are just two of the latest who are done with the constant challenge of adapting to new environments each year and yet not move much closer at all to the Chelsea first-team.
Enter the buyback clause, the perfect solution in such predicaments.
Buybacks aren’t new even if they’re still mostly new to Chelsea. Real Madrid have utilised it with great results, either on the pitch or financially speaking. In their Champions League-winning squad, Dani Carvajal, Casemiro, Lucas Vásquez and Álvaro Morata were players who initially did not have a future at the club, who then left on a permanent transfer or a loan with an option to buy and returned on a buyback option.
We can also remember the mistakes made by Chelsea in the transfers of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne. We maximized their outgoing transfer fees by not including any clauses that would’ve enabled a potential return to the club. In return, we got to watch them develop into two of the most dangerous players in the Premier League.
These mistakes cannot be corrected, as Romelu Lukaku's price tag shows. But we can learn from them. Buyback clauses have been reported for both Aké and Traoré — and we should make effort for that trend to continue, both in terms of selling our youth and including built-in avenues for their return to the club should they become as good as we all hope they can be.
In this scenario, everyone wins. The player gains stability and the feeling of a proper home team, the buying team gets a discount on a quality player who’s likely to stay there as long as the club will it (most won’t hit their predicted potentials; that’s just the nature of player development), and Chelsea get a potential great player in the future. It’s a win-win-win.
No system is perfect. As with everything with life, there is always room for improvement. But selling our youth instead of loaning them is nothing to be feared. It’s part of the natural process. As long as we have a buyback.