After a summer in which a minor overhaul in personnel saw gaps plugged and deadwood expunged from the playing staff, Chelsea have been lauded in most quarters for their recruitment policy. Somewhat less celebrated has been the revelation that the club currently has 26 players out on loan, a state of affairs that has led some observers to express concern.
- Worrall: Thrifty Chelsea? Mou better believe it
The general accusation is that Chelsea are merely hoarding players for their own benefit with little consideration for the long-term futures of the individuals themselves, the implication being that when looking at the paltry amount of youngsters to ever feature for the Chelsea first team, it is incongruous that the Blues have so many players on their books and that their progress must be being stymied as a result. While that is a legitimate worry, especially given the stagnation of the England national team and general lack of player development in this country, it does paint a rather unfair picture of Chelsea, who, when the situation is looked at, are finding solutions to certain problems which have not been entirely of their own making.
The introduction of financial fair play has been a huge factor in the new wave of creative thinking being employed by football clubs in general. With balancing the books now of paramount importance, clubs have to contract revenue streams away from the traditional stalwarts of matchday revenue, media rights and merchandising. With Chelsea suffering from a much lower stadium capacity than many of their direct rivals, intelligent use of the transfer market and loan system is helping to fill the breach. The likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Patrick van Aanholt have all been sold for a tidy profit and have helped to bankroll the injection of fresh blood into the first team.
It might seem an ugly practice to some, though UEFA's evangelical pursuit of a positive balance sheet means all sorts of practices previously considered crass and opportunistic are now having to become the norm -- the selling of stadium naming rights being one such example. It might seem that traditional values are being lost, but the new reality dictates they must be compromised, whether clubs like it or not.
Chelsea are also using the loan system as a way to develop players that have not yet been granted a work permit and are thus unable to play professionally in the U.K. The rules regarding visas differ across Europe, so the only way the Londoners can compete with some other continental clubs is via this approach. Bertrand Traore, for example, is a tremendous prospect, who caught the eye in a big way during Chelsea's tour of the Far East in the summer of 2013. Unfortunately for him, players can only qualify automatically for a work permit if they have featured in at least 75 percent of their national team's fixtures over the previous two years, and, even then, the nation has to be in the top 70 of FIFA's rankings. The 19-year-old hails from Burkina Faso, and, while they might currently be ranked 58th, they were as low as 89th two years ago. Such is Traore's talent that manager Jose Mourinho has publicly said he would have named his young star in the first-team squad already had his eligibility not been an issue.
Another factor behind Chelsea's strategy is the imposition of quotas by the Premier League and Champions League. The rules that between them insist upon a combination of homegrown, association-trained and under-21 players are all very admirable, though it does mean some tough decisions need to be made. Marco van Ginkel's last-minute, temporary switch to AC Milan came as a direct consequence of this requirement. In an ideal world, the Dutchman would have been scrapping for a place in Chelsea's midfield alongside Cesc Fabregas, Ramires and Nemanja Matic this season. Unfortunately, the rules state that a maximum of 17 foreign players can be named in the squad, and with Chelsea boasting 18, it dictated that somebody had to make way. Having been out for a season with injury, and thus finding himself toward the bottom of the pecking order, Van Ginkel was always going to be the fall guy.
Between Traore and Van Ginkel, Chelsea have essentially been forced by differing circumstances to send two players out on loan whom they would have preferred to compete for a first-team spot.
Of course, that is not the case for many of the loanees, and so the accusation of treating players as commodities, rather than people, crops up again. There is a certain validity in that the very infrastructure that governs the transfer of players reflects this. This trade in flesh isn't the preserve of either Chelsea or the loan aspect of the system. It is the way of the entire transfer market. As Jaap Stam said in 2001 upon being unceremoniously ousted from Manchester United by Sir Alex Ferguson: "As a player, you are nothing more than a piece of meat; we're nothing but cattle."
Returning to the loan system and Chelsea's use of it, it is clearly being used in part as a revenue stream, though that in itself requires a development of players in order to strike any profit or benefit to the first-team squad. In this regard, both the club and the player are responsible in managing that tricky time in a player's career between the ages of 18 and 21. In this period, a highly promising player can fail to kick on and find himself slipping from view, while others who were previously overlooked can force a change of thinking from those who matter by exhibiting dedication and improvement. Instances of the former at Chelsea include Gael Kakuta, who glittered in the group stages of the Champions League at age 18 but now at 23 finds himself at Rayo Vallecano on the latest of several loan spells.
On the flipside, Thibaut Courtois' meteoric rise has had incredible benefits for both player and club. Had he been a permanent substitute at Stamford Bridge for the past three years, it is virtually unthinkable he would currently be replacing the great Petr Cech in goal. Instead, the time he spent at Atletico Madrid has seen him blossom into one of the very best goalkeepers in the world, his stature so large that one of his rivals for that crown has had to be dropped in order to accommodate him in the team.
The loan system is ultimately there to allow players to get game time, as well as granting teams with smaller budgets access to talent without having to break the bank. It might not be perfect, but in the era of spiralling transfer fees it is a sensible mechanism to have in place. There might well need to be rethink over exactly how it should operate, but for the moment, Chelsea are doing nothing wrong and are getting the most out of a facility while the players in question largely benefit.