Club websites are as generic as they come and whether it’s Arsenal’s or Accrington Stanley’s you will always find a section entitled ‘teams’ or ‘playing staff’ in the main menu. Hover here and it will bring up a short list of options usually centering on first team profiles, the coaching staff, the development squad, and the women’s team.
Except on Chelsea’s site. There you will discover an additional sub-category detailing the players who are presently out on loan.
With an astonishing 34 of their personnel spread across Europe and beyond it makes perfect sense to devote a separate page to them – after all, it’s a sizeable squad in itself – but the west London giants’ model of ‘stockpiling’ young prodigies to loan out and, in most cases, eventually sell on has come in for widespread criticism.
As early as 2008 the then England Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce was warning of the detrimental effect such a strategy could have on talented youngsters. Others have gone further and outright accused the club of abusing the loan system. Referring to the practice and not specifically the club in July last year, UEFA offered up the apocalyptic scenario of “competition itself” coming to an end should stockpiling continue.
Yet Chelsea’s approach is hardly unique. In 2015/16 Juventus owned 58 players in addition to their first team squad while pre-bankruptcy Parma were at one stage affiliated to a mind-boggling 226 players.
It is, however, uncommon to these shores and with the Blues’ current number of players out on loan dwarfing the total at any other Premier League club by three to one, perhaps there is a cultural element to our collective distaste. It is simply not the done thing in the English game.
A glance through the lengthy list prompts a certain degree of ire at a strategy that unquestionably favours cold economics. Until a recent move to Olympiakos, Marko Marin – a 23-year-old winger who had impressed at Werder Bremen when Chelsea swooped in 2012 – was the poster boy for the process. He played just six times for the Blues before being punted out to four clubs in four countries in four years. Dutch midfielder Marco Van Ginkel is well on his way to treading the same path.
Of the 34 loanees, only ten can be viewed as products from Chelsea’s academy and it is difficult to believe that more than a handful of the remaining 24 will be established in the first team in seasons to come. Will Patrick Bamford eventually lead the line? Will Tomas Kalas partner Gary Cahill as the club challenges for honours? Will Lucas Piazon prove the perfect foil for Eden Hazard?
— Burnley FC (@BurnleyOfficial) August 30, 2016
This all amounts to old news, of course. Chelsea’s model of plucking promising players mid-development and redirecting them to Vitesse Arnhem has been much commented on in recent times, so why bring it all up again now? Because this summer’s transfer dealings by Manchester City prompt a legitimate question as to whether they are beginning to copy the extremely unpopular template.
And that would cease making it a solitary pursuit by a big club – it would begin to make it the norm.
Pep Guardiola’s arrival has been accompanied by fevered speculation concerning his prospective transfer targets. There were whispers of Neymar and rumours of Aaron Ramsey, but in the end the new manager has prioritised unpolished diamonds with five of his eight recruits aged 22 or under.
Of that quintet we can confidently surmise that John Stones and Leroy Sane were purchased to immediately improve City’s options. A similarly swift promotion surely beckons for Gabriel Jesus despite the wonderkid remaining at Palmeiras until Brazil’s Serie A season ends in December. But for the other two the jury is out as regards to City’s long-term intentions.
There is certainly no quibbling over each player’s pedigree. The 19-year-old Colombian Marlos Moreno, who helped Atlético Nacional win the Copa Libertadores this year, is an explosive bundle of quick feet and ingenuity. To refer to an expert, the BBC’s Brazilian correspondent Tim Vickery described him as “hugely promising”, which is enough to set pulses racing among the fan base.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko, signed from Russian outfit FC Ufa for just £1.7m, has impressed in pre-season with more than a touch of Kevin De Bruyne about him. Yet the 19-year-old will continue his education on loan to PSV Eindhoven, while Moreno has immediately been loaned out to Deportivo La Coruna for a season following City’s £4.75m investment.
Here are two gifted teenagers who, ten years ago, would have been acquired much later in their development when better equipped for the rigours of the Premier League and significant upheaval of changing culture and country. But due to the intense competition in the modern transfer market, the two youngsters have moved prematurely – too raw to make an instant impact at City, but too talented to stay where they were.
There is an important caveat to add at this point which is that City had the fourth oldest squad in the Premier League last season and, with a team nearing the end of its natural cycle, were in need of youthful impetus. Guardiola has stated his preference for instilling his footballing philosophy into young, open minds, and signing players of Moreno’s and Zinchenko’s quality may be about the ‘holistic’ approach to building a club with a clear identity both on and off the pitch.
Guardiola is central to the counter-argument that City are investing in the future rather than indulging in simple transfer market manipulation. The club’s impressive £200m academy – which was reportedly a deciding factor in the prized coach opting for Manchester – is another obvious positive, and is often compared to the now-iconic set-up at Guardiola’s old stomping ground.
Bury’s Head of Development Mark Litherland has been out to Barcelona to study their methods and infrastructure and, with the Shakers enjoying a close working relationship with City, he has witnessed first-hand the striking similarities between La Masia and the Etihad Campus.
“They are a tremendous academy and have a great philosophy where everybody from eight upwards play the same style,” he says. “With Pep coming in it’s all linked up for them from top to bottom.”
Litherland’s take on City’s transfer dealings is entirely positive too, highlighting how struggling clubs regularly benefit from their approach: “They have the best resources and we have a very good relationship with them where I’ll send over player positions and what we need and they send lads over to us.”
However, the positions favoured by Moreno and Zinchenko suggest their chances of breaking through are slim. It’s fair to say that with Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane, Jesus Navas, David Silva, Patrick Roberts (snapped up from Fulham and now in the middle of a two-year learning curve at Celtic), Kelechi Iheanacho, and Nolito – not to mention the transfer-listed Samir Nasir and emerging academy graduates Manu Garcia, Bersant Celina, Brandon Barker and Messi-in-the-making Brahim Diaz – City were already extremely well-stocked with playmakers and wingers.
But the relatively affordable cost of signing Zinchenko and Moreno makes it sensible business, as Chelsea have found. Should they fulfil their huge potential then all well and good – City have beaten their rivals to the next big thing, and the duo either slot into the first team or, like Romelu Lukaku, leave for a healthy profit. If they struggle to progress; what’s one more stalled career especially as their sell-on value will remain roughly equivalent to the original fee – perhaps even more given the current rate of inflation?
Teenage Turkish striker Enes Unal is another recruit who fits this profile, along with the aforementioned Roberts and recent deal for Argentine goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli that is so melon-twistingly complicated that a degree in intricacy is required to fully comprehend it. City’s interest in 19-year-old Croatian playmaker Ante Coric is another example of what appears to be a change in vision for how to operate in the transfer market.
At the moment the club deserve the benefit of the doubt, such are the low numbers involved and the pertinent fact that they’re straddling the cusp of an exciting new era.
But should City’s recent transfer policy become a trend to mirror Chelsea’s, then we can expect plenty of criticism to come their way as the country bristles at a new sub-category appearing on their website. It is a football future few fans are currently prepared to embrace.