In the simulation game Football Manager, if your club’s squad is too large and you have too many players out on loan then the simulated journalists ask you questions in accusatory tones. “Why are you hoarding players and not giving them opportunities?” “When will [this next prodigy] get to play for the first team?” and so on.
But in real life, clubs and managers have to plan for a real future and hence develop a setup, where large number of players could be out on loan to ensure they get first-team football, even if it is in a different league. Premier League clubs – at least the regular occupants of the top half of the table- are of course accustomed to having large squads and sending a large number of players out on loan. Most of the times it is because the manager does not deem a player good enough for first-team football, at least in the immediate future, or ever. So, off goes the player, till he finds a new employer, better form, or even a work-permit.
But irrespective of the reason, Premier League clubs use loans extensively to develop their youth players, keep their squads happy and to keep the unwanted players away. But I feel that in recent years, Premier League clubs have increased the number of players they loan out to other teams in the league itself. Not to any other tier in the Football League, but to other Premier League rivals. And no club does it better than Chelsea does.
No other club loans out as many players as the Blues do and no other club loans out so many players to Premier League teams as Chelsea. In fact, they loan out their youngsters so much that at present their longest serving player – Matej Delac (a 24-year old goal keeper) has been on Chelsea’s rolls for nine seasons but has never played for any Chelsea side. To be honest, Delac has been kept away from English football by work-permit issues in the UK.
But that takes nothing away from the 28 (at least) loans that Chelsea sent their players on in the 2015-16 season or from the 30+ loans that the Blues sent their players on in 2014-15. But something changed last season. In 2016-17, they sent their players on loan in only 18 instances but four of those were within the Premier League. In the current transfer window as well, three out of their nine loans are to other Premier League clubs. Not that Chelsea is the only club that loans out players to fellow Premier League clubs. We can find a few examples like Mamadou Sakho to Crystal Palace but instead of such sporadic loans to EPL clubs, with Chelsea we find, what is perhaps a systematic strategy of loaning good players out to EPL rivals.
Why do I think it is a focused strategy? Well, the only other club with a comparable number of loans, at least this season is Manchester City. And thus far, none of City’s five loaned out players have gone to a Premier League rival. They have gone to affiliate clubs like New York City FC and Girona FC but none to an EPL club. So, yes it seems to be a conscious strategy from Chelsea.
To understand, what would be the upsides of such a strategy, let us take a brief look at the three players that have been loaned out to EPL sides in this window.
Kurt Zouma is a defender who has clocked close to 2,700 Premier League minutes in the last three seasons. He also has 10 Champions League appearances to his name in the Blue shirt. He is a pretty good defender, who got involved in 92.2 events per 90 minutes with a 70% success rate. Now he finds himself on loan at Stoke City.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek has fewer Premier League appearances and minutes than Zouma but he has also made two Champions League appearances. The Chelsea academy graduate has quality but is deemed surplus in a midfield that boasts the likes of Fabregas and Kante. He now finds himself in the plans of Frank de Boer at Crystal Palace.
Young striker Tammy Abraham has only two Premier League appearances to his name and spent last season on loan to Bristol City in the Championship, scoring 23 goals and 4 assists in 41 appearances. A very good record but this season he will play for Swansea.
These brief portraits give us an idea that Chelsea’s outgoing (to EPL) loanees are not some random youngsters or out-of-favor players. They would be first team players for most Premier League clubs and perhaps eventually for Chelsea themselves. Then why are they being sent out to play for the Blues’ own Premier League rivals?
I think it is a brilliant strategy because of a number of reasons. First, these loanees most likely went out on loan for first-team football. Then what is better than giving them first-team football in the same league? They will gain Premier League experience, which will drive up their price in future – because when buying players, Premier League clubs pay a premium for such players.
If these players happen to be as good as some of their stats suggest than they can help these low-to-mid table teams get points off Chelsea’s top-of-the-table rivals. Remember Nathan Ake for Bournemouth against Liverpool last season? On the top of that, these players cannot be fielded against Chelsea, which could mean these clubs would have to adjust slightly when playing the Blues, which might make it a bit easier for Chelsea to win.
So, these players who at least on paper look good, get first-team Premier League football. Chelsea gets healthy loan fees for them every season. Their EPL experience drives up their value and on-top of that they can help lower table sides trouble the Blues’ top half rivals.
As I said above, I think it is a brilliant strategy adopted by Chelsea and the only mystery is that why are other clubs not adopting it in a similar manner.