Football or Finance - Chelsea's Youth Stockpiling
Over the last decade, Chelsea have muscled their way into being a world superpower through spending money on some of the biggest and most exciting names in world football – the likes of Crespo, Robben, Drogba, Cech, Fabregas, Carvalho, Cole and Costa have been lured to west London by riches and the chance of trophies.
Chelsea’s spending has not been limited to the world’s elite players though with millions upon millions of Roman Abramovich’s money being spent on some of the brightest young prospects in world football. So, why has Chelsea’s academy produced no new talent that has consistently played for the club since John Terry? And, more importantly, is Chelsea’s buying and stockpiling of young talents nothing more than a cynical business manoeuvre to get around Financial Fair Play regulations or is it simply insurance to ensure the future looks promising?
For the purpose of this, it is important to look at young talent as two different groups – the true youth (from 15/16-18) and the young players (18-20). These groups have two very different routes to the first team generally at Stamford Bridge as the true youth spend time within the youth set-up while the young players join at the most crucial part of their development and play for the reserves or on loan at another club. Therefore, it is important to look at each group separately and determine the point of the stockpiling.
Chelsea have always looked for players that will impact their side immediately with big money thrown at name players but they did pick up some young talent around a decade ago. The likes of Glen Johnson, Joe Cole and Arjen Robben were all signed around the 18-20 age mark and thrown right into the first team with varying levels of success.
However, more recently Chelsea has begun signing young players left, right and centre. The likes of Thorgan Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Bertrand Traore and Wallace have all been brought in and then loaned out around the world to get game time.
This season alone, Chelsea have sent around 30 different players out on loan with the vast majority being young talent signed. With only 11 places in the starting line-up and the vast array of talent already in that line-up, it is hard not to look at this policy without some scepticism.
Thibaut Courtois is the perfect embodiment of what Chelsea are looking to do with their spending now. Signed from Genk as a fresh faced Belgian league winner in 2011, Courtois was immediately sent off on loan to Atletico Madrid who themselves were looking for a goalkeeper to replace the departed David de Gea.
Courtois’ three year loan was superb for his development as he helped Atleti to the Europa League, La Liga and Copa del Rey crowns as well as the final of Champions League where they were so close to winning. He’s now Chelsea’s undisputed number 1 and is still only 22. This is what Chelsea are looking to do with most of their young players signed but as always it does not work out that way as many get nowhere near the first team and end up just being money making objects.
Cases in point are two other Belgian talents – Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne. Lukaku was signed as the replacement for Drogba at just 18 for a lot of money but made just ten league appearances for the club despite impressing in two loan spells at West Brom and Everton. Chelsea were more than happy to make a big profit on him this summer when Everton gave them £28 million for the striker.
In a cynical way, it seemed that Lukaku never fit in at Chelsea but the club saw that he had enough about to him draw a good fee from another club hence their eagerness to sell when Everton came with a lot of money. De Bruyne was in much the same position as Lukaku as he signed as a youngster from Genk in 2012.
However, unlike his counterpart, he was sent on loan straight away to Werder Bremen to improve him and after impressing in Bremen was assured of a place at Chelsea last season. He made a grand total of nine appearances and was sold (at a considerable profit) to Wolfsburg last January. For every Courtois, there a few like De Bruyne and Lukaku who are never given the chance to shine and serve to be nothing more than money makers in the future. It is these kinds of cases that have people looking at Chelsea’s policy and thinking of it as a business model rather than a football one.
While De Bruyne and Lukaku made the first team there are many more who will not. Mexican Ulises Davila was signed at 20 and is already on his fourth loan spell away from the club and at 23, looks to be on his way out. Chilean full back Cristian Cuevas joined at 18 from O’Higgins in Chile and is already back in Chile on his third loan spell and is struggling for game time at Universidad de Chile. Matej Delac is a Croatian goalkeeper who is on loan number seven with Arles Avignon in France. Colombian striker Joao Rodriguez has had three loan spells away from Chelsea at 18 and is looking for another after his time at Bastia was cut short this month. Brazilian defender Wallace has struggled for game time on loan and could follow the rest as being money makers in the future.
This is not a new phenomenon either at Chelsea. The case of Nemanja Matic is a perfect example. Brought in as a youngster and saw fleeting glimpses of first team football, Matic was loaned out to improve him but was eventually deemed expendable and let go as part of the deal to sign David Luiz. Now he’s back at Chelsea after impressing hugely at Benfica and is a rock at the heart of the midfield. In many of these cases, Chelsea will send them packing before giving them a chance to shine while others will just not progress like the club expected. It is the risk they take with signing young players but Chelsea seem to be very keen to take that risk.
They are also very keen to sign true youth and have done so in the past with very limited success. Gael Kakuta was signed controversially at 16 and cost Chelsea a lot in terms of fines and almost a transfer ban too. He was hailed as the “future of Chelsea” by former boss Carlo Ancelotti and Michael Ballack raved about him. Kakuta’s foray into senior football was promising but very quickly he stalled with game time limited and now 23, he is onto his sixth loan spell at Rayo Vallecano in Spain. Islam Feruz has been a star at youth level for Chelsea since they got him from Celtic who were furious when he left, but now finds himself struggling and having a poor time on loan at OFI Crete in Greece.
It isn’t new for Chelsea to ruffle a few feathers when signing true youth either. Back in 2006, the Blues paid Leeds £5 million after being accused of tapping-up four young players in their academy. Two of those players joined Chelsea – Tom Taiwo and Michael Woods. Woods now plays for Hartlepool in League 2 while Taiwo is at Scottish Championship side Falkirk. As far as this writer can remember, none of Chelsea’s true youth signings have progressed to first team level despite some considerable fees being spent on them.
And what about the Chelsea academy? It is blessed with some wonderful talents but has not produced any first team regulars since John Terry. The closest they have got is full back Ryan Bertrand but he was never a true regular and has been sent on loan to Southampton this season because he wasn’t going to get a game at the club. This season alone has seen the departure of a number of academy graduates – Billy Clifford, George Saville (for a fee), Daniel Pappoe, George Cole and Sam Hutchinson. A number have left on loan too including Chelsea’s next home-grown star Josh McEachran.
McEachran is the embodiment of Chelsea’s struggles to blood young players into the side. It all began so promisingly as McEachran impressed in his first season in the first team but eventually the games began to dry up as the win now mentality of Chelsea meant the more experienced proven players were preferred. Five loans later and, at 21, McEachran sits on the bench at Vitesse Arnhem with his career stalling and the hype and promise surrounding him fading very quickly. It’s a sad thing to see and while all is not lost for McEachran, the chances of him breaking into the team are diminishing quickly.
Chelsea fans will argue that the high number of talented youngsters the club owns is a smart move designed to secure the future of the club. Yet, the results of their stockpiling of talent is a lot of loan deals and a lot more big name signings to win immediately. Chelsea’s summer transfers were partly funded by the sales of youngsters like De Bruyne and Lukaku who, if they were given the chance, could have perhaps have saved Chelsea money by being key parts of the side. Instead, for all of Chelsea’s spending, it is really only Thibaut Courtois who has grabbed a place in the side while others play around Europe. Looking at the evidence, it’s hard not to look at what Chelsea are doing and think it is nothing more than a business model designed to keep their spending within FFP regulations despite their protestations they only think football when signing players.