Chelsea: Make no mistake, Loans are quite important

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - MARCH 04: Conor Gallagher of West Bromwich Albion during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Everton at The Hawthorns on March 4, 2021 in West Bromwich, United Kingdom. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - MARCH 04: Conor Gallagher of West Bromwich Albion during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Everton at The Hawthorns on March 4, 2021 in West Bromwich, United Kingdom. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images) /

Chelsea has some promising youngsters in the pipeline and on loan. Chelsea has the best youth academy in the country and there’s no disputing that. Many fans have gotten carried away though, even questioning whether players need to go on loan to be able to feature in the first team.

The answer to that question varies. At a Dortmund, a Southampton or a Norwich City no, players don’t need to go on loan. Dortmund for different reasons though. Dortmund is a development club. They’re content developing players for the bigger clubs to buy and they make the big bucks. There is nothing wrong with this as it’s a business model. Though even at Dortmund there are standards, no random Joe from any academy can just walk into Dortmund and start regularly.

Chelsea though, is not a development club and there is nothing wrong with that either. The west London club’s trophy haul compared to that of Dortmund over the past two decades tells you everything you need to know about what Chelsea is trying to achieve. Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich assumed ownership of the cub and determined right away that he’d make Chelsea into one of Europe’s elite. Two Champions League titles, two Europa League titles and five domestic championships are evidence that he’s doing a lot of things right.

Abramovich has also invested heavily in the academy and its reaping rewards. Many want players to go from the academy straight to the first team and that’s not always possible for a lot of reasons. Chelsea is very much a results-oriented club. They set out to win trophies. They get players that are ready to compete at the highest level straight away and this is why players can’t just go from the academy straight to the first team.

The football being played at the highest level is not given enough reverence. Football at the top level is unforgiving as well as physically and mentally intense. It is a world away from the football players will play at academy level. Is it a surprise that many players win an absurd amount of trophies at the academy level and then are not so impactful when they make the transition to top level football?

This is where loans come in. Loans satisfy key areas of a player’s development they cannot get at clubs expected to compete for trophies every season. The base level of performance at a club like Chelsea is not far from a top performance at a club like, say, Norwich City. This is why you’d sometimes see players get heavy criticism and you think “they weren’t even that bad”. No, they weren’t, but at the top level “he wasn’t even that bad” is not a good performance. “He wasn’t even that bad” does call for criticism.

Loans satisfy aspects like game time, perhaps most importantly. No player can develop without playing regularly. The higher the level you play at regularly, the higher your ceiling will be. A player needs a lot of game time to develop and will not get that at Chelsea. Why? Developing players will have varying performances. At Chelsea, you get picked again when you play well, but get dropped when you play poorly. Developing players need to keep playing even when they play poorly, but that game time is not available at the top level. You’re playing must win games every other week, if not every week. Developing players need to make mistakes and learn from them. If you get dropped on your second or third mistake, how quickly can you learn from them?

Another aspect that loans help with? Level of opposition. This loan is particularly important for players to be ready to feature at their parent club. This is why loans at the top level are crucial. Kevin De Bruyne had his at Werder Bremen. Yes, he played for Bremen that finished 14th that season, two places from a relegation playoff place.

However, he played against Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, VfL Wolfsburg and every other top team in Germany. Yes, of those teams, he only scored, or registered a goal involvement against Bayern, but the experience of playing against the toughest teams in that country – and in some cases – in Europe, was invaluable. He returned for half of the following season on a permanent transfer to Wolfsburg and had another half season learning to play against Bundesliga teams, recording eight assists in 16 appearances.

It was the season after that De Bruyne showed what he could do with the experience he had gained while on loan. Recording a league record of 20 assists that season, he caught the eye of then Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola.

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“That’s just one example. He didn’t need to go on loan!!”

Toni Kroos then. Kroos was sent on loan from Bayern Munich to Bayern Leverkusen for the rest of the 2008/09 season and the 2009/10 season. Kroos was 18 at the time and he clearly had talent. He had made seven appearances for Bayern Munich in the 2008/09 league season. On loan at Leverkusen in the 2009/10 season? 33 appearances. There he played against top teams in the Bundesliga and honed his passing skills. He even played against his parent club, twice. Kroos averaged a 66 percent long ball accuracy on loan at Leverkusen. When he returned to the Allianz Arena the following season he made 27 appearances, starting 17 times. He was injured for seven games that season and didn’t feature. Of the remaining 27 games he wasn’t injured, he featured. He was 19 at the time.

Kroos had shown from his loan that he could hold his own against the top teams. Kroos never recorded a long ball accuracy as low as 66 percent again (mind: that is very high for long balls). He recorded at least an 80 percent long ball accuracy in three subsequent seasons, while completing more long balls than he did at Leverkusen. In fact, Kroos currently boast more long balls than any outfielder in Europe, and an 88% long ball accuracy, also more than any outfielder in Europe.

Yes, De Bruyne and Kroos could have been given these minutes at their parent clubs at the time, but De Bruyne would not have gotten 33 appearances (like he did at Bremen) and Kroos would not have gotten the 33 appearances he got at Leverkusen, and they needed those minutes, but without the pressure. No one would expect an 18 year old kid at Leverkusen to drop masterclasses every week. These players showed the importance of gaining experience at the top level.

Mason Mount spent an entire season at Vitesse at 18 and though it’s not one of Europe’s top five leagues, it’s still experience at the top level. He also spent a full season in England’s second division, where he impressed. A case could be made though that Mount’s most important season in his development was his first season under Lampard as Chelsea head coach. He got the game time, the trust and played against the level of opposition the standard Chelsea senior player usually would. Mount was able to enjoy what De Bruyne and Kroos enjoyed in their loan seasons at the top level (playing time, playing opposition, and little pressure) except that it wasn’t a loan and it was for his parent club.

The same can be said for Reece James too, but perhaps the more important thing to note is the fact that James and Mount got a look in to the Chelsea senior team because of how well they did on their loans, albeit not top levels loans.

Every manager is not Lampard, and it’s rare to see a manager stick to young players as much as Lampard did. Lampard is a developing player’s dream but many top clubs don’t have coaches like Lampard for many reasons. At Chelsea Lampard was expected to win trophies and was sacked when it looked like he wouldn’t. This highlights the priorities at Chelsea. He gave a platform to Mount and James to become bona fide members of the senior team, but he still lost his job because he failed in his primary duties.

This is what it is at the highest level at a club like Chelsea. Yes, the club values academy player development, but the club wants to win trophies more. This is why for a player to feature at Chelsea for the senior team, he has to deserve it, and deserving it means showing you can do it. Somewhere. That “where” is what becomes tricky. The higher the level of opposition against which the player would be playing the better (think Andreas Christensen at Borussia Monchengladbach). The higher the expectations of the club the player plays for the better, but that is also tricky, as the player has to be good enough to play for a team with higher expectations, while not necessarily been good enough to play for his parent club.

Many fans are beginning to see loans as a mark of disapproval. A proof of rejection. It’s not. Loans are important and it is sometimes the best thing to happen to a player’s career. Players that have only played for Chelsea U23s are simply not ready to make the jump to the senior team. They have to show that they can compete at higher levels and the best avenue for them to do that is to go on loan. They need the game time, to play against tough opposition and to play in an environment where they’re not hounded after every game because they were below par.

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Stats credited to Transfermarkt and WhoScored.