England Opinion Transfers

Inside Chelsea’s youth development – turning talent into profit one player at a time

In medieval times, children are educated/skilled as apprentices in certain crafts to one day produce skilled craftsmen. But an apprenticeship is only the first step. Once an apprenticeship is completed, the individual leaves on a journey for some years to hone their skills as master-in-training in hopes of one day becoming a master. Individuals in this phase of training and life experience came to be known as “journeymen”.

In modern football, we see journeymen in young academy graduates who have not received the nod for first team football, taking loan opportunities in lower leagues or international leagues to gain playing time and experience. The loan system was seen to be beneficial to both the club and the player with the central idea of player development. The concept was welcomed by fans and association alike to train more elite talent for both club and country. But, in the recent decade, we have seen a change in the ethos of the loan system with clubs abusing and monetizing from the system.

Fans and analysts alike will point to Chelsea F.C. and their system of “youth development” as the chief contributor to this change but, they would not be completely right. Yes, it is true Chelsea found success through buying players, they have a notorious loaning system and more recently were fined and handed a transfer ban for their youth recruitment strategies. Although, today they are not only club who adopt such a system, they have certainly paved the way for such practices. 

Roman-Era

Chelsea was taken over by Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich in 2003 which brought forth riches and a new identity to the club. In the upcoming years, Chelsea who were formerly, a mid table club were now among the elites of the premier league with superstar players recruited through transfers winning multiple league and cup titles. But, this model of splurging cash was never a long-term solution of success with the introduction of Financial Fair Play rules (FFP) in 2009. But, with the globalization of football and more revenue incoming from TV deals and sponsorships, success is expected spontaneously and in perpetuity. So, for years the club remained on the edge of creating financial controversy. So, they established reformation of their academy and dedicated a team of scouts, coaches and medical staff to take care of the recruits.

Talent Farming

The first generation of graduates from the academy provided several promising recruits like Ryan Bertrand, Gael Kakuta, Josh McEacharan and Patrick Van Aanholt. But these recruits were unable to break into a first team filled with talented cast the likes of Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. Between 2007-2011, Chelsea sacked 4 managers in hopes to compete with Manchester United who themselves lost Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009. This meant the young graduates could not convince the new managers, whose priorities were always immediate success.

With the academy recruits unable to convince the manager and with the current squad playing past their prime, Chelsea saw more opportunity and increased their scouting methods and started to pickup talent from abroad with potential to develop and in turn also create a more global identity to the club. Now came the next set of youths: Lucas Piazon, Kevin De Bruyne, Oriol Romeu, Patrick Bamford, Romelu Lukaku, Thorgan Hazard, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake, Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen, Victor Moses, Christian Atsu etc. each showing potential to breakout. 

With the new generation of talent, Chelsea streamlined their “development” process to generate a path for these talents to first team. The club established a separate division to handle player development which included, a director, a set of coaches and medical staff. The process starts with buying players for a low fee, followed by initial assessment after which a player may be placed in the reserves or on the loan list. If a player is on the loan list, they are initially sent to a soft testing grounds (weak leagues with low expectations) to get some playing time. Chelsea have sent players to Vitesse Arnhem (a club owned by Roman Abramovich’s Friend), a city with a population of about 100,000. The loans are mostly for a year but, can sometimes be cancelled midway if a player is unable to adapt to the league. The financial deals are worked out such that a part or most of the players salary is covered. The coaches or director will personally visit the players at the loaned clubs and assess their development. Based on the assessment they may decide to allow the player to finish the loan deal or cancel it and move them elsewhere to suit their development needs.  

At the end of the year, the team analyses the data and decide to take one of three routes: Retain the player, Sell the player (if the market demand was present) or move them to a more challenging testing spot for further development. This started an eternal cycle of loan moves for young players who report to cobham facility at the start of the year and move on to the next loan immediately.

Monetization

Success in life sometimes comes down to luck. Clubs may not always come across a player like Messi or Ronaldo immediately. Sometimes, talent is seen immediately, sometimes it only shows up later in life or in the eyes of another. Case in point, Chelsea have sold some talented players from their academy when they do no feel this player can reach a certain potential. So, they sold them after a few years of recruitment when their market value is at its peak as they cannot guarantee playing time with the club.

Some examples include, Romelu Lukaku, Thorgan Hazard, Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Ryan Bertrand to name a few who were unable to convince the manager for regular football or who were not satisfied with the club’s communication. The club made dividends on their initial investment of these players when their market value and demand was high (in most cases selling them to the clubs where they were loaned).

Success stories

When all is said and done, this system has been in place since 2012. At one point, the club sent as many as 40 players on loan. So, what is the verdict? Was this system truly developed for “player development” or simply a money mongering strategy. What is there to show to the fans, analysts and association that their system is meant for youth development and not a monetization project.  

Andreas Christensen: The lanky danish Centre-back joined Chelsea at the end of André Villas-Boas tenure in 2012 with high expectations. After making his debut under Jose Mourinho in 2013, he spent two successive loan spells at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Chelsea immediately saw his value and integrated into the first team in 2015 as the touted heir to John Terry.

Thibaut Courtois: Similar to Christensen, the Belgium prodigy arrived at Stamford bridge in 2011 and was immediately sent on a three-year loan to Atletico Madrid where he won the Europa league, La-Liga (breaking a Spanish deadlock held by Barcelona/Real Madrid) and made it to the Champions league final in 2014. Chelsea immediately integrated the heir apparent to Petr Cech as the starting goalkeeper in 2014.

Kurt Zouma: The French Centre-back was signed from Saint-Etienne in 2014 but, remained on loan for a year at the former club. After making his Chelsea debut in 2015, he was sparsely involved in first team action. After successive loan spells at Stoke City and Everton, he is lauded as the future of the Chelsea’s backline alongside Christensen.

Kurt Zouma is one of several players to be bought by the club and developed into first team players (Image from Tumblr)

Mason Mount: The Englishman rose through Chelsea’s youth academy in 2017, spent two successive loan spells at farm club, Vitesse Arnhem and Derby county, where he played under Frank Lampard. When incoming manger Frank Lampard took the helm at Chelsea in 2019, he immediately integrated the young prodigy into the team. Then 20-year-old was an instant success and remains a key figure in the team till date despite the exit of the golden boy manager.

Undecided: Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Reece James. Chelsea’s transfer ban in 2019 along with the departure of superstar Eden Hazard meant the club were suddenly left vulnerable in the premier league. Incoming manager Frank Lampard was faced with a daunting task and decided to take a leap in faith with the many talent young reserves in his squad. With the exception of Loftus Cheek who departed for Fulham, the above-mentioned players featured heavily in Lampard’s squad rotation and feature in Thomas Tuchels now.

The Others

No system is perfect. More often than not, there are times when someone can get overlooked due to injuries, error in judgment or worst of all human greed. We will look at a few cases (not all) where Chelsea’s system failed the players and jeopardized their careers.

Tomas Kalas & Lucas Piazon: The Czech centre-Back and Brazilian winger arrived in London in 2010 and 2011 respectively during the dawn of Chelsea’s “youth development” stratagem. They both spent their initial testing grounds loans at Vitesse Arnhem followed by loans in Germany and in the English Championship. In total, they spent 7 loan spells each with Piazon making one start for Chelsea and Kalas played 2 games. Kalas’s Chelsea career may only be remembered for his debut at Anfield against Liverpool in 2014 where Steven Gerrard let the league title “slip” away whilst Piazon has no such privilege. Their market value was highest during their loan spell at Fulham F.C. in 2016-2017 and 2017- 2018 campaign where their stays overlapped and they found success helping the club promotion to the Premier League at the end of the 2017-2018 campaign narrowly missing out promotion the previous year. When they reported to the Chelsea at the end of their loan spell in 2018, they were expecting an offer from Fulham to start their careers but, they received no information from the club. In a recent interview with a Czech chat show on his role at Chelsea, Kalas said “I am a player for training sessions. If they need a cone, they put me there instead”. After another loan spell, Kalas was eventually sold to Bristol City for a profit whilst, Piazon was let go in summer 2021. 

Why were these two talented young players career’s derailed by Chelsea’s system. Was it matter of oversight? Surely, it is not something as simple as that. We may never know the answer at least that was Piazon’s opinion in a recent interview with Sky-sports.

FIFA Loan Rule Amendment

FIFA has also taken notice to the change in the trend of player loan system and decided to act on curb such practices. According to the new rules, starting from the upcoming season (2021-2022), clubs are allowed only 8 transfers in and eight transfers out per season (and not more than three transfers between clubs) with the number set to reduce to 6 players from the 2022-2023 season.

Why has FIFA decided to act now?

Whilst, managers and analysts alike scorned Chelsea’s model of “player development”, the system was not violating any rules. Other Clubs now started to adopt this system, the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, RB Leipzig, Atlanta, Juventus, Inter Milan, Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers adopted a similar model. Manchester City and RB Leipzig also setup a feeder clubs in Girona F.C. (City own 47% shares in Girona) and RB Salzburg respectively. The model was working and Clubs now had a way to avoid FFP rules and also fill the Home-grown player quota. But the situation got out of control as now clubs were sending an average of 30 players on loans. Although, in my opinion the nail in the coffin for FIFA’s involvement may have been the transfer of high-profile players like Kylian Mbappe and Alvaro Morata who initially moved on loan to their future clubs with the transfer fee following the next fiscal season thus, satisfying FFP rules.

At the end of the day, football is a business and clubs and fans seek success which cannot come without drastic measures in certain cases. Luck plays a large part in a world filled with several talented players. FIFA exists to maintain the integrity of the game and enact policies to support the players.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

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