When Nemanja Matic next runs onto a football pitch in a Chelsea shirt, almost three years, two transfers and about 50 million euros in spent cash after his last appearance, no one will argue it was all part of the plan.
Had the Serb not been deemed expendable in the €25 million deal which brought David Luiz to Stamford Bridge from Benfica in January 2011 and inconsequential enough to make the insertion of a buy-back clause seem unnecessary, Roman Abramovich need not have reached so deep into his pockets to acquire the powerful, dominating midfielder Jose Mourinho craved.
Yet Matic’s career path, leaving Chelsea to forge his reputation before returning to enjoy his peak years, is one the club fully expects – and indeed hopes – will soon become a road more taken.
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Chelsea currently has 22 players out on loan. Four more – Sam Hutchinson, Gael Kakuta, Josh McEachran and Nathaniel Chalobah – returned to the club this month and can reasonably be classed as ‘in-between loans’. That makes 26 in all. Chelsea’s Premier League squad list has 25 names on it, and only 20 of those have actually been picked by Mourinho in the competition this season.
It is a truly vast operation, overseen by technical director Michael Emenalo, involving players of 14 different nationalities playing in nine different divisions across five countries, and clearly operated with an eye on more than simply developing the future stars of Stamford Bridge.
Some, including the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, are widely expected to be welcomed into the first-team fold sooner rather than later. Others, such as Lucas Piazon, Kenneth Omeruo, Christian Atsu and Wallace, are being monitored with considerable excitement.
The majority of the 26, however, will never be senior Chelsea players. But for their parent club that is no great disaster, or even really the point. As long as most of them, acquired from all around the world for relatively modest fees, develop in line with their potential under the stewardship of other clubs, the worst likely scenario is they can eventually be sold for a tidy profit.
If, as expected, Kevin De Bruyne completes an €18 million move to Wolfsburg this month, the Blues will more than double the €8 million they paid for him in January 2012 and offset a chunk of their outlay on Matic.
“We are trying to find a way because, given Financial Fair Play stipulations, we need to recruit young and we also need to have a reservoir of talent that we develop,” Emenalo admitted to the club’s official website in a rare interview last September. “This season is a good test for what we've implemented with young players given the stipulations of Financial Fair Play, but even regardless of the Financial Fair Play regulations, we think this is the best way to go.”
FFP or no FFP, it is a business model which makes sense. If just one of the 26 loanees reaches a world-class standard – and of the current crop Chelsea arguably boasts two such prospects in Lukaku and Courtois – the club will save millions in transfer outlay. If the rest, having rarely burdened their parent club with training or wage costs, can then be sold for significantly more than their purchase price, the Blues can realistically hope to avoid ever replicating the €59.3 million annual loss the club posted last month.
And of course, Chelsea is also far from unique in hoarding exotic young talent with a view to financial and sporting gain in the long run.
Goal has reported extensively on Manchester City’s increasingly insatiable appetite for acquiring gifted foreign youngsters to add to the club's elite development squad over the past six months.
Third-party ownership arrangements consistently enable Porto to snap up highly-rated prospects from South America while, slightly lower down the football food chain, the Pozzo family retains an active interest in over 100 players worldwide and uses its extensive centralized scouting network to power Udinese, Granada and Watford.
But thanks to its scale, sophistication and sphere of influence, Chelsea’s loan system is changing the face of European football. Powered by Lukaku’s goals, Everton is now a genuine top four contender. The presence of Courtois means Atletico Madrid has never needed to bother replacing David De Gea. And thanks to their prodigious Blues contingent, Vitesse Arnhem is challenging the Dutch elite.
Of the three, the latter example is most troubling. Vitesse sits joint top of the Eredivisie with defending champion Ajax on 47 points after 18 matches, the club's ranks bolstered by Hutchinson, Kakuta, Patrick van Aanholt, Cristian Cuevas and, in particular, Atsu and Piazon, the club’s top scorer this season. January saw Hutchinson and Kakuta return to Chelsea, with Bertrand Traore moving in the opposite direction.
The relationship between the clubs goes right to the top. Owner Alexander Chigirinsky is a business partner of Abramovich while former chairman Merab Jordania is a personal friend. Emenalo is often seen at GelreDome, as are Piet De Visser and Marina Granovskaia, senior advisors to Abramovich. Both clubs have repeatedly denied that Chelsea exerts undue influence over manager Peter Bosz’s team selection and match tactics, but suspicions remain.
The benefit of all this to Dutch football appears minimal. Despite a recent €9 million investment in training facilities and a long-standing commitment to developing talent, Vitesse’s ability to field gifted foreign youngsters necessarily reduces the chances of the club producing another Roy Makaay or Marco van Ginkel, while the rest of the Eredivisie must now compete with an artificially inflated rival. Some have suggested, without much irony, that Chelsea could conceivably win league titles in two countries this season.
Beyond this, the moral implications of clubs farming out young men en masse around the football world are cause for concern. Regardless of assurances that a player’s welfare is always top priority and their football development is closely monitored, the crude image of a cattle market is hard to shake.
Yet such concerns will not bother Chelsea. The club is breaking no rules and, as many of its loan stars continue to shine around Europe, boasts a stronger hand with every passing week.
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