The idea that you buy football players in order for them to play football for your club is long outdated. In fact, for some modern clubs, the idea is almost preposterous.
Today, Chelsea have 28 players on their books that play football for another club. Some of these players have been through the club’s youth program, and have been sent on loan in order to gain first-team experience. Others, are senior players who have simply fallen out of favour at the club. But there are others still, who were never really bought to play for Chelsea, but acquired for their potential sell-on value.
Lucas Piazon falls into this latter category. The Brazilian forward who moved to the Premier League from Sao Paulo in 2011 for an initial fee of £5m and has spent the last two seasons out on loan. Chelsea clearly considered him to be a very talented player, and we can assume that they want the most talented players to play for the team, but whether or not Piazon actually plays for Chelsea was only of secondary importance in his transfer. The important thing was that the club acquired an asset.
In buying many players like Lucas Piazon, Chelsea provide themselves with a kind of insurance policy. They know that these guys have potential, but potential is a very illusive concept. A very talented 17 year-old may seem like they’ve got a lot of potential, when in fact they could have already peaked. In an attempt to negate this downside risk, Chelsea have sought to diversify their portfolio by buying many different promising players, and outsource their development to feeder clubs like Vitesse (where Piazon currently finds himself).
If these player’s development stalls, Chelsea aren’t exposed to much of a loss, as they tend to acquired for less than £5m. If they continue to improve, but do not quite reach the levels required to play for one of Europe’s elite clubs, then they can be sold on for a healthy profit. A recent example of this would be the Kevin De Bruyne transfer, on which Chelsea made around £11m. In the very rare case where one of these young players actually turn out to be world-class, then the club have got themselves a bargain. However, Chelsea haven’t brought a youth team player into their first-team since John Terry and their recent transfer activity would suggest that they are not signing all these young players with this goal in mind.
Six months after securing Lucas Piazon’s services, Chelsea signed Juan Mata for £23.5m. And within a year they had signed De Bruyne. 18 months after Piazon agreed to sign for Chelsea, the club had brought in Eden Hazard, Marko Marin, Victor Moses and Oscar for a combined total of £73m. And while Piazon’s transfer was clearly forward-looking, it’s hard to see how the club realistically saw a place for him in the team when they were signing so many similar players for so much money.
The funny thing about Piazon is, that he has actually turned out to be quite good. In his 23 games for Vitesse this season, he has scored 11 goals and provided 8 assists. This kind of form would suggest that he may well be good enough to play for Chelsea and would seem to support the club’s policy of acquiring large pools of talent. However, one gets the impression that this kind of story is the exception to the rule, and the recent re-signing of Nemanja Matic for £21m points to serious flaws in Chelsea’s recruitment policy.
The downside to having so many players on your books is that you may not pay the requisite attention to each one in order to properly assess their potential. It seems like Chelsea have certainly been guilty of this in their dealings with Nemanja Matic. Having done what many would see as the hard part – recognizing a player’s talent and bringing him to the club – Chelsea were seemingly too distracted by the process of securing even more players that they failed to recognize the gem that they’d already obtained. Two years after signing the Serb for £1.5m, they allowed him to leave in a part-exchange deal for David Luiz, in which Matic was said to have been valued at around £3m.
Chelsea’s failure to recognize Matic’s quality begs the question of how many other talented players have been allowed to either slip through their grasp or go to waste at Carrington. And while it’s quite incredible how Chelsea have managed to construct a youth policy that has so little emphasis on development, Whether or not you believe this is the right is simply a point of principle. What is really damning to Chelsea’s youth policy is that by paying so little attention to the players they’ve already got, they fail to asses the true value of their assets. This can only seen as a fundamental flaw in a system that is solely orientated around sell-on value.
It seems that in Chelsea’s magpie-like efforts to procure the best young talent in world football, they seem to have lost sight on the point of buying footballers in the first place. Chelsea’s youth policy need not be centred on development, but greater balance is needed, if not for moral reasons, then for practical ones at least.