The Football League will argue many of their 72 clubs couldn’t survive without it, but the loan system clearly isn’t working for the Premier League’s biggest sides. No doubt, there are the exceptions to the rule such as Harry Kane and Hector Bellerin, but the numbers speak for themselves.
The top seven sent a whopping 70 players out on loan this season, yet nine of the ten players aged under 22 to rack up the most minutes in the Premier League during 2016/17 have never actually left their clubs under such circumstances. Likewise, from the 183 players to feature in the Premier League for the top seven this term, only 20 had been loaned out by their current club at some point in their careers before this season.
Of course, we’re talking about major clubs with huge finances who look to bring in ready-made players each summer. But the fact only 11% have managed to prove themselves worthy of at least one Premier League appearance this term after spending loan spells away is a clear indictment of how marginally the loan system has impacted the top end of the division in recent years.
The elephant in the room here is unquestionably Chelsea, infamous for their globe-spanning loan operation. The Blues had 22 players out on loan at some point this season, with all but two aged 25 or younger.
The predominant function of Chelsea’s farming out brigade is to add value to assets rather than create first-team stars – very much a secondary by-product. But from the countless players involved in recent years, only three were used by Antonio Conte in the Premier League this season – Victor Moses, Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Ake – and only the Nigerian international made more than one start.
It’s not a question of quality either; former Blues youngsters Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne, who couldn’t get a look-in at Stamford Bridge despite excelling on loan at West Brom and Werder Bremen respectively, have established themselves have as crucial players for two of Chelsea’s Premier League rivals. Dominic Solanke, set to sign for Liverpool after netting eight times for Chelsea’s feeder club Vitesse last season, could go on to emerge as another who got away over the course of the next few years.
Regardless of the ulterior motives behind Chelsea’s loan operation, the fundamental problem is shared throughout the top flight’s big hitters; how well a young player actually performs on loan – or, in contrast, how badly – seems almost completely irrelevant by the time their manager drafts his squad for the next campaign.
More often than not, the manager has changed from the one that shipped him out twelve months prior. And even if they haven’t, they’re still reluctant to give a chance to a youngster who has impressed on loan over bringing in someone with a multi-million price-tag. That says as much about the self-perpetuating short-termism and sheer hyperbolism the Premier League finds itself caught up in as it does the managers making those calls, but there is a rationality behind it too.
Large transfer fees tend to appease the fans and perhaps naively, spending big on a player who has established himself in a foreign top flight always seems less risky than promoting a loan starlet who has impressed for a lesser club in England.
Another avenue of developing young players is clearly needed, more compatible with the demands placed on the Premier League’s biggest clubs and their managers in the modern game, that accelerates their abilities quicker than the loan system and allows them to not only rival the talent of the first teamers at their parent clubs but also the exotic, exciting allure of a big-money transfer target from abroad. That’s exactly makes Manchester City’s potential deal with West Ham over the sale of Kelechi Iheanacho so interesting.
For what Iheanacho’s game may lack – most notably, a right foot – there’s no question the Nigerian international is a natural goalscorer. He’s already got twelve Premier League goals under his belt, including a strike in this season’s Manchester Derby at Old Trafford, and has netted six times in nine outings for his country. An incredibly impressive return for a 20-year-old.
Although Gabriel Jesus may be City’s new strike prodigy, Iheanacho has shown enormous potential as well. It may just take him a little longer to realise it, and earning a regular place in the City starting XI may require him to prove he can score enough goals to make those weaknesses virtually insignificant. Clearly, however, opportunities to do that at the Etihad Stadium will be rather thin on the ground.
City could send him out on loan for the next three years to various different clubs, forcing Iheanacho to chop and change his game every season to suit his new team and reducing his ability to settle in one side or one area long enough to produce his absolute best form. But instead, the Citizens are determined to insert a buy-back clause in any deal that will see the African attacker leave the club this summer, and that strategy may well be the future for the Premier League’s biggest sides struggling to justify future room for loan starlets.
Of course, buy-back deals are nothing new. They’re common in Spain amongst Barcelona and Real Madrid and the latter have particularly benefited this season. Dani Carvajal and Casemiro were both part of the Los Blancos starting XI that beat Juventus in the Champions League final on Saturday – in fact the Brazilian was arguably the Man of the Match – and both were bought back to the Bernabeu for previously agreed fees. Likewise, Alvaro Morata came on from the bench in Cardiff, but it took two years at Juventus after emerging from Real Madrid’s academy to prove he was worthy of being understudy to Karim Benzema. Lucas Vazquez, meanwhile, who featured as a substitute in both semi-finals, was re-signed from Espanyol two summers ago.
The obvious advantage is that it gives young players a different kind of motive. Instead of going out on loan and giving up after a few months because they’ve failed to make it into the starting XI, knowing they’ll return to their parent club in the summer and get another chance at a different club next season, the buy-back is more ruthless; you either prove you’re worth bringing back, or you stay where you are. It takes away that security, that sense of entitlement and creates a more demanding incentive. Sure, the idea of returning to their former club will still linger in the back of their minds, but they have to earn the move rather than simply waiting for it.
It also allows players to settle over the space of two or three years, rather than being judged on a single season alone. For young strikers in particular, that could be of real significance. There’s less pressure to hit the ground running and more time to naturally weave your way into the team, becoming more accustomed to the players around you. Instead of simply looking at just one season, which may prove to be anomalous either positively or negatively when compared to a whole career, big clubs can judge their former starlets on several campaigns, a much more reliable sample to decide if they’re ready for the first team and a clearer indicator of development over time.
Of course, the counter-argument is that clubs will be paying large fees for players they’ve already owned – which will inevitably lead to criticism of throwing money down the drain and not showing enough patience with their young players in the first place.
But there’s an upside to that as well; whether deserving or not, signing someone for £50million, even if they’ve been on your books once before, creates far more buzz and excitement than simply welcoming back a player from a loan spell. It also makes clear how much the manager thinks that player is worth to the team, and obliges them to ensure starting opportunities.
Furthermore, whilst away from the club, a clear target is placed in front of the player in question – don’t prove you’re good enough to be on the edges of the first team next season; prove you’re a £50million player.
If there’s one league in world football that can afford to repurchase their former youngsters at that kind of price, it’s unquestionably the Premier League, which is perhaps why buy-back deals replacing the loan system feels like an increasingly plausible scenario. The top seven adopting it long-term, however, could well hinge on whether players like Iheanacho do enough to force their former employers into buying them back.