Since rumours of Antonio Conte becoming Chelsea’s next manager first sprouted last month, rumours which are now considered pretty much concrete by most reputable sources, the west London club have been linked with virtually any Serie A player demonstrating half-decent form, alongside the Italy gaffer’s favoured cronies from his spells as Juventus and Azzurri boss.
That includes the likes of Paul Pogba, Leonardo Bonucci, Arturo Vidal, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Radja Nainggolan, Miralem Pjanic and Franco Vazquez to name a few, whilst even Sunderland’s Emmanuele Giaccherini, a former squad player for the Old Lady now finding himself exiled to Bologna on loan, has been mooted as a shock transfer target.
Of course, new managerial appointments often translate quickly into new signings as they look to implement new ideas – Conte, for example, was famed for three-man defences during his affluent era in Turin – and following a campaign which has seen the Blues produce easily the worst Premier League title defence of all time, change at Stamford Bridge during the summer transfer window seems largely inevitable anyway.
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But Chelsea’s position this summer will not be the strongest when compared to the norm of the last decade. They’ll lack the usual incentive of Champions League football and although Conte comes with a solid reputation from his three years at Juventus, guiding the Old Lady to three consecutive Serie A titles, his limited familiarity with the Premier League represents a notable risk for potential recruits – especially with Pep Guardiola taking over at Manchester City and Mourinho expected to succeed Louis van Gaal at Manchester United.
That could see desperation creep in, Chelsea simply throwing their seemingly limitless supply of money at the problem by paying premiums on transfer fees and over the odds on wages for decent if unspectacular players. But the next Blues boss will be uniquely privy to a cohort of untapped talent upon taking the reins at Stamford Bridge that if utilised correctly, could prove to be a weapon more powerful than Abramovich’s oil millions in the transfer market. And furthermore, it won’t cost Chelsea a single penny – of course, I’m talking about their ever-expanding loan army.
Containing 33 players deployed at 26 separate clubs in 14 different leagues across two continents, the Blues’ farming out operation spans the globe and is enormous in its diversity, ranging from an established 49-cap international in Juan Cuadrado, currently on loan at Juventus, to 20-year-old Jordan Houghton, learning his trade in League Two with Plymouth Argyle.
The ultimate objective is to add value to young players without risking them at first-team level, a strategy that has already bore noteworthy profit in the sales of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne, who added £18million of pure markup to the Chelsea purse despite making just 24 senior appearances combined for the club, and is resultantly seen as a masterstroke in curtailing the limitations of Financial Fair Play – which affect late bloomers like Chelsea and Manchester City far more than established institutions of the Arsenal and Manchester United variety.
But UEFA has relaxed its stance over the last 18 months and although Chelsea’s loan army will continue to churn a profit, the advantage of circumventing FFP is becoming increasingly redundant. And of course, the other great hope for Chelsea’s loan contingent is that a few hot shots will eventually make it into the senior squad. It’s not happened yet – even De Bruyne and Lukaku failed to make the grade despite their later successes at Everton and Manchester City – but Conte represents a welcome chance to buck the trend.
No doubt, not every Chelsea loanee is up to standard. Nathaniel Chalobah has failed to make a mark at his last five adoptive clubs, Marco van Ginkel’s career has only moved in one direction since suffering an ACL injury in 2013, Marko Marin will almost certainly be sold this summer and Christian Atsu, now 24, hasn’t made any significant progress since moving to west London two summers ago.
But for a manager of Conte’s renowned ability, it seems unimaginable that a use can’t be found for at least a handful of Chelsea’s 33-man cohort next season, considering its enormous variety in terms of age, ability and style of play. Take Nathan Ake, for example, who has shone on loan at Watford this season, or Andreas Christensen, whose performances for Borussia Monchengladbach have attracted flirtatious glances from Barcelona, or Charly Musonda, whose early showings for Real Betis are already edging upon talismanic proportions. Three very versatile and very promising youngsters.
Perhaps they aren’t the completed article, like some of the aforementioned names from Serie A and Conte’s prior clubs. But Chelsea need greater self-sufficiency and identity, which is what young players always provide. Likewise, as Louis van Gaal has proved at United, youthful players are always hungrier, more adaptable and often perform beyond expectations when given the chance to do so.
Of course, miracles can’t be expected right away and perhaps that is the biggest concern; Abramovich has never been a patient man and the changing dynamics in the Premier League – Guardiola’s arrival at City, coupled with Leicester and Spurs’ shock Champions League qualification and the increased TV revenues next season – could well see the short-term culture of club owners go into overdrive.
But Chelsea already have the skeleton of a title-contending side – it may seem like decades have passed, but the Blues lifted the Premier League crown less than a year ago – and if Conte can complement it with the right selections from the club’s formidable loan army, he could improve the squad without spending a single penny whilst improving the seemingly ever-broken link between Chelsea’s first team and their more youthful personnel.
Perhaps that’s wishfully naive – how much a manager spends has almost become a basis of his ability in recent years – but nonetheless, combing the options already at his disposal, options that already have some connection to the club, before looking to recruit from outside could prove a masterstroke on Conte’s part.