Kevin De Bruyne was irrelevant at Chelsea. At 20 years old, the midfielder was signed from Belgian club Genk for less than seven million pounds, and he proceeded to be a complete non-factor during his year-and-a-half stay. Despite a successful loan spell in the Bundesliga for Werder Bremen, De Bruyne could never break into the London side, posting only nine appearances for the Blues.
De Bruyne was quickly transferred back to Germany, where he put together a stellar run of games for Wolfsburg. The still-young De Bruyne helped lead his team to a second-place finish, and he was awarded with Germany’s Footballer of the Year award in 2015. His quality both with Wolfsburg and the Belgian national team attracted attention from another Premier League giant: Manchester City.
De Bruyne is now a key member of one of Chelsea’s biggest rivals, working under the direction of Pep Guardiola to consistently create opportunities for his teammates and score goals like this one:
Chelsea sold De Bruyne to Wolfsburg for a reported 18 million pounds. Less than two years later, City bought him for a reported 51 million. Chelsea now has to go up against their former player in high-profile matches twice a year.
Romelu Lukaku, newly signed Manchester United man and one of the two best strikers in the Premier League, was also once a Chelsea kid. Despite playing 15 games for the club from 2011 to 2013, Lukaku never scored a goal and couldn’t find any kind of role behind Chelsea’s other strikers. In two Premier League loan spells, however, he tallied 33 goals in 71 games, building enough buzz that Chelsea was able to sell the then-21-year-old to Everton for 28 million pounds.
Lukaku became a goal-machine with the Toffees, the kind that commands a monstrous transfer fee north of 75 million pounds. United were able to secure his services last week at the expense of competing Chelsea, who were unable to buy Lukaku back after letting him go just three years prior. Again, Chelsea will have to go up against its former player multiple times per year in high-stakes matches.
A much-vaunted aspect of Chelsea FC is its deep well of young loanees. Each year, dozens of Chelsea players in their late teens and early 20s get sent out around Europe—to the Netherlands, Germany, or the lower divisions of England. In theory, they get great experience with teams of lesser quality, work their way up the European football ladder, and eventually become good enough to come back home and immediately slot into the Chelsea first team.
But in practice, this system tends to keep players in limbo, as changes in leadership, impatience, and the near impossibility of actually securing playing time at Stamford Bridge all work against young players. Eventually, most of them get spit out by their parent club, as they fail to live up to their highest potential and sign contracts where the spotlight is dimmer.
Take Josh McEachran, for example. A member of Chelsea’s academy since he was seven years old, McEachran was, for a short time, the golden boy of English football. A playmaking midfielder who, English supporters hoped, would eventually form a dynamic duo for the national side with Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere. McEachran worked his way through the youth ranks and even appeared for Chelsea at just age 17 in 2010. However, he fell out of favor when manager Carlo Ancelotti was sacked, and injuries hampered further development. McEachran was loaned out to five different teams over the next few years before being sold permanently to second-divison Brentford on the cheap in 2015.
A look through Chelsea’s current loanees reveals other players who are likely about to suffer a similar fate. Lucas Piazon, who at 23 has already been loaned to five different clubs, is a former Brazil prodigy who just doesn’t seem to have enough to break through to the top tier. Defender Tomáš Kalas signed with Chelsea in 2010 but has only made 4 appearances, while midfielder Marco van Ginkel has seemingly been abandoned in the Eredivisie in the Netherlands.
These players aren’t bad, necessarily, but they either don’t fit current manager Antonio Conte’s philosophy or they simply aren’t quite good enough to be the best in the world, which one needs to be in order to start for Chelsea. They’ve also been consistently screwed by the club’s constant reshuffling of managers (eight in the last six years, including interms), as one man’s next superstar is another’s trash.
Only one starter on Chelsea’s title-winning 2016-17 team successfully went through the loan-and-return system: wingback Victor Moses, who spent the three previous seasons at three other Premier League clubs. Moses was counted out by most fans at some point since he was signed in 2012, but found himself one of the team’s most valuable players once new manager Antonio Conte implemented his 3-4-3 system and gave Moses an opportunity. Another regular, Nemanja Matić, was also once a Chelsea prospect, but he was sold to Benfica and then bought back at a loss once he played well in Portugal.
(Goalkeeper Thibault Courtois is arguably also a success of this system, but his is a weird situation because he was stashed for three years with Atlético Madrid, a team that soon became better than Chelsea and even beat Courtois’s parent club in a Champions League semifinal. So the execution there was also less than ideal.)
To its credit, the club seems to be learning from its mistakes. They’ve reportedly inserted buy-back clauses into this offseason’s transfers of Bertrand Traoré and Nathan Aké, two prospects who also struggled to earn playing time with their club. If either of those two become breakout stars, the club can choose to bring them back and avoid anything like this summer’s Lukaku situation.
But those clauses don’t change the current fact that Chelsea’s youth development system has produced as many star players for its rivals as it has for its own club. Despite the superficial impressiveness of so many young loanees signed to contracts, these prospects are almost meaningless to the team. The Blues change leadership far too often to implement any kind of core, consistent philosophy into its academy, and the needs of its superstars—as well as the mandates of a trophy-hungry, rich owner—will always supersede those of its youth players. As a result, Chelsea’s youth system continually fails to produce useful Chelsea players.
To some extent, that’s okay. Chelsea’s first, second, and third most important objectives are all to win trophies. If they can win with homegrown players, that’s great, but if they have to spend truckloads of money to do it, that works, too. Chelsea have won two of the last three English titles, so their current system is still working.
However, Chelsea and other English teams have been struggling more and more to compete with other top European clubs, as Barcelona, the Madrids, Bayern Munich, and Juventus dominate the Champions League. There are a number of reasons for the Premier League’s struggles in the competition, but one wonders if a Chelsea bolstered by more young talent could take these other clubs on. Though Barcelona is now aided by big-money players like Neymar and Luis Suárez, the club built a cult out of its La Masia academy, using it to create the core of perhaps the greatest team ever.
More pressingly, why does Chelsea even have a youth system this large if they’re not going to take advantage of it? The situations of their current players does not make Chelsea an attractive option to potential recruits, and eventually, the clear lack of opportunities presented to Chelsea academy players might drive other young starlets from signing in the first place. The Blues had 37 players out on loan in Spring of 2017, and only a small fraction of those players have a realistic hope of seeing the field in a big game. The rest are simply being strung along for no reason.
Losing out on Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne puts a fine point on this situation, but on a smaller scale, dozens of young, high-potential players are affected every year. As things stand now, it seems like the best one of Chelsea’s legion of loanees can hope for is a few minutes in stoppage time here and there followed by an eventual escape to another club.