Chelsea’s elimination from the Champions League last night will have been particularly hard to take given the fact that the opposition goalkeeper is on their books. Young Belgian stopper Thibaut Courtois was allowed to take his place between the posts in both legs for Atletico Madrid and made a significant contribution to inflicting defeat on his parent club.
Whilst players playing against their own team is quite rare due to the fact that many of these deals simply don’t allow it, it’s still a big mistake on Chelsea’s part for allowing such a promising young talent go out on loan in the first place. Courtois is already being hailed as a world class ‘keeper at the age of just 21 which is even more remarkable given that goalkeepers usually take longer than outfield players to reach their peak. Courtois has also never played a game for Chelsea, having spent three consecutive seasons at Atletico and during that time his stock has risen and he is seemingly improving all the time. Chelsea now have one of the world’s best young ‘keepers contracted to them, and has been contracted to them for three years, and they have done absolutely nothing to aid his development. He’s spent three years on loan at the same club, yet he still doesn’t truly belong to them. In fact, Courtois is only one of many players who Chelsea are putting through this process.
Another young Belgian, Romelu Lukaku, has scored 13 Premier League goals this season in the blue of Everton. Whereas Courtois’ loan spell being extended into a third year wasn’t overly surprising, the decision to not keep hold of Lukaku is even more questionable. Mourinho has constantly been bemoaning the fact that his team is lacking a consistent goal-scoring striker with the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Demba Ba and Fernando Torres once again all failing to pull up any trees. Yet Lukaku, who proved himself as a good Premier League striker last season by scoring 17 goals for West Brom, wasn’t given a chance to prove himself in a Chelsea shirt.
In fact, Chelsea have a total of 27 players out on loan. Most of these players are 21 years old or younger and have either never played for Chelsea or made only a handful of appearances. In recent years, Chelsea have signed so many of these young players and immediately loaned them out, even sending some of them back to the club which they signed them from (French defender Kurt Zouma being just one example) so that Chelsea don’t have to develop them themselves by giving them game time. In fact, Chelsea are probably (out of all of the Premier League’s “top six/seven”) the least likely club to give youth a chance.
If you have the financial firepower to go out and buy the best, there’s no need to risk playing players who are yet to already be at the stage where they can be called “the best”. Courtois might be an exception. He might be recalled and go on to be the next Petr Cech and keep goal for the club for many years, after all you’d be hard pressed to find a better alternative choice anywhere in the world. However, will players like Lukaku and Zouma (and Josh McEachran, Patrick Bamford, Nathaniel Chalobah, etc) ever be able to, or even given the chance to, make the grade at Chelsea? Don’t bet on it given the fact that it’s hardly a secret they’re after Diego Costa. If Costa joins, Lukaku will probably find himself out on loan again.
Another reason why Chelsea follow this questionable policy of signing players only then to loan them out again is because, in order to catch up with the other European giants, they’re effectively trying to play football “monopoly”. By signing these young “wonderkids” and therefore tying them down to long-term contracts, they’re preventing other top European clubs from gaining their signatures. Chelsea may or may not be genuinely interested in the player or genuinely believe they have a first team future at Stamford Bridge. By then loaning these players out, they can see how far they develop. If they develop like Courtois and Lukaku, Chelsea can then decide to either keep them or possibly sell them on for a very high fee. Or if they don’t develop as much as expected, they can keep loaning him out or allow him to leave.
This method can be considered as being very clever but when one of their own players – who has been recruited and been immediately cast aside – comes back to haunt them, it’s hard to have sympathy for them. Courtois, having been owned by Chelsea for three years, having never played for Chelsea, ironically ended up on the winning side against Chelsea and deservedly so. Lukaku’s goals this season may also have been the missing element from their title challenge, if indeed they do miss out which Mourinho seems adamant that will be the case. Suddenly, this loan system isn’t looking quite so “clever” any more.