Much is made of the infamous Chelsea loan farm. Players who are plucked from the far corners of Europe, and the much nearer corners of Britain, in their teens and integrated into the academy system before eventually finding themselves on loan when they’re old enough to do so.
Once established at a club as a decent player, Chelsea will then find a buyer and make a tidy profit, funding the next batch of academy players with enough money spare to help fund the next big transfer.
The numbers over the last couple of years have dwindled slightly from the 41 players they had out on loan in the 2018/19 season, though last year they still had 37 players out there, with 22 away this season.
As a pure profit generator, it’s a brilliant business model, yet also a cold, emotionless factory for footballers. It becomes difficult for fans, until the last few years, to really find themselves becoming excited for, or attached to, youngsters who are generating hype amongst the academy coaches, with the knowledge that when there are 40+ players out on loan the odds of being the one picked to join the first team at the end of that loan is significantly reduced.
I don’t even have to imagine how that must feel for Chelsea fans, because Manchester City have adopted the exact same model.
City ended the summer with 30 players out on loan. Chelsea, as mentioned, have 22, Arsenal have 17, Manchester United have 15, Liverpool have 12 and Spurs have seven.
Manchester City’s loanees span a wide range of potential.
In some parts, it’s a who’s who of Football Manager wonderkids – Dario Sarmiento, Pedro Porro, Filip Stevanovic, Yan Couto, Gavin Bazunu and more. In some parts, it’s the lower league loanees who are ticking along until their contracts expire. One thing connects them all – they’ll probably never become regulars in City’s first team.
What evidence do I have to back that up? Well, we’ve only got about a decade’s worth of players who’ve been sent out on loan and never really made any strides in the first team afterwards to pull from. However, we’re going to be generous and only really go off the time since Pep Guardiola arrived at the club, which feels very much like the time when the academy started to realize its true potential whilst a manager serious about leaving a lasting squad legacy went hand in hand.
During this time, we’ve seen plenty of youngsters make their way into the squad, bringing with them promise of something for the future. Tosin Adarabioyo, Angelino, Pablo Maffeo, Arijanet Muric, Lukas Nmecha; all of them came into the squad having been highly-rated through all levels of the youth. One by one, they’ve been sent away on loan and not a single one of them has ended up returning to the squad.
The solitary example of a player being loaned out and finding themselves carving out a place in the squad for themselves is Oleksandr Zinchenko, who had an astonishing mixture of stubbornness, self-belief and luck to find himself earning a run in the first team with both left-backs out injured. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, having looked at the quality of player many of the failed loanees have turned out to be, it’s difficult to really sit here and lament the quality of player that we’ve let go.
Adarabioyo, much as we’d all have loved to see him cement a place in the Manchester City squad given how long he’d been at the club, looked a serviceable Premier League defender but never really had the technical ability anywhere close to the level which you see in the likes of our current fourth choice center-back, Nathan Aké.
However, nobody can ever convince me that Angelino, a player who actually was legitimately brought back to the squad for serious consideration (and actually played against Liverpool in that Anfield game where Riyad Mahrez was one penalty kick away from giving us three points), could not be of use to our squad.
Lukas Nmecha could potentially have had a place in our current squad in the absence of a proper number nine, though the money we got from the transfer was not to be sniffed at with a potential Harry Kane move in the works.
But this isn’t really the point of the article. That wave of players aren’t the ones that really bother me, not anymore. Four or five years ago, I was watching these players leave and thinking it was a sure sign that our academy was absolutely pointless and that Khaldoon Al Mubarak was an idiot to once say that he wants half the first team to be homegrown. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen how they’ve developed (albeit because they’ve spent years away from Manchester City’s coaches and facilities) but hindsight has ultimately proved the club correct.
One of the players who did make it to the first team a couple of years ago, however, is Taylor Harwood-Bellis.
Breaking through in the 2019/20 season at the age of just 17, he and Eric Garcia started one of the early Carabao Cup rounds as a partnership and it looked like we had two brilliant prospects for the future. Of course, Eric Garcia has gone to win the Champions League with Barcelona (they’ve won it five times, don’t you know? City have never won it. You’d be amazed how excited Barcelona fans are to tell you this) , leaving just Harwood-Bellis flying the flag from that Preston game.
As Ruben Dias and Nathan Aké were brought in last season to fix our defensive issues, game time continued to present itself only in the early rounds of the domestic cups, which he still did get. He matches the previous season’s four appearances before securing himself a loan with Blackburn for the remainder of the season in the January window. Blackburn had helped to give Adarabioyo a good footing to earn his move to then-Premier League Fulham. However, this is where the concerns immediately rose.
Once a player has been sent out on loan by City, it’s because they’re not in the first team plans anymore. Look at the treatment of Phil Foden and Cole Palmer – two players who are genuinely making waves in the first team right now – and it’s clear that Pep Guardiola and his coaching staff thought that, with genuine first team minutes on the horizon, it was better to keep them around the squad and the coaches rather than send them on loan. Early signs from Palmer are that it seems to have worked in both cases, yet there are still to be any signs whatsoever that loans work.
Looking at Chelsea, alternatively, Mason Mount and Reece James are two noteworthy players in their first team who, despite spending the 2018/19 season on loan in the Championship, were given a fair shake in the first team, albeit somewhat forced with Chelsea under transfer restrictions, and have developed to become Champions League winning players. Trevoh Chalobah is looking impressive in the first team, after years on loan at Ipswich, Huddersfield and Lorient. It’s taken them a while, but they’re making the loan system work for them in more than just a financial sense.
Harwood-Bellis has found himself on the verge of being recalled from Anderlecht, managed by the great Vincent Kompany himself – possibly the perfect tutor for a center-back, due to his game time dropping off a cliff since a 2-0 defeat to Antwerp in mid-November. What exactly the issue is that’s caused this drop-off, I’m not sure. He’s due to return and immediately go out on loan to Stoke in their place, showing that the club is pretty much done with any possibility of first team football for him.
Back when he went out on loan to Blackburn, I could rationalize it with the fact that, having got through the early rounds of the cups, he had no legitimate opportunities at first team football left for the season. When he went out to Anderlecht this season, he was joining up with Vincent Kompany at a club with great youth facilities playing at a relatively high level. If I was being optimistic, I could convince myself that the door wasn’t fully closed for him. Stoke, however, is the nail in the coffin.
Of course, the warning signs were there. When we rejected a £ 20 million bid for Eric Garcia, who had openly stated his desire to leave the club before the summer window had opened, and still continued to use Garcia ahead of Harwood-Bellis in a handful of Premier League and Champions League games , the writing was on the wall. If there was really any faith in Harwood-Bellis then, we’d have pocketed the money for Garcia, safe in the knowledge that we had a similarly good prospect in waiting. Evidently the club didn’t rate Harwood-Bellis on the same level and the subsequent loans further prove that.
Tommy Doyle is another player who, to my mind, has always looked very comfortable whenever he’s played amongst the first team. Yet he’s found himself out on loan (though this feels more like bad luck than anything else, with Doyle excelling in a position where we have four or five genuinely world class options at the moment), again which has seemingly been botched at Hamburg.
We’re still quite early in this fresh wave of the post-Pep academy, where it has felt like the investments of the last decade are starting to bear fruit, so it’s difficult to know just how endemic this cycle of players being sent out on loan and it basically being a death sentence to their City career really is. With the highly-rated Callum Doyle out at Sunderland at the age of 17, rather than spending time with City’s EDS, he’ll be an interesting case study for whether or not City have found a new way of doing things. My hopes aren’t high.
When it comes to the foreign players that are signed, Sarmiento, Stevanovic and the like, it’s fine. I don’t even get excited for those particular signings because I naturally assume they’re going to spend a couple of years at Girona before we sell them on for a small profit. It’s the CFG model which has proved to be profitable and successful for the club. It’s when it’s the Tommy Doyles and the Harwood-Bellis’ of the world that I start to despair. It doesn’t feel like loans are a viable alternative to getting yourself back into those first team plans.
People are talking about James McAtee going out on loan somewhere to get football, if he even wants to stay with the club at all given that he’s suffering from the same problem as Tommy Doyle and playing in a position which is stacked with talent.
If McAtee gets a loan somewhere then, based on the current evidence, we might as well just sell him. Once somebody’s gone out on loan somewhere, then they’re out of Pep’s mind. It’s a year of being around him on the training ground and given opportunities to impress him which is totally erased. You’ll return the following summer and probably be given another go in pre-season but, realistically, the kids who he was around for a whole year prior to that are going to be preferred.
Maybe (almost definitely) patience is needed. Chelsea didn’t get their loan system producing genuine first team contenders for the best part of a decade and City are still in the infancy of this new way of working with a high number of loans. We may well get there one day.
We all like to think that every youngster who gets 10-15 minutes off the bench in the Carabao is going to be the next kid who makes it, and there’s every reason to think that – it’s normal for fans. Pep doesn’t hand these debuts out for nothing, every kid who’s got onto the pitch in a City shirt has absolutely earned it.
However, I’ve now just had to wearily accept that for every couple of dozen academy lads who get a lot of hype, maybe one will actually make it to the first team.
You can follow us for live updates here: @City_Xtra