Loan Pathways: The Academy Model

Jon Mackenzie and Josh Hobbs explore the loan systems used in the modern game and assess how clubs have created different pathway models for their players. Most of these models focus on player development in some way but each have a very different methodology and some have very different end goals.   

Just after Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final in 2019, Simon Gleave, head of sports analysis at Gracenote, put out a tweet that detailed the origins of the various players who had started for Liverpool in that final:

He concluded the tweet with the observation that seven of these players joined Liverpool from clubs ranked outside the Euro Club Index top 50 list.

This tweet prompted another from Michael Beale, Steven Gerrard’s assistant manager at Rangers:

In the tweet, Beale talks about a “career before the elite career,” emphasising how important it is for clubs to utilise the full football pyramid in the development of their young players. As he suggests, it’s “harsh to judge… young players that they are not ready to take the shirt off the 25-30yr old international.” 

The problem is this: if a youngster is going to prove themselves worthy of a place in a first team, they need to show that they can perform at the level expected of them. But a first-team manager’s main priority is to see his team win, not to blood young talent. As a result, there is always a risk attached to young player development. Do you risk losing by playing youngsters? Or do you use other pathways of player development to get your youngsters to the level required of them?

Traditionally, loan systems have been used to overcome this conundrum. By sending players out to other clubs, you provide “work experience” to your academy players at lower levels of the football pyramid. This allows players the opportunity to build a base of experience. Some will be positive. Some will be negative. But they’ll all count toward filling up a young player’s CV. 

For some, this “career before a career” will prove to a manager or director of football that a player is ready to be moved to the first team. For others, who don’t get the promotion they were looking for, they can fall back on this experience so that lower division clubs aren’t jumping into the unknown when signing them. Clubs will know whether the player will be able to perform at their level because the player has senior games under their belt.

The Evolution of the Loan System

In the modern game, though, things are not quite so simple.

For one thing, talented players are a limited commodity. As the game has become more and more professionalised, we have seen the slow monopolisation of the loan system by bigger clubs as they have built so-called “loan armies”. By hoovering up talent from around the world and then sending them out to clubs around Europe to develop them elsewhere, elite clubs are then able to take first pickings of those players whose development is promising before selling on those who are surplus to requirement at a profit.

This has a knock-on effect across the rest of the pyramid. Talent becomes scarce the lower down the league system you go. Player development resources gravitate towards the elite clubs. The likelihood of being able to develop comparable players becomes negligible. It should come as no surprise that clubs like Brentford have opted not to bother with an academy at all, only operating with a reserve team populated by older players who have dropped out of the other end of the player development process.

In the present day, then, the “career before a career” is a much more complex entity. Player development models are no longer largely commensurable: a club running an academy, loaning players out and then looking to promote those players to a senior squad. It is a much more organic process which sees different clubs performing different roles depending on where they sit within the football hierarchy. 

To reflect this, it seems high time to re-assess these different loan models which have emerged in modern football. In this article, we shall look at one of the models that we have identified—the Academy Model—in greater detail. We will cover three other loan models in three subsequent articles.

Loan Pathways Models

Before we come to the Academy Model itself, it’s important to identify and clarify the various loan pathway models that players can take. Of course, there may be additional loan models which do not focus on player development, but we’ll leave these for another time. 

When it comes to our different loan models it is important to note that no club will adopt a single pathway and implement it exclusively. However, most clubs have identified their main focus. 

These models, then, are largely heuristic. The goal should not be to implement a model wholesale but to develop a system that emphasises one but allows space for other pathways within the broader model.

With that in mind, here are the four loan models that we will focus on in this series:

  1. Academy Model
  2. Portfolio Model
  3. Multi-Club Model
  4. Buy-to-Loan Model

Let’s have a look at the broad strokes of the Academy Model

The Academy Model 

Operating an academy seems straightforward. A club will recruit talented youngsters, develop them and, in time, the cream of the crop will play for the clubs first Team.

However, this one-dimensional approach to player development has lacked the flexibility to provide the correct level of football and playing opportunities needed for the majority of academy players when they reach their late teens/early twenties to make the ultimate transition to senior football. In a bid to give players more senior appearances, clubs have turned to the loan system. They loan them out to clubs lower down the football pyramid until they are deemed ready to move into the first team. Players who don’t make this step are sold on to fund the academy system. 

As we have already mentioned, the academy loan model has become monopolised by elite clubs in recent years. Given the financial backing these elite clubs enjoy, the benefit from economies of scale are noticeable. They can build state-of-the-art academy facilities and fill them with cutting-edge coaches and then use these resources to attract the best talent from around the world.

On top of this, given the pedigree of the club and their academy system, they can then sell on any players who don’t end their development pathway in the first team for a decent sum of money, covering the running cost of the academy and making it financially viable.

Chelsea are the classic example here. In the last decade, the London club have dominated the academy football scene and have built an impressive “loan army”, sending their unused players out on loan around Europe to continue their development. In 2020/21, Chelsea had over 30 players out on loan in the course of the season.

Chelsea’s Academy Loan Model

To best assess the Chelsea loan model, we’ll focus on one season in particular, the 2017/18 season. This will allow us to follow the academy players’ development over the next five seasons and make observations about its success or failure.

Chelsea had 33 players on loan in the 17/18 season. The vast majority of these players were those that had come through their Cobham academy. Some were brought into Chelsea’s developmental programme in their late teens but many had been recruited as youngsters with Chelsea utilising the Category 1 status of their academy which allows them to recruit players from all over the country.

Of these 33 loans, 18 of them played at least 1000 minutes during the season. These were key developmental minutes that the players wouldn’t have got had they stayed at Chelsea. But not all of these loans were a resounding success.

For instance, Lewis Baker’s move to Middlesbrough saw him feature for only 631 minutes in the Championship. Previously, he had been on several very successful loans where he had ended being one of the star players for his loan club. The 17/18 season was a backward step for him and he has struggled to kick on ever since. Izzy Brown also had a very unsuccessful loan, although this was due to the fact his season ended early on with an ACL injury picked up in the Premier League playing for Brighton.

Within the Chelsea model, there are a number of commonalities that crop up regularly. Here are the most notable ones:

League and Team Preference

In 2017/18 Chelsea utilised a well-thought-out strategy with their loans in terms of where they sent their players.

The EFL was the recipient of the majority of the Chelsea loanees in 17/18 with 13 players sent to the three leagues below the Premier League. Five players were loaned to eventual promotion winners: three at Fulham and two at Hull City. Giving their young players the chance to experience being part of a winning team early in their careers seems to be something Chelsea try to do where they can, with many of their young players representing promotion or playoff-chasing teams. 

Elsewhere, five players went on loan to the Eredivisie with four going to partner club Vitesse Arnhem. The Eredivisie has been a preferred league for Chelsea for early loans due to its emphasis on technical football. Lewis Baker went on his first full-season loan there and ended up staying in the Netherlands for two seasons. At the end of his time in the Eredivisie he seemed like he’d be a star, but unfortunately, this turned out to be the peak of his career thus far. 

The success of Baker’s time in the Netherlands meant that Chelsea have happily sent players to Vitesse ever since. 

In 17/18, Mason Mount, Matt Miazga and Fankaty Dabo were regulars in their team, with two other loan players finding game time hard to come by. Continuing the run of successful Chelsea loanees at Vitesse, Armando Broja completed a season-long loan with the Eredivisie club in 20/21 and has been rewarded with a new contract with The Blues after a strong season in the Netherlands.

There were also three players loaned to bottom-half Premier League teams with the rest being spread out across European clubs.

Loaning Established First-Teamers

As well as academy players, the Blues also had Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Michy Batshuayi out on loan during 17/18. These were players who had played several hundred minutes for the first team in the previous season but had not managed to earn a starting spot. It was felt that both players would benefit from regular minutes elsewhere but they were still valued highly enough by Chelsea to not want to sell them. 

Batshuayi spent half the season at Borussia Dortmund, where he played 1213 minutes in all competitions and managed to pick up 9 goals. Perhaps Chelsea would have been better off selling the Belgian after that season as, according to Transfermarkt, this was the moment that his transfer value peaked, reaching £36m. Instead, he was sent on another loan, this time to Valencia. When this loan didn’t work out, his career entered something of a decline and Chelsea have struggled to move him on.  

Loftus-Cheek, on the other hand, followed up his successful loan at Crystal Palace by stepping into the first team at Stamford Bridge. He played 1995 minutes in all competitions in 18/19, scoring 10 goals and assisting 5. 

However, Frank Lampard didn’t seem to rate him as highly as Antonio Conte did and he only played just over 200 minutes the following season, before being loaned out again in 20/21. Like Batshuayi, Chelsea missed out on selling Loftus-Cheek at his peak value. Transfermarkt put it at £27m after the 18/19 season but he now sits at around £16m.

Contrastingly to Loftus-Cheek and Batshuayi, Kurt Zouma was loaned out a couple of times, including a 17/18 season spent at Stoke City. However, Zouma has subsequently managed to re-establish himself at Stamford Bridge. 

The Development of Mason Mount

The real story of Chelsea’s loans in 17/18, though, is those players who were loaned out who had never played for the Chelsea first team. Some were stepping into a first experience of senior-level football. This was the case for Mount. 

Using Transfer Lab’s time machine function, it’s possible to view Mount’s profile from his season at Vitesse: 

Then 19 years old, Mount was played in an attacking midfield role where he was a threat both creatively and as a goalscorer himself. In the end, he picked up 8 assists and 14 goals at a rate of 0.24 and 0.43 per 90 respectively.

His profile shows that he ranked above the 70th percentile for midfielders in Tier 2 leagues for all key metrics in the attacking midfield profile. His creative metrics and expected goals were all in the high 90s of the percentile rankings. This loan was the perfect example of exactly the way Chelsea would want a player’s first loan to play out. 

Of course, Mount is the poster boy for the Chelsea loan system. He had two loans, one to the Eredivisie and one to the Championship and both were roaring successes. He developed his game in different styles of league—the Eredivisie being particularly technical and the Championship a lot more physical. 

Above is Mount’s TransferLab profile from 18/19, as he spent his first season under the tutelage of Frank Lampard. He tended to play more often as an attacking number eight in a midfield three, rather than a number 10 as he had for Vitesse.

This time his profile is a box-to-box midfielder. Whilst Mount has developed a reputation as an excellent presser, his defensive metrics are all below average when compared to other midfielders in Tier 2 leagues but that is to be expected given that there will be a lot of more natural defensive number eights in this data-set. Again, he stood out for creative metrics and for expected goals. This was the kind of development that Chelsea wanted to see as his performances in the Eredivisie clearly translated to the Championship as well. 

When he was then given a chance to prove himself in Chelsea’s first team by new head coach, Frank Lampard, he gave an excellent account of himself in his first season in the Premier League. It should be noted, however, that the circumstances for Mount’s promotion to the first team were exceptional. With Chelsea undergoing a transfer ban in the summer of 2019, there was much more scope for players like Mount to make the step up.

Once again, Mount was utilised more as an attacking midfielder when stepping into the Premier League for the first time, so the TransferLab profile chosen here is an attacking playmaker profile, compared to midfielders in the Premier League:

Whilst he wasn’t posting league-breaking numbers like he was in the Eredivisie and the Championship, this was still a fantastic debut season at the elite level for Mount. He maintained excellent numbers for expected goals, was receiving the ball in dangerous areas—as shown by his forward passes received (quality) ranking being in the 98th percentile—and was significantly above average for all of the other key metrics for the role. Mount took another forward step in his development and this season was more than enough for him to be seen as an important part of the first-team squad going forwards. 

In his second season, he established himself as arguably Chelsea’s best player and provided the assist for Kai Havertz’ Champions League-winning goal. Transfermarkt now value Mount at just under £70m.

Ideally, Chelsea would like to see more Mason Mount-like leaps into the first team. But the club aren’t willing to compromise their level of competitiveness, so these young players have to be exceptional to make it at Chelsea. Even Mount himself might not have had his chance were it not for a transfer ban.

There is a hope that Billy Gilmour will reach that exceptional level and make it at Chelsea after a successful loan. His development at Norwich will be tracked very closely. However, Gilmour differs to Mount in the extent that he has already had a handful of appearances for the first team before being sent out on loan. 

What Happened to the Rest of the 17/18 Loan Army?

Although Mount flourished, Reece James is one of the few others who have also gone on to become a star for Chelsea after that first season with Lampard. James’ first loan was not until 18/19, so we haven’t mentioned him earlier and won’t focus anymore on him here. 

Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori also had loans in 17/18 with Tomori going out for the first time to Hull City. During this time, he played 1980 minutes as Hull City won promotion from League One. Abraham spent the season at Swansea City in the Premier League, managing to score five times. However, Swansea were ultimately relegated. Both players were loaned to the Championship in 2018/19, where they had excellent seasons and joined Mount in being promoted to the Chelsea first team under Lampard.

Again, it’s important to note that this may never have happened for any of them if Chelsea weren’t under a transfer ban at the time. Promising players who have had successful loan spells in the past, such as Baker, were never given a chance as Chelsea continued to buy elite players in their positions. 

In the case of Abraham and Tomori, they played a good amount in Lampard’s first season at Chelsea, although Tomori ultimately fell out of favour. He was then loaned to AC Milan in January 2021 and completed a permanent move there recently, having impressed for the Italian giants. Abraham continued to play and score for Chelsea until Frank Lampard was replaced by Thomas Tuchel who barely used him. He looks highly likely to be sold now. 

Bringing in High Fees after Successful Loans

Whilst Chelsea’s loan system has been known for players getting caught in an endless cycle of loans—don’t forget Izzy Brown went out on six separate loans before being released by Chelsea—there are also the stories of those who have successful loans and who are then are sold on for good fees and build careers at the top level, as Marc Guehi will be hoping to do with Crystal Palace after he was sold for £18m on the back of a successful season-and-a-half loan at Swansea.

From the 17/18 loan crop, Mario Pasalic followed up a strong loan at Spartak Moscow by going on a two-year loan to Atalanta and was subsequently bought for £13m. Below is his TransferLab profile from the 17/18 season: 

As you can see, he performed above average for all the key metrics in the position with his progressive short passing and quality of his through balls the stand-out attributes. This season was enough to encourage the Italian side to bring him to Serie A, where he continued his development to the point that they were convinced enough to buy him. 

Jeremie Boga also secured a £9m move to Sassuolo off the back of his season loan to Birmingham City in 17/18. Adding those two fees to the around £27m that they received for Tomori, Chelsea have received some significant funds from players that spent a few years in their academy before beginning their journeys into senior football on loan. Alongside these higher fees, they’ve also managed to bring in around £20m in smaller fees for five of their other loanees from that season. This brings the total fees received for players loaned in 17/18 to over £59m. 

Another player who was on loan in 17/18 is the Brazillian, Kenedy. He has been loaned out for the following seasons and had a good year with Granada in 20/21 with his value on Transfermarkt reaching £9m. It’s likely that he will soon be added to this list of players to bring in significant fees following successful loan spells. 

Losing Players Earlier

It should also be noted that some of Chelsea’s most highly-rated youngsters are beginning to look to pursue permanent first-team opportunities elsewhere.

Tariq Lamptey’s move straight out of Chelsea’s u23s to becoming a star for Brighton in the Premier League has set an example that other Chelsea youngsters have followed. This summer, Lewis Bate and Myles Peart-Harris both refused new contracts at Chelsea and moved on to other Premier League sides (Leeds and Brentford, respectively) in a bid to cement themselves within a first team.

This presents a potential problem for the Chelsea Academy Model. The line that is sold to youngsters entering the system at Cobham is that there exists a viable pathway into the first team from the academy. The more time goes on and that pathway looks increasingly unlikely, we should expect to see more youngsters taking matters into their own hands and looking to break into first teams further down the pyramid.

When you consider that Dele Alli was able to make the step into elite football from the MK Dons senior team, the idea that getting senior minutes is more important than being owned by an elite club might become more commonplace in the future.

Conclusion

In essence, the Chelsea model works by bringing in young talent, developing them, and then moving them on either into the first team, or if it is decided the player is not at the level, being sold on usually for profit. Having picked up £59m already from the 17/18 crop of loanees, it’s clear that this model is financially viable. 

For an elite club like Chelsea, this model allows them to enjoy an economy of scale. The combination of financial resources from their owner and the pedigree of a club who have won multiple Premier League and Champions League titles in the past few decades means that they can run one of the best academies in the country and fill it with the best young players. At the end of the process, they will make a short-term profit from a sale or a player promotion into the first team. And even if they let players go who then succeed, as Chelsea have done with players of the level of Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah and Romelu Lukaku, then they have the resources to rebuy them should they need to.

As a result, this sort of model will only function as well as it does for Chelsea at a club with the financial backing and footballing pedigree that Chelsea has. But even if other elite clubs do attempt to match Chelsea’s model, it may be the case that the monopoly that Chelsea and other elite clubs like Manchester City have over the developmental pathways in English football make it a closed shop.

That said, a similar “loan-to-develop” model could be used by clubs below the elite level. Although these clubs may not enjoy the same economies of scale and wouldn’t be able to attract the same depth of talent across the board in their academy, there is nothing to suggest that this kind of model wouldn’t be both financially viable and offer a good pathway into the first team. The difference is, of course, that there isn’t the financial buffer that exists for elite clubs. These non-elite clubs would have to make sure that their academy and loan system were carefully managed to ensure that mistakes were kept to a minimum.

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