Loan Pathways: The Buy-to-Loan 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 has a very different methodology and some have very different end goals.

In this series so far, we have looked at the Academy Model (typified by Chelsea), the Portfolio Model (typified by Manchester City) and the Multi-Club Model (typified by the Red Bull Group)

This week, we’re going to look at the fourth and final model in the series: the Buy-to-Loan Model. We will use Brighton & Hove Albion as the test case for this model.

The Buy-to-Loan Model

So far in this series, the loan models we have focused on have had one commonality. They are all loan strategies that favour monied clubs. Chelsea’s Academy Model benefits from huge equalities of scale that allow them to farm the best youngsters and reap the rewards at the end of that process. Manchester City’s Portfolio Model sees them treating academy players like assets, moving them around as and when they accrue value. The Multi-Club Model can only be adopted by global brands or private investment funds set up by states.

Have we reached a point in modern football where the loan market has priced out clubs further down the pyramid? Or is there some way that the less-than-superclubs can develop their own loan models which allow them to benefit from sending youngsters out?

In our final article in this series, we’ve unearthed one example of a loan strategy that gives non-elite clubs the opportunity to benefit from the loan system. We’re calling this strategy the “Buy-to-Loan Model” and we are going to use Brighton & Hove Albion as the test case.

Introducing Brighton & Hove Albion

Brighton & Hove Albion operate a model that’s something of a departure from the ones we’ve looked at so far in this series. As a financial minnow in a top division—certainly in the Premier League, at least—they can’t afford to plough as much money into player development as their rivals or have vast armies of players out on loan. Instead, they need to pick their targets a lot more carefully to get the most players possible making their way into the Brighton first team.

We have called their model ‘Buy-to-Loan’ as we have observed a trend in Brighton’s transfer dealings over the last few years. They will buy players who they then immediately loan out with the idea being to buy the player at a low value before using the loan to develop the player a little more before integrating them into the Seagull’s squad. 

This model could be seen in action on transfer deadline day. Brighton bought Abdallah Sima from Slavia Prague, only to loan him immediately to Stoke City in the Championship. The Senegalese scored 11 goals and made 5 assists in Fortuna Liga last season and his TransferLab profile from 20/21 shows that his underlying numbers backed up the quality of his performance over the season and suggest that Brighton made a smart transfer in picking him up early in his development:

Brighton’s technical director Dan Ashworth’s explained exactly what their plans are for the player to the club’s official website

“Abdallah joins us after a really good season with Slavia Prague, last season, which saw him excel in their domestic league and the Europa League.

“However it is important to remember he has had a very rapid rise, coming from Senegal to France, and he has only played one full season of professional football. It is essential we manage his development in the right way.  

“Now he has the opportunity to acclimatise to English football with Stoke, who have started the season well in the Championship.

“We’re excited by his potential, and David Weir and the loans team will be working closely with him to monitor his progress and ensure he settles here in the UK.” 

Many of the clubs competing at the end of the division Brighton find themselves in would take the gamble of throwing Sima into the first-team squad in hope that he might score the goals that help them avoid a relegation battle. Brighton’s thinking is more long-term than that though. They believe the best thing for the player is a spell in a lower division first. However, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him brought up to the Premier League by January, should he do well at Stoke. 

As well as loaning out Sima on deadline day, Brighton also loaned out another big signing—albeit a signing from another window. Moises Caicedo left to go to Beerschot in the Belgian Pro League after he had moved to Brighton for £4.5m at the end of the January transfer window. 

Bought from Independiente in Ecuador, he was originally moved over to England to experience his new club for a short period, only featuring in a few PL2 games for the U23 side. He played in the EFL Cup 2nd Round tie recently before being given his loan move which is part of giving him an experience of European football at a higher level before the teenager will be considered as an option in the Premier League.  

As you can see from this TansferLab profile of Caicedo, taken from his last full season in Ecuador, he was putting up superb numbers in almost all the relevant metrics for his position profile relative to players at the level. Brighton recognised this and acted on recruiting him when they did, rather than waiting for him to be Premier League ready, at which point he might have been out of their price range. 

Previous Successes 

A player who has become an increasing part of the Brighton first team over the last season is Alexis Mac Allister. The midfielder was bought from Argentinos in 18/19 for a fee of £7.2m after a fine breakout season in the Argentine Superliga in 17/18 where he had scored 2 and assisted 6 goals in just over 1400 minutes of action. 

As you can see from his TransferLab profile, his ball progression and creative metrics were very impressive and given that he was still only 18, Brighton saw big potential in him and moved to buy him at the end of the season. 

However, they didn’t bring him to England immediately. Instead, they loaned him back to Argentinos for another season. This time he scored 6 and assisted 3 across around 2500 minutes in all competitions. 

At the end of this season, Brighton still didn’t choose to integrate the Argentinian into their squad but instead loaned him to one of the top clubs in Argentina, Boca Juniors. 

Mac Allister scored 3 times and assisted 5 in 21 games for the Argentinian giants. During this period he made 6 appearances in the Copa Libertadores and played 1296 minutes in total for the club up until January. At that point, Brighton made the decision to bring him over to England. 

In half a season, the Argentine made 9 appearances for his new club but only featured for 351 minutes, averaging 39 minutes for each appearance. He didn’t contribute any goals or assists, but importantly he’d had an experience of the Premier League now and was deemed ready for more action in 20/21. 

Mac Allister’s first full season in the Premier League was impressive, as shown by his TransferLab profile:

He stood out for his progressive short passing and through balls as well as putting up good numbers for expected assists with his 0.1 per 90 putting him in the 74th percentile relative to his position. In the end, he totalled 1114 minutes in the league in 20/21 and looks set to play even more in 21/22, appearing in all three of Brighton’s fixtures so far this season. 

Other high-profile players to have been bought from foreign leagues and given loans before making the move to the Premier League are Polish international Jakub Moder and Percy Tau. 

Tau is an example of a move that didn’t really work out. Brighton bought him from Mamelodi Sundowns for a fee of just under £3m in 18/19 and were forced to loan him in order to get a work permit—although their strategy suggests they’d probably have done this anyway—which he finally obtained in January 2021. He joined Brighton’s Premier League squad for the second half of the season but ultimately only made 6 appearances for the club in all competitions as he wasn’t deemed up to standard. He was subsequently sold to Al Ahly this summer. 

Jakub Moder has been more successful. He was signed from Lech Poznan in the summer window of 20/21 but loaned back to the club in order to play a full season in Poland before moving to England. In fact, Brighton didn’t bring him in until the January window of 21/22. However, once joining, he featured far more often than Tau, making 13 appearances and playing for 730 minutes. 

In 21/22, he has featured in all three games in the league so far, starting once. He seems to be on a similar trajectory to Mac Allister in becoming an important member of Brighton’s first team. 

There was also an interesting domestic example of this in 18/19 when centre back Dan Burn was bought from Wigan Athletic for a fee of £3.2m. Rather than move straight up to the Premier League, Burn was allowed to stay for half a season on loan at Wigan as the club had just been promoted from League One and half a season in the Championship seemed to be a smart step before the big step to the top division. 

The defender had played a small amount in the top division before when he was still at Fulham but Brighton were careful not to push him too much too soon. In fact, he didn’t play at all for the first team in the second half of 18/19. He was deemed ready the next summer and played almost 3000 minutes in the Premier League in 19/20 as he covered both the left-side centre back role in a back three as well as left wing back. 

Loans for Academy-Developed players

Away from their Buy-to-Loan Model, Brighton have been particularly successful in giving academy players loans—particularly in the EFL—and then integrating them into their first team at a much higher rate than sides like Chelsea or Manchester City, as we have seen from the earlier studies in our series. 

One example is Steven Alzate, a 22-year-old with dual citizenship from England and Colombia. Brighton signed him from Leyton Orient’s U18 team in 17/18 and loaned him to Swindon Town in League Two. He played as an attacking midfielder and featured for just over 1500 minutes in all competitions. Alzate impressed enough in that season to be included In Brighton’s Premier League squad going forwards and would go on to play 1183 minutes and 896 minutes in the league in 19/20 and 20/21. 

However, the big success stories in this regard are Robert Sanchez and Ben White. Both had multiple loans in the EFL before stepping into the Premier League with Brighton and both gained call-ups to the Euros with Spain and England respectively.  

The Rise of Robert Sanchez

Sanchez moved from Levante to Brighton as a teenager in 2010 to join their academy. After growing through the age groups, Sanchez went for his first loan in the EFL in 18/19. Like Alzate, he went to League Two first with Forest Green Rovers. 

He played 17 games for the club, conceding at a rate of only a goal per game. This loan went well enough for him to be considered for the next step and he went to Rochdale in League One the next season where he played 26 times in the league. 

As you can see from his TransferLab profiles, his passing accuracy was poor in both seasons, but generally, he progressed from one season to the next. 

In 20/21, he was made Brighton’s number two goalkeeper initially but ultimately became the number one choice after Mat Ryan started the season badly. Sanchez’ performances were enough to make him considered one of the best in the league in terms of form and brought him into the Spanish international fold. 

As his profile shows, he was one of the best shot-stoppers in the league and this was reflected in the fact that he conceded only 27 goals in his 27 appearances with 10 clean sheets. His progressives passing ratings are also important and helped him to get a place in a team that plays as Spain do. 

Ben White: League Two to £50m Transfer

Like the previous two examples, Ben White was picked up at an early age from another academy and developed through Brighton’s age groups before going to League Two for his first loan. The fact that all three of these players began in League Two feels more than a coincidence and seems to be a plan from the club to ensure that their players are not pushed to too high a level too early in their careers. Considering this is a highly physical league, it could be seen as a risk but there is obvious success in these cases. 

In White’s case, he went to Newport County first. He played over 4000 minutes in all competitions for the League Two club, including an FA Cup tie against Leeds United, in which he impressed Leeds’ Director of Football Victor Orta enough to try and sign him the next summer. However, Brighton chose to keep the young defender at the club for the first half of the next season, before loaning him in January to League One’s Peterborough—a club well-respected for developing young players. 

Brighton did allow him to move to Leeds on loan for the next season but they resisted all Orta’s attempts to put an “Option to Buy” into the deal as they believed in White’s potential to play for them in the Premier League. This ended up being an excellent decision as White played every single minute of Leeds’ title-winning season and stood out as one of the very best players in the division. 

Leeds bid several times for the defender after they won promotion but Brighton knocked them back on every occasion, making him a key part of their first eleven in 20/21. 

Last season, White played 36 times for Brighton in the Premier League, impressing enough for Gareth Southgate to take him to the belated Euro 2020 and for Arsenal to spend £50m on him. Mikel Arteta deemed him to be the answer to some of Arsenal’s problems in playing out from the back due to his excellent passing and ball-carrying ability. 

Conclusion

By adopting the Buy-to-Loan Model, Brighton are looking to overcome financial inequalities by buying potential talent early before the player’s value starts to spike and then helping them complete their development elsewhere before bringing them into the senior set-up at Brighton at the right time.

This approach offers a player development pathway that is affordable to clubs further down the pyramid. As is so often the case, affordability comes at a relative cost. For the Buy-to-Loan Model, these costs can be divided into “planning cost” and “risk”.

When it comes to planning, the Buy-to-Loan Model requires meticulous oversight, a long-term approach and the ability to juggle many balls at once. In the Dan Ashworth quote above, the Brighton Technical Director mentions “David Weir and the loans team”. Brighton have set up an entire department to oversee this project which gives testimony to the sort of commitment it requires. A Buy-to-Loan strategy cannot be a side project for a club; there needs to be a financial outlay from the off and a long-term commitment to the project.

As for the risk element, there is, of course, a level of speculation involved in this approach. Buying players from relative backwater markets means that there is a chance that the move between leagues or countries might not work out. In addition, buying players earlier in their development poses a risk.

With the Buy-to-Loan Model they are pioneering, though, Brighton have shown that you can bring players into your first team who go on to compete at the Premier League level.

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