The debate surrounding the loan system raised its head regularly this season without really reaching any conclusion. The case of Thibaut Courtois was perhaps the most obvious striking of the eccentricities of the current system. Owned by Chelsea yet spending the season on loan at Atletico Madrid, the eligibility of the Belgian keeper was questioned when both clubs met in the Champions League.
UEFA quickly insisted that loan players can face their parent clubs in European competition and Courtois played nobly, despite the obvious conflict of interest. In contrast Premier League rules stipulate that loan players cannot face their parent clubs. However, this system has also caused controversy with accusations that larger clubs are manipulating this rule to their own advantage.
While others implied that smaller clubs are using this to boost their competitiveness. Back in April, Arsene Wenger most notably drew attention to Everton’s reliance on loan signings. This may have been a case of sour grapes by the Frenchman given how close Everton came to a top four position. And especially when you consider Arsenal’s own fondness for the loan system.
But contrary to the headlines, Wenger’s words were less of an attack on Everton than on larger clubs that are abusing the system for their own advantage, Chelsea in this case. Besides player development, wealthier outfits can afford to loan out their more promising young stars to clubs that can take points from their own title challengers. It’s a cynical theory but a popular one and the case of Romelu Lukaku was often mentioned this season.
The Belgian striker spent the season at Everton on loan from Chelsea and contributed fifteen goals in thirty-one games in the league. But did Chelsea really benefit from his goals at Everton this season? Contrary to the Courtois incident, Lukaku was ineligible against Chelsea but was eligible to play against their rivals.
Against Arsenal, Everton took four out of a possible six points this season and Lukaku scored in the 3-0 win in April. Everton enjoyed less success against Manchester City with two defeats. But over the two games, Lukaku scored two out of three of Everton’s consolation goals. Irregardless of the score, he was certainly of benefit to Everton.
It is revealing that against Chelsea, Everton took three points from a possible six in Lukaku’s absence. In fact in February, Chelsea could only score in the 93rd minute to secure the win. Lukaku may have made a difference on that occasion, and given his deteriorating relationship with Mourinho he would certainly have had the motivation.
If we bring Liverpool into the equation, Lukaku’s role raises even more questions.
Everton were hammered by their Merseyside rivals in January, but they secured a draw in November with Lukaku scoring two out of Everton’s three. Liverpool may regret this game as they fell short to Manchester City by only two points this season, while Manchester City sailed clear of Mourinho’s booby trapped Everton.
Admittedly, the two-point gap that decided the title this season could have come from any of Liverpool’s five other draws. And indeed, in the games that Lukaku scored, an alternative striker may also have scored for Everton had he played in the Belgian’s place. While when absent, Lukaku may not have scored if he had played.
Despite not running amuck against Chelsea’s immediate rivals, Lukaku clearly caused some damage. Deep within Abramovich’s lair, they may notch this one up as a half-success in their game of small numbers. Any competitive advantage over a 38 game season is welcomed. However, if true, Chelsea’s cunning plan fell flat on its face against Manchester City. And since they finished in third place themselves, Chelsea would have been served better with Lukaku at Stamford Bridge this season.
But it does appear that the whole loan system has become a game for the big boys. If the English FA is intent on changing it, they must factor in how clubs like Everton can benefit against their wealthier rivals, at least in the short term. Financially speaking, Everton again punched above their weight this season; compare their spending last summer with Tottenham’s for example.
Player development in their formative years is another concern to reformers. The loan system can often offer the only competitive football available to many promising players at big clubs. Recently the FA’s Greg Dyke suggested forming B-sides like in Spain, which could climb no higher than League One. But subsequently many proud clubs would be shunted down a division just to accommodate the elite Premier League clubs and effectively maintain the status quo.
But at least Dyke tried to address the situation before it can escalate even further. Feeder clubs have been obvious for some time now but these relationships are growing murkier. And the case of the Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem and Chelsea is murkier than most. Vitesse appear to be in danger of becoming the London’s club’s puppet state.
Vitesse certainly benefit from a steady supply of Chelsea’s younger stars. But off the pitch, Abramovich might now even exert an influence over their transfer policy. Before Marco Van Ginkel’s transfer to Chelsea last year, Marc Overmars claimed that Ajax were rebuffed previously from approaching the player after Chelsea vetoed the move at an advanced stage.
Transfers and loans aside, there are even suggestions that Vitesse’s competitiveness is being directly undermined. Back in March, the former Vitesse owner Merab Jordania accused his successor Alexander Chigirinsky, a close friend of Abramovich, of taking orders from the Russian oligarch. Apparently Vitesse were instructed not to qualify for the Champions League as Chelsea were uncomfortable with the prospect of encountering them.
Perhaps it is unfair to repeatedly use Chelsea as an example but they have become the poster boys of footballing excess in recent times. In Chelsea’s defence, if we return to Everton again they also enjoyed the services of Manchester City’s Gareth Barry and Gerard Duelofeu from Barcelona, along with Lukaku.
However, the differing approaches of the English FA and UEFA in the cases of Lukaku and Courtois reveal just how divided the game’s authorities are when reform is desperately needed. Like many of the game’s traditional structures, the current loan system is ill-prepared for the levels of money involved right now. And it’s unlikely to catch up anytime soon.
Alan Casey, Pundit Arena.