If he’s good enough, he’s old enough
It has been a magnificent summer for the England men’s youth teams. Every other week another final has been reached, another achievement attained, another old enemy knocked off along the way. Talent is clearly emerging, or present, among the youth ranks, and the questions now turn to whether or not they’ll get their chances among the Premier League’s starting lineups.
The signing of Tiemoue Bakayoko by Chelsea has crossed neatly into this debate, ‘what’s wrong with Nathaniel Chalobah?’ some have asked. ‘Why did this promising youngster have to be sold to Watford while a new midfielder is brought in?’.
Chalobah, of course, was one of the multiple players at big English clubs who’s had as many loan spells as he has hot school dinners, a practice which has been going on for the best part of a decade. Conveniently, because it’s been going on for the best part of a decade, we can go back and look at the previous generations of loan-fodder.
The 2011 England men’s Under-21 squad had nine such players – well, kind of. Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge only had three seasons of loans between them, yet are often thought of in a similar frame to Chalobah et al. They were youngsters at large clubs with talent, they were loaned out, and they were then given a chance by the big club they were with. They’re thought of in the same frame because they’re the models, presumably, to follow.
The other seven journey boys were: Ryan Bertrand, Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, Scott Sinclair, Jack Cork, Henri Lansbury, and Tom Cleverley.
The group as a whole can be split into those who currently play for Big Four/Big Six clubs (Welbeck, Sturridge, Rose, Walker), and those who do not (Bertrand, Cleverley, Sinclair, Cork, and Lansbury). While Sinclair did once upon a time take up space on Manchester City’s books, that was more an exercise in accountancy than an opportunity for an English talent.
It seems a reasonable hypothesis, as a starting point, that players who have worse loan spells will be less likely to progress into the first team. Spells at lower league clubs or where they fail to regularly feature would surely be a red flag.
Scott Sinclair would be a clear ‘fail’ on this count. In the 2007/08 season, aged 18, he had three short-term loan spells of varying levels of success at Championship clubs. In 2008/09 he had a loan spell at Birmingham City in the Championship for half a season, only making 14 league appearances. In 2009/10, his final as a ‘Chelsea player’, he was on loan in the Premier League at Wigan, making only 18 appearances in the league. If you can’t make it as a key player (at 20 years old, not an overly young age given that many top players hit the big time in their teens) at Wigan, you’re unlikely to be able to make it at Chelsea, and sure enough he was sold to Swansea the following year.
However, Henri Lansbury muddies these waters. At 19 and 20 he had decent loan spells in the Championship with Watford and Norwich, and in 2011/12 he had another at West Ham, his playing time only limited due to a knee injury. Unlike Sinclair, he never got a chance to a Premier League side on loan because he was then sold to Nottingham Forest.
Maybe, though, that’s all the indication we need. He never got a loan spell with a Premier League club because he was never good enough – good enough to play regularly for upper-tier Championship clubs, but not any further.
Let’s take these nine’s first Premier League spell, post- or amidst their loan journey, and see what % of possible appearances they gathered.
For a couple of these – Sturridge, Bertrand, and Rose – there is some slight fudging, in that they had spent a full season being a bit-part player with their parent club prior to the season included here. Bertrand is highlighted again as his first major Premier League season was with a big club, appearing fairly regularly for Chelsea, and so his 50% of possible appearances played in are significantly more impressive than Scott Sinclair’s 47.37% at Wigan.
By and large, the players who ‘made it’ featured more on their Premier League loan spells than those that didn’t. But is this helpful?
Let’s return to Chalobah. His Premier League loan spells were with Burnley in 2014/15 for the first half of the season, where he featured 4 times but only managed 65 minutes on the pitch in total. In 2015/16 he went to Serie A and Napoli, where he made 5 appearances out of a possible 38, just over 13%. Neither of those is particularly promising.
Another thing to note: Daniel Sturridge had one loan season before being brought properly into his parent club’s first team, and Danny Welbeck too, both making the big-time after a successful Premier League loan. Maybe the old adage of “if they’re good enough, they’re old enough” is right after all.
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