In Western literature, dragons are often viewed as symbols for greed. They can be found stealing, hoarding and/or guarding large depots of wealth, usually gold, until a hero or oligarch does something to stop them.
While their badge is clearly a lion, Chelsea Football Club could be considered world football’s modern-day dragon. Possessing seemingly unlimited funds—only stymied by UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations—the Blues have acquired ungodly amounts of world-class players since Roman Abramovich bought the club 12 years ago.
Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben and Eden Hazard are easy to highlight as outstanding players—and worthy of being purchased by the fire-breathing west Londoners—but this random trio and others were/are given every opportunity to play first-team football. Each investment was a calculated move to improve the squad with quality, not made for future monetary compensation.
Over the past half decade, however, there has been a sea change. Not only are Chelsea stashing players they wish to star at Stamford Bridge, they have used their clout—garnered over the past decade—to purchase numerous lesser-known commodities, creating an impressive and extensive loan system.
The strategy, to date, has worked flawlessly. Using an adroit scouting network, Chelsea find hopeful gems and play risk vs. reward.
Should an up-and-coming player be available for the right price, buying them can turn out three ways. First, they become members of the Chelsea first team; second they become great, but surplus, and are sold for profit or lastly they remain on loan until finishing their development.
Three examples: Kevin De Bruyne (23), Thibaut Courtois (22) and Patrick Bamford (21) were purchased within eight months of each other for under £13 million collectively.
Before the ink on his Chelsea contract had dried, Courtois was loaned to Atletico Madrid, where he spent three seasons. The goalkeeper played over 150 matches for Atleti and transformed into the world’s best young goalkeeper. Too good to risk losing, the Belgium “No. 1” is now Jose Mourinho’s preferred goalkeeping option at Stamford Bridge.
Bamford was bought from Nottingham Forest for £1 million, played in the Chelsea youth team for almost one year and has been on loan for the past two seasons. Moving from League One to the Championship with positive results, when the England U21 striker finishes his development, his stock will surely have elevated.
De Bruyne is the ominous example.
Bought for £6.7 million from KRC Genk, the Belgian winger’s talent was blatant. A year-long loan spell with Werder Bremen in 2012/13 (scoring 10 goals and assisting nine in 33 Bundesliga matches) both inflated his price tag and warranted a first-team spot at Chelsea.
Starting the first game of the 2013/14 Premier League campaign, De Bruyne looked on course to solidify his place in London, but he was unable to hold it down. Frustrated by a lack of matches, he left the club in the 2014 January transfer window to join VfL Wolfsburg for £18 million. Romelu Lukaku (21), also bought then loaned, was not willing to suffer the same fate on the Chelsea bench as his Belgian compatriot De Bruyne, and he was sold to Everton for £28 million last summer.
The Blues will view the over £21 million profit from both players as successful but repercussions could be more damning.
Players like Courtois, or even Kurt Zouma (20), could give potential stars hope that west London is an environment where they can thrive, however, Chelsea are seemingly running the risk of having talents turn them down—knowing full well their fate in advance.
Abramovich’s trump card would appear wages.
Not many clubs have the capacity to spend on a weekly basis like Chelsea. Though perhaps renowned for their avarice, footballers ultimately want to play football. Andre Schurrle (24), is likely being paid a handsome amount, but he is probable to leave in the next transfer window as his playing time can be improved upon at Wolfsburg.
Taking into account academy players, the Blues currently have 26 players on loan in eight different countries; while choice loanees have broken through, there are many who have been wasted.
Chelsea’s dragon-like policy is simply not sustainable. Unless unwitting heroes are willing to sacrifice themselves to collect cheques, the act will wear thin and prospects will turn elsewhere.
To assume players will stop wanting to play at Stamford Bridge is nonsensical. However, not too far off you might witness youngsters telling reporters: “I want to play for Chelsea eventually. They are a great club, and I am delighted they are interested in me, but if I sign for them now, I’ll just end up at Vitesse.”