The Danger For Young Players At The Biggest Clubs

One of the final deals to go through on deadline day of this summer’s transfer window was Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s loan move to Fulham. Once again he has had to temporarily leave Chelsea in order to find more playing time as they have added even more competition for his position this summer.

By the time Loftus-Cheek returns to Chelsea at the end of 2020/21 he will be 25 years old and, despite once being a highly rated youngster, his career is still yet to really get going. Of course injuries have played a part in that, but his opportunities have been severely limited at Chelsea even when fit. An issue epitomised by the fact that his best season since becoming a first team player was during his loan spell at Crystal Palace.

In fact, he actually made more Premier league starts (21) during his 2017/18 loan spell at Crystal Palace than he has for Chelsea (15). So, regardless of how his loan deal at Fulham goes, I think Loftus-Cheek may find himself in a situation next summer where he finally has to move away from Chelsea on a permanent basis to really make something of his career.

If not, there is a real chance he spends another year on the bench behind players like Mason Mount and Kai Havertz, or finds himself out on another loan away. Truthfully, it’s a situation that many players find themselves in, both those who came through the youth setup at top clubs, like Loftus-Cheek, and also those who make the move to those top clubs too early in their careers.

While it may not always seem like the most attractive option to players who find themselves in these kind of predicaments, I think there is a lot be gained by moving to a club further down the table to get the minutes they need. Then, if it’s meant to be, there will be opportunities to return to the highest level further down the line when they are better equipped and able to earn more minutes on the field.

Funnily enough, we currently have a great example of a young player who is thriving after permanently leaving Chelsea for first team football in Tariq Lamptey. The 20 year old right back moved to Brighton in January, and since the Premier League restarted in June, he has locked down his place in the Brighton first eleven with a series of impressive performances.

He could have easily accepted a new contract from Chelsea and spent years either going out on loan or sitting behind Reece James on the bench. Instead, he bet on himself and has begun to establish himself as one of the best young right backs in the Premier League, despite taking what could be seen as a step down by moving to Brighton.

I want to be clear that, for a variety of reasons, this isn’t always the answer for every player. Firstly, there are young players who emerge at elite clubs or move to them at a young age that have the talent, and luck, to clearly mark a path to becoming a first team regular. Staying with Chelsea, there is no need for Reece James, for example, to leave the club as he is getting those opportunities that young players need.

Also, some players may simply be content to play a backup role. I’m not going to dive into the reasons for why that may be, but there numerous factors in play that may motivate players to sacrifice game time for life at a huge club. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but for the purpose of this piece I’ll stick to the perspective of the player’s ability to develop and succeed on the pitch.

In the end, the point here is not that there is a sure-fire way for young players, who are not getting the minutes at the biggest clubs, to become superstars by leaving for more game time. Instead, the focus is on the benefits of players going out to find a place where they can fully develop by playing consistently at a club where they are valued.

It will only benefit the game if young players wait until the right moment to move to the elite clubs, and if they leave them when they aren’t playing enough. That is because it will keep more of the most promising talent on the field where we can watch them, and off the benches of the sport’s most powerful clubs.

Originally published at http://jackmccutcheon.com on October 13, 2020.