News this morning that Chelsea have bid £2.5m for Marcus Bettinelli is enough to make the blood boil if you stop and think about it.
This is yet another example of a big club using their financial weight to stockpile young talent.
There is nothing in the law book that says stockpiling is wrong. Though is it so wrong? And would Marcus Bettinelli really be better off not moving to Chelsea?
Indeed, stockpiling can actually be a clever business model. Sign young talent, develop a network of feeder clubs to which you can send young players out on loan in the knowledge they will play regularly, then either sell them on for a profit or keep the ones that develop into players for your first team.
Feeder clubs are not a new phenomenon. Arsenal, for example, had an “operational” link up with Belgian club Beveren in Arsene Wenger’s early days at the club, although that ended up with a FIFA investigation as the Parent Club is not allowed to pay the Feeder Club for the relationship. Watford, Udinese and Granada, all owned by the Pozzo family, operate within a network where players are almost interchangeable. Manchester City’s owners now own New York City FC and Melbourne City, the relationship between the clubs allowing Frank Lampard to join Manchester City prior to his move to the MLS. While Spanish clubs have second teams who play in the professional ranks.
However, it is the concept of stockpiling which is relatively new and becoming increasingly evident and potentially problematic given the money available at the top of the game.
It is a business model most successfully employed by Chelsea, the club playing the role of the villain in this current escapade.
Chelsea have a partnership with Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivisie. The two clubs are owned by friends. This enables them to send any player they choose to the Dutch club on loan. For a small club like Vitesse, who know they will never fully challenge the likes of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven domestically, the link up guarantees them several talented young players every season at a minimal cost. For Chelsea, the players they send there get game time in a top flight league. The Vitesse squad for the upcoming season currently has four Chelsea players on loan, including Danilo Pantic, an 18 year old Serbian midfielder who signed for Chelsea yesterday.
Chelsea have also successfully developed a link up with Championship side Middlesbrough . This link up sees Chelsea send their top level prospects, the ones who are on the cusp of being Premier League ready, to play in the English second tier. That Boro are managed by Jose Mourinho’s former assistant at Real Madrid, Aitor Karanka, is no coincidence.
However, aside from the formal and informal links, Chelsea remain prolific loaners. By being a willing parent club, they will normally find a home for their players they wish to loan out. Patrick Bamford is the latest example. Signed from Nottingham Forest for £1.5m as an 18 year old, the striker has had loan spells in League One, at MK Dons, in the Championship – at Derby and then Middlesbrough, and this week signed on loan for Crystal Palace, where he will get a year’s experience in the Premier League.
In total, Chelsea currently have 30 (Yes – THIRTY) players out on loan for the upcoming season.
Their system and attitude to loanees can perhaps be summed up by their current very public pursuit of Everton defender Jon Stones. If they sign him, it’s for the first team. Everton and Barnsley have already done the hard yards and developed Stones. At over £20m, should he join, Stones is not exactly cheap.
Yet in amidst this pursuit it has gone largely unnoticed that Chelsea have in their ranks, two of the best defensive prospects in English football in Tomas Kalas and Andreas Christensen. Kalas, after two years on loan at Vitesse, has now joined Middlesbrough for the 2015/16 season. Dane Christensen has just joined Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach on loan. With the likes of Kurt Zouma already at the club, the chances of these two ever making the full squad permanently must be extremely remote.
So the question remains why do young players agree to join a club like Chelsea? For the likes of Kalas and Christensen, who have given years to Chelsea already, to see such a public pursuit of someone like Stones, it must be a bit of a kick in the face.
However, think of it like this. You are a top level prospect and Chelsea want you. It’s win: win really. You know you will be sent on loan to a good club with nearly guaranteed game time. This will then either put you in the shop window or if you are one of the chosen few, you may even make the first team.
If you stay at your original club and make it to your mid-twenties, you may not ever get the move to a big club. Your club may hold out for too high a fee or your development might stall because the environment you are in is one in which results, not development, take priority.
There is the additional risk that when you join a Chelsea or a Man City as an already established player in that competition for places is fierce. Stockpiling of these prime year players is something that really is a problem for the English game as prime talents can go to waste. Manchester City are the biggest offenders here, in that they have signed a cavalcade of established players only for those players to get lost in the system and eventually be sold at a loss to worse clubs than they left in the first place – Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair are two recent examples that spring to mind.
For players yet to reach their prime, like Kalas and Christensen, joining Chelsea as a teenager gave them a better chance of ending up at a top club than they would have had if they’d stayed at Sigma Olomouc and Brondby, and they’ve probably been paid better in the process.
So that brings us back to Bettinelli. Would Marcus want to move to Chelsea? After all, this is a club that has just paid £8m for a back-up goalkeeper in Asmir Begovic, a player with 41 International caps to his name.
Indeed, Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea’s world class Number One is actually 13 days younger than Bettinelli.
Accepting that Courtois is an usual case, most goalkeepers don’t enter their prime until later in their careers, Bettinelli would likely still be signing up for a scenario in which his optimal position will be the eventual Chelsea Number 2.
Considering Bettinelli and his family have a long connection with Fulham I’d be surprised to see him go, especially if he is guaranteed to continue as our Number 1. Though if Chelsea could guarantee him a loan to a club whose defence doesn’t leak as many shots as ours he may well be tempted. There’s also no guarantee he stays as Fulham’s Number One for the entire season. Should we enter a promotion or relegation race, results become too important to carry any player if they are not pulling their own weight.
It also depends on his career goals. At 23, Bettinelli has the potential to be between the sticks for Fulham for the next decade. This comes with no guarantee that we’ll be back in the Premier League. A move to Chelsea would likely see him make the top division at some point in his career. Uncertainty and risk come in different forms.
From Fulham’s perspective, we won’t want to lose Marcus for the reason I’ve just said, he could be our goalkeeper for the next decade. However, with a good veteran now at the club in Andy Lonergan, and several talented youngsters in the pipeline in Jesse Joronen, Marek Rodak and Magnus Norman, there are other options should the transfer happen.
Stockpiling seems to be unavoidable, but if players can continue to see the benefits of a system that is not exactly secret, perhaps it is just something modern football will have to learn to live with.