From Lukaku to Campbell: how big clubs play the loan system

Lukaku made Chelsea £17m profit and Joel Campbell could do the same for Arsenal

Everton's new striker Romelu Lukaku
(Image credit: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

By seling Romelu Lukaku to Everton for £28m, Chelsea have made an impressive profit of £17m on a player who wore their shirt just ten times in three years.

But Lukaku's career path, which saw him signed from Anderlecht in 2011 and farmed out on loan for several seasons before being sold on, is not unusual in the modern game as big clubs stockpile young talent.

Last season the Daily Mail calculated that between them, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool had an astonishing 70 players out on loan, 55 of whom were 21 or under. Few of them will end up playing regularly for their parent clubs, and many will fail to make a career in the game, but the club's investment in young players will pay off if those who do prosper can be sold on at a profit.

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"They may never play for the club's senior team," says The Times of the many Chelsea players currently on loan. "Instead, they have been bought to be fattened up and sold. Chelsea are, essentially, running a recruitment and development programme unrelated to their first team.

"The reasoning is simple – expenditure on youth investment is exempt from Financial Fair Play, but income from player sales serves to increase [a club's] spending limit," explains the paper. "It is hardly amoral; the players are benefiting, too, from high-calibre coaching, but the example of Lukaku is nonetheless a sobering one. The clubs will turn you into a player, but probably not for them. Youth development is a business now."

Not everyone likes it. "Chelsea's attitude to snap up, loan out and eventually sell on promising youngsters reeks of the attitude of a hard headed business professional just looking to make a quick buck," rails website What Culture.

It is another example of how football is now about more than just results on the pitch. Big clubs want to corner the market in young talent for financial as well as footballing reasons.

At the top end of the spectrum there are players like Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne, who joined the Blues for £7m at the age of 20 from Genk. After being loaned back to his original club and spending time with Werder Bremen he was sold to Wolfsburg for around £18m in January after just three outings for Chelsea.

The practice of signing a young player and then loaning him back to that club, as Manchester United did with Crystal Palace starlet Wilfied Zaha in 2013 and Liverpool have done with young Lille striker Divock Origi this summer, is also becoming more common. The buying club is more likely to persuade the smaller club to sell if they get to keep their player, and it allows the big clubs to get in early with less risk.

And the system can produce stars. This season Chelsea fans can look forward, finally, to seeing goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in action at Stamford Bridge, three seasons after he became a Blues player. In that time he has established himself as one of the world's best goalkeepers by making more than 100 appearances while on loan at Atletico Madrid.

There are similar tales to tell at other clubs like Arsenal who send youth team graduates out on loan to gain experience. Some return to the fold having benefited from the experience, like goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who spent a season on loan at Brentford and returned to claim the number one jersey.

Others are not as successful, but still make the club a profit. Youth team product Henri Lansbury made three Arsenal appearances in five years as a senior player and was loaned to four different clubs, but he still generated a fee of £1m when he was finally sold to Nottingham Forest in 2012.

Another Arsenal player illustrates the benefits of the loan system to the parent club. Joel Campbell established himself as a star with his performances for Costa Rica at the World Cup, and Arsenal are now in a position where they can cash in on the player or finally hand him a red and white shirt, three years after he was signed for a pittance from Saprissa.

But the fate of another Gunner illustrates the downside. Brazilian Wellington Silva was also signed by Arsenal in 2011 but he is in danger of disappearing off the football map. He has spent the last three seasons playing in Spain's second division and has been loaned out again this season.

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