The deal that Everton have struck with Barcelona means every time they leave Gerard Deulofeu on the bench, the loan fee payable to the Spanish club rises. Having seen his performance on Saturday in the 4-0 defeat of Stoke City, one imagines that he will be spending much less time as a substitute – a net gain for Everton in both senses.
Yet the real value, as Barcelona know only too well, will be in their 19-year-old winger playing in the Premier League. All the better for them that the prodigy can return from England at the end of the season stronger, wiser, more streetwise and able to say that he can not only do it on the sun-kissed pitches of the club’s academy but on a cold November afternoon against Stoke.
At his age, the improvement will be enormous, the benefits wide-ranging. Not that Barcelona have any intention of letting him leave on a permanent basis. And rightly so – they have lost far too many to English clubs. He signed a four-year contract in May with a £29m buy-out clause. But if Deulofeu’s loan is judged a success, there will be more Barça prodigies dispatched to Roberto Martinez.
Deulofeu’s league debut on Saturday suggested an exceptional talent, befitting one who has been a key figure in Spain’s junior teams. Not just ability but confidence and intelligence to play football in a country to which he is still relatively new. Even so, watching a Spanish teenager excel like that raised an old question: why do virtually no English youngsters hone their game abroad?
Granted, it takes a special player to force his way into a side as good as the one Martinez has and ironically, Ross Barkley – arguably the best teenager in English football – was left out on Saturday. Not many young Englishmen could expect to get a game in the top half of the European leagues, but it is astonishing how few are even trying.
Sam Hutchinson. He is the one Englishman registered to a Premier League club currently on loan, one of Chelsea’s six-strong contingent at Vitesse Arnhem. Naturally the other five from the club are non-English. Hutchinson, 24, has had a difficult career, fighting back to fitness having retired through in injury in 2010. As of yesterday, he has made just one substitute’s league appearance for Vitesse.
Across the top clubs in the Premier League, the pattern repeats itself. Hutchinson aside, the seven English loanees from a pool of 24 currently farmed out by Chelsea are all at Championship and League One clubs. Josh McEachran, currently on loan at Watford, did attract interest in Spain but was still injured when the European-wide transfer window shut.
McEachran has been supplanted in the Chelsea hierarchy by Marco van Ginkel, a Dutch midfielder who plays in roughly the same position and had 93 league appearances for Vitesse Arnhem when Chelsea signed him in the summer for £8m. Given how he was fast-tracked into the first team before his injury there is surely a lesson for young English players.
First-team experience in European leagues – like the Eredivisie in the Netherlands – appears to have a greater currency among many managers than the equivalent in the Football League. In terms of getting the chance to accumulate first-team, top-flight experience, it seems obvious that other European leagues are a much better opportunity for young players. The Championship is a second tier and the jury remains out on the value of the new Under-21s league.
It takes ambition and a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone to go on loan abroad at a young age. None of that seemed a problem for Deulofeu. It would be fascinating to see an English club persuade their academy kids to do it, but the evidence suggests there is not much appetite from either clubs or players.
At Arsenal, for example Chuks Aneke, older than Deulofeu at 20, is on loan for the second season at Crewe Alexandra in League One and playing a reasonable amount. By contrast, the club’s Costa Rican striker Joel Campbell is on loan at the Greek league leaders Olympiakos. He played against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Wednesday.
At Manchester United, the Keane twins William and Michael both went out on loan last week, to Wigan and Derby County respectively. England Under-21s Nick Powell and Jesse Lingard are at Wigan and Birmingham City respectively.
As for Tottenham, there are currently three English players on loan at Swindon and the most highly prized of the youngsters, Tom Carroll, is with Harry Redknapp at Queen’s Park Rangers. Manchester City have loaned their Dutch 18-year-old defender Karim Rekik to PSV Eindhoven. Reece Wabara, English and three years older, is at Doncaster Rovers, his fourth loan in the Football League.
Loaning players is a tricky business. The loaning club can sweeten deals and cajole, but if the end result is that their player is not getting a game at his recipient club then it becomes pointless. Ideally they would like the loanees playing in the style of football they would be expected to play in the first team of the parent club.
The ideal for many big clubs would be feeder teams playing within the Football League’s competitive structure which, thankfully, is a non-starter. At least for now. Sending English players abroad is fraught with problems but the evidence suggests it is so rarely attempted.
A football agent with some good English players among his clients told me this season that, under normal circumstances, a Bundesliga club had informed him their supporters would never tolerate having an English player on loan. They simply would not regard it as right to have a foreigner blocking the development of a kid from their academy.
Of course, on the evidence so far Deulofeu is excellent value for money for Everton. He is the kind of player that many clubs would prize, even for just a season. What a good finishing school the Premier League must look to those shrewd people at the Barcelona academy. Toughen them up, then bring them back and in a few years’ time one expects that Deulofeu will be exactly the kind of player the English game wishes it could produce.
Will Meulensteen be able to steer Fulham to safer waters?
With Martin Jol put out of his misery at Fulham, René Meulensteen’s moment has finally come as a Premier League manager. It looked like it would end that way from the moment he was parachuted in earlier this month. It has been a slow, painful decline for Jol’s Fulham, starting at the end of last season, encompassing an uninspiring transfer window and a change of ownership.
Meulensteen’s 12 years at Manchester United took in most levels of the club, from academy to first team. His 16 days at Anzhi Makhachkala aside, he is accustomed to being in a winning environment. But the beauty of management is that you never know when your chance will come. Meulensteen famously told David Moyes, newly arrived at United, that he was moving “from a yacht to a cruise ship”. One wonders what the appropriate nautical analogy would be for Fulham. Suffice to say that they are sinking fast.