The excoriation of Chelsea regarding its wanton use of loans is not without its merits. At least on the surface, the club appears to at least partially bankroll its lavish transfer spends by buying players on the cheap, and then selling them on for far more than their original value without ever really considering them for the first team.
In the meantime, it loans them out to puff up their transfer value while all but ignoring them for its own first team. It is as though the club tends two farms: one for its own consumption made up of only the choicest grain, and another only for the consumption of everyone else. It is a rare thing indeed that the public farm tills up a product the club deems worthy of its own soil.
Chelsea’s done well for itself in this. Just last year, it made in the neighborhood of $50 million off transfers from players it shuffled around on loan for years: Nathan Ake (Bournemouth), Christian Atsu (Newcastle), Bertrand Traore (Lyon), and Nathaniel Chalobah (Watford). It’s hard not to see a method in this, that Chelsea is purposefully culling its herd to flip players for cash to throw back into the pot to fuel ever more, pricier transfer fees. Chelsea’s business is as bald-faced as it is uncomfortable.
It is uncomfortable, most of us reason, because it presumes these players never had a chance at Chelsea in the first place. I think that is a somewhat simplistic reading, but it is not without its merits. Just in the previously mentioned group, Ake got seven games for Chelsea’s first team, Traore and Chalobah 10 each, Atsu a grand total of zero. The club’s impatience is legendary, but it also feeds the notion that its mind was made up before any had a chance to truly cement themselves within the first team construct. Too much money at hand, too much at stake, too much predetermined. They never really had a chance, and the talent ceiling on each of their careers no doubt lowered as a result.
This is why Matt Miazga’s sale to Chelsea in the winter of 2016 was a chilly wind whipping across the plains of American soccer sentiment. Here was one of the most promising American prospects period – not just defenders, mind – seemingly being dumped into that other crop-growing field, the one with the business interests in mind for public sale. It wasn’t that Miazga couldn’t be picked for the club’s own harvest, but no one would take those odds. Not with this club.
In this prism it is impossible not to understand some of the angst surrounding news of Miazga’s impending second loan stint to Vitesse, in the Dutch Eredivisie, after starting 20 games there last season. Miazga installed himself as a regular center back at the club, helping them to a fifth-place finish in the top tier and a place in the Europa League group phase thanks to its KNVB Cup, the first major trophy in the club’s 124-year history. Miazga was on the field for it. By returning at 21, Miazga will very likely play in Europe this year, and more than once. The list of Americans who’ve done that at all, at any level, is not long.
The bigger worry, to me, is not Vitesse itself or the level of the Dutch league. Vitesse is a fine place to develop, even for defenders, and Miazga will see plenty of the field this season in a top European flight. That’s all to the good. The bigger worry is to what end. Where is this all leading us?
USMNT fans sighed a collective breath of relief when Miazga played, and played relatively well on balance, in a 3-0 win over Nicaragua in the Gold Cup in July. He scored a goal, even. It would have been hard to sway a coach like Arena, who prefers to lean heavily on veteran experience at center back, that Miazga deserved more starts in bigger games in the tournament. But it peeled back the curtain and gave us assurance that this version of Miazga is better than the 2016 Olympic qualifying version that was in turn better than the 2015 U20 World Cup version and so on back we go.
In so many words, he is progressing.
But there is still a guillotine hanging over the careers of Chelsea’s collective loan army, and it lowers by fractions with each successive loan. Players tend to need loftier experiences each year to improve, and continual loans to the same place in lesser leagues don’t usually move the needle. Miazga thankfully has the promise of Europe this year, which defrays that worry to a degree, but the fact that his career is filled with so much uncertainty is what worries so many.
This is not an unfounded worry, as I said, but I think it’s overblown on balance. The lack of a stable club home – Miazga will not go to Vitesse full time, I can assure you – is a problem so long as Miazga begins stagnating. We have no indication he’s in that swamp yet. And the Eredivisie presents a unique challenge for defenders, who are usually forced to face attacks many times more powerful than what their coaches are able to muster defensively. There is development value to being overwhelmed and tasked with quelling the fear.
But there is a caveat. Miazga can’t dwell in this place long. Substantive development tends to calcify somewhere in your early 20’s – it’s different for every player – and it happens sooner for players who either aren’t playing in challenging enough environments or simply aren’t playing first team soccer at all. Miazga runs the risk of the former at Vitesse and the latter at Chelsea. Which means finding a middle distance for next season.
In the interim, this is all fine. Miazga is in a stable club environment he knows, where he’ll have the opportunity to play against good attacking competition and compete for a spot on a team competing for a Europa League run. The real crucible isn’t now; it’s next summer.