Chelsea's investment in Nathaniel Chalobah makes transfer puzzling
Over the course of the past few seasons, Chelsea supporters have become used to seeing hordes of promising young players loaned out to other clubs. The practice has become the club's preferred method of nurturing their youngsters who require practical experience outside of the development age groups. Tammy Abraham (Swansea), Kasey Palmer (Huddersfield) and Izzy Brown (to be determined, probably Brighton) should all reap the benefits of spending this season playing in the Premier League.
Often the result of a loan is a permanent move elsewhere with the club banking a sizable profit and satisfying the accountants intent on balancing the books. Among those who have left this summer are Christian Atsu (£6.2 million to Newcastle) and Bertrand Traore (£8.8m to Lyon).
The loan system has also been used to keep players who have struggled for game time with the first team active. Victor Moses is an example of the strategy working successfully after the Nigeria international made a first-team spot his own under Antonio Conte last season following a series of campaigns posted at rival clubs. Chelsea will be keeping fingers crossed that similar circumstances surround the extremely gifted but enigmatic Ruben Loftus-Cheek following his current temporary switch to Crystal Palace.
Something Chelsea supporters are rather less accustomed to is seeing genuinely talented homegrown players who have broken into the first-team picture being abruptly moved on a permanent basis. Nathan Ake's departure to Bournemouth for £20m earlier this summer was disappointing but perhaps understandable given the handsome size of the transfer fee. Nathaniel Chalobah's £5m move to Watford this week, however, has left many fans scratching their heads.
Now 22, Chalobah had been on Chelsea's books since the age of 10. During his 12 years at the club, he excelled in all the age groups and has represented England at every stage from U16 (making his debut at just 13) through to U21. Indeed, his performances at this summer's U21 European Championships earned him rave reviews and appeared to herald a growing maturity and acceptance of responsibility.
Those displays and leadership qualities were almost certainly aided from having spent last season fully integrated into Chelsea's first-team squad, rubbing shoulders with world-class players and witnessing the professionalism needed to win the title. Starts were few and far between, but he made several impressive substitute appearances, including one in a 3-0 win over Leicester in which his outrageous back-heel assist played in Moses for the game's final goal.
With his development continuing, the forthcoming campaign looked like it could have been his real breakthrough season at Stamford Bridge, especially with the club looking to cash in on Nemanja Matic. Admittedly, the presence of player of the year N'Golo Kante and the big-money pursuit of Monaco's Tiemoue Bakayoko would represent sizable obstacles to overcome, but European football and a congested fixture list would surely have provided plenty of game time.
More pressingly, Chelsea are now rather light on midfield options for the start of the season. Assuming that Matic has played his last game for Chelsea and accepting that even if Bakayoko passes his proposed medical he will miss the first few fixtures recovering from knee surgery, then the two central midfielders on the opening weekend against Burnley have to be Kante and Cesc Fabregas. Any injuries in preseason and Conte will be in a pickle especially without the loaned-out Loftus-Cheek or Marco van Ginkel to call upon, players both capable of operating in a central role.
Chelsea will hopefully have a plan to help plug that possible gap, though judging by their lethargy in the transfer window to date, it is hardly a given. The long-term issue, however, is that the club have lost a player with blue blood coursing through his veins and one who seemed primed to take the next step.
Of course, Chelsea's wishes are not the sole reason for Chalobah's departure with the player having previously stated his desire for regular first-team football. He should be applauded for wanting to further his career elsewhere rather than live on easy street on the Chelsea bench, though it still speaks volumes about how those raised at the club see their future. When even somebody so immersed in the football club as Chalobah sees so little for himself at Stamford Bridge, then there is no longer any point pretending that homegrown products have a path to the first team.
Given his potential, the improvement in his performances and the absurd inflation of transfer fees, it is also odd that he was sold for as little as £5m. Having seen Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne go on to greater things since they left, let's hope that Chelsea have learned their lesson and inserted a buy-back clause into Chalobah's transfer to Watford. That might just supply a silver lining of sorts.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.