Does Kevin De Bruyne highlights the wrong in Mourinho and Chelsea’s way of Business
With Pep Guardiola at the helm, Manchester City are playing some scintillating football this season. At the heart of it all is Kevin De Bruyne, the 25-year-old Belgian international who has already scored twice in his five Premier League appearances.
Guardiola, who is normally not prone to hyperbole, recently observed that De Bruyne is one of Europe’s best players. “Messi is on a table on his own,” he said. “No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.”
High praise indeed. It isn’t the Belgian’s first foray into the Premier League. In 2012, he left Genk as a 20-year-old and moved to Chelsea in a £7m deal. Before he had time to get his feet under the table, he was loaned to Werder Bremen for the 2012 – 13 season. The youngster Chelsea needed experience and the Bundesliga was the perfect training ground for the English game.
Germany has long been seen as a halfway house between the ‘European’ style and the physicality of the Premier League. Top English clubs are keen to loan younger players there in preparation for the weekly hurly-burly of the top flight.
More often than not, a loan spell is a signal that the player won’t make the grade and De Bruyne proved to be one instance. Returning to Chelsea in the summer of 2013, the Belgian was told that he was a part of Jose Mourinho’s plans when the Portuguese manager returned to Stamford Bridge.
Six months later, he was sold to Wolfsburg for £18m, with the profit of £11m enhanced by a further £10m received when De Bruyne joined Manchester City. Mourinho has consistently said that he didn’t want the Belgian to join Wolfsburg, that he wanted him to stay and fight for his place.
De Bruyne disputes this. Mourinho thrives on tension. Antagonistic in the media toward journalists and enemies alike, he likes to create intense competition within his squad so that no player becomes complacent about their place in the starting line-up.
The Portuguese, De Bruyne claimed, used statistics to ‘prove’ the Belgian wasn’t performing well. He wanted his midfielder to use them as motivation to improve. De Bruyne pointed out that his looked worse than others because he played less; Mourinho didn’t accept this, feeding a sense of injustice in De Bruyne.
His departure was inevitable but the tale is familiar to many other players who signed for Chelsea, not just in Mourinho’s time but since Roman Abramovich took over the club. At the close of the transfer window in September 2016, the club had an eye-watering 38 players on loan around Europe. Of those players, if three make it to the Blues first team, it will be a surprise.
The west London club is ravenous when it comes to signing young talent. Their model shifted toward developing players as a supplement to the big signings but whilst the theory is sound, the practice has been altogether different. Very few stars have come through the ranks at Stamford Bridge with no change to that in sight.
Patrick Bamford, a serial loanee now at his sixth club, revealed that the players loaned out by the club have their own WhatsApp group; it’s that many.
Using the loan system to develop players is nothing new. Since the demise of reserve team football in England, clubs have been looking for competitive environments to use as a finishing school for young players. The academy system lacks that edge and doesn’t offer much chance of gaining experience in the way the reserves used to.
Questions have been asked on why De Bruyne was allowed to leave but it isn’t an isolated incident. Romelu Lukaku has flourished away from Stamford Bridge, as have Thorgan Hazard and Mohamed Salah at Borussia Monchengladbach and Roma respectively.
Every club makes mistakes when assessing young players and their potential but with Chelsea’s scattergun approach there is more chance of it happening. Taking on so many young players stops other clubs signing them but also stifles first-team aspirations. It’s a delicate balancing act and in those circumstances, will backfire spectacularly more often than not.
The Mourinho style also comes under scrutiny as well. Pressurising young players to improve their performances relies on them responding to that motivation. He argues that if they don’t react well in that environment, how can he trust them on the pitch?
It’s a good question but humans aren’t ‘one size fits all’. De Bruyne, Mourinho claimed, “wanted to feel important” which is the polar opposite to someone competing intensely for their spot in the starting XI. Wolfsburg and Werder both saw potential in him and nurtured it to the surface.
Fundamentally, the Chelsea approach and that of Mourinho is flawed. Developing players via the loan system hints at a long-term approach but it’s a veneer; Chelsea know they can’t fit these players into the squad and progress them internally so they loan them out but to have so many out at one time indicates that the club isn’t confident in their abilities.
Even Arsenal have just 13 players out on loan and they were regularly criticised for adopting the Chelsea policy in the past. Mourinho at United has told the younger players that he is working with just 24 this season; anyone else will need a loan for first team experience.
Despite their fallings out, Mourinho and Chelsea are perfectly suited to each other. The desire to win at all costs is matched only by the short-termism with which they view football.
Mourinho has a natural ‘sell by’ date for any club; three years, no more otherwise it ends badly. Chelsea are hamstrung only by the depth of Roman Abramovich’s bank account and that is nowhere near empty yet.