Sunday 21 January 2018

Conte stands by Blues loan policy

Antonio Conte: Hoping to add a trio of England internationals to his Chelsea squad this week Photo: PA
Antonio Conte: Hoping to add a trio of England internationals to his Chelsea squad this week Photo: PA

Dominic Fifield

Antonio Conte has sought to justify Chelsea's policy of loaning out a squad of players while he pushes the board to make further senior signings by Thursday's transfer deadline by arguing the youngsters are not ready for the champions' first team and their involvement would risk damaging their long-term development.

The Italian suggested the club had a straightforward choice this summer: to seek to defend their title or to prioritise, instead, the progression of younger players into the first team - and appeared comfortable at the numbers permitted to depart on temporary deals despite the senior squad lacking depth for a return to the Champions League. Kenneth Omeruo became the 27th player to leave on loan on Friday when he joined Kasimpasa in Turkey for the season, having previously signed a new three-year deal at Chelsea, with more exits to be sanctioned in the final week of the window.

Yet there has been intense frustration among supporters that Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Izzy Brown and Kurt Zouma have been loaned to rival Premier League clubs for the season while Chelsea's bench has an apparent lack of depth for an onerous fixture schedule which continues today with the visit of Everton to Stamford Bridge (1.30pm).

Furthermore, Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Aké, who had progressed through the academy, departed on permanent deals having grown disillusioned with the constant cycle of loan moves. Chalobah is now set to make his full England debut in the games against Malta and Slovakia.

Yet Conte, who handed a teenage Paul Pogba a key role in his Juventus side in 2012, suggested those Chelsea youngsters permitted to leave on loan were not ready for protracted involvement in the senior set-up.

"If there are young players who deserve to play regularly and give me a good feeling, then why not [pick them]?" he said. "I put Pogba, at 18, into the team, and for [Claudio] Marchisio. Not a 'simple' player. But you must have this type of possibility, [that these] players are ready to play regularly with Chelsea, a great team, otherwise it's very difficult to make this decision. You must decide if you want to fight for the title or develop your young players. Two different ways.

"[It's possible to do both] if the young players are ready and are strong enough to play regularly. Pogba, I repeat, played at 18 for me. So show me young players who deserve to play regularly for Chelsea, and I'm ready to pick them. Don't forget my first game in Serie A, I was only 16. I'm the first person open to do this because another coach did this with me. But, I repeat, you must have the possibilities to do this. Not to invent [them]."

Those younger players who did gain game time under the Italian last season were offered only cameos, most notably after the title had been won. Aké, Chalobah, Kenedy, Loftus-Cheek and Ola Aina made three league starts between them, with Zouma also having three. "But Chalobah played some games, Loftus-Cheek played some games, Aké played the semi-final of the FA Cup, Aina in the League Cup and Kenedy, too," said Conte. "The question is this: Manchester City and other clubs, are there players from the academy playing regularly [for them]? I don't know.

"It's very difficult to find [in England]. Now, maybe only [Marcus] Rashford. That's the one player now, Rashford, who has shown he is strong physically, fast technically, and a really good player. But it's not easy. Now [Andreas] Christensen, after two seasons on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach to develop himself in Germany, stays with us. He has to fight with David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger to play, but if there is the possibility to play, I'll put him in. I'm the first to be ready to do this. But it's very important the young players are ready to play. Otherwise you provoke damage to the players, the club and the team."

Conte has endured a tense summer at Chelsea having grown frustrated at the club's inability to add significantly to his senior ranks. He still hopes a trio of England internationals - Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for £35m (€38m) from Arsenal, Danny Drinkwater from Leicester City and Everton's Ross Barkley - will join before Thursday's cut-off, albeit they are established players who could further bar the club's promising youngsters from the first team.

"But young players must be ready, and must be good to play with a great team, to play regularly," added Conte. "Usually in this type of football, there is a path for the young players. It's very difficult to see players when they are 16, 17, 18 years old playing regularly so they have to develop [on loan elsewhere] and then come back to play regularly with a great team. This is the right way."

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