Chelsea are definitely in the market this window. I’ll be surprised if they don’t strike a deal with Atalanta for Kessie by the end of January.
What Chelsea are doing isn’t particularly strange. It’s what Serie A teams have been doing for years. (It’s what Spanish and German clubs don’t need to do because their reserve teams play in genuine leagues.) But whilst most big Italian teams loan-out players as part of creative accounting deals - with other clubs who are either part-owners of the player in question or willing co-conspirators in the desire to move money across the annual balance-books -Chelsea have adopted the model of the Udinese.
Before the Pozzo family - who also own Watford - took over Udinese in the mid-80s, the club bounced around the Italian leagues. After the Pozzos reorganized the club’s scouting structure, they put a club from a small city - think Boulder or Burbank - from a backwater of Italian football into a position to fight with the big boys of Italian football for the best part of a decade. They created a scouting network that prided itself on getting to world talent first. Wherever there was an international youth tournament there was an Udinese scout offering terms to one of the best teens. They created a scouting network which focused on finding talent in the good leagues of world soccer which other European teams were overlooking - think Chile or the Balkans leagues - before that talent either stagnated at the local level or got hoovered up by a club from a bigger league from which the top European clubs traditionally bought. Udinese brought in young and undervalued players on small contracts and developed them, in the process both improving their team and giving the club a near-constant, extremely lucrative revenue-stream in the form of the inevitable eventual sales of their polished found gems. They couldn’t have done it without the loan system. They often had as many players out on loan as they had in their first-squad; giving their young talent time to ripen in the heat of real competition rather than left to die on the vine of academy and reserve football.
When Roman Abramovich put plans in place to make Chelsea self-sustainable, he liked everything he saw in the Udinese system, except for the fact that Udinese were missing a trick in their use of that necessary loan-stage of developing a young footballer in a league without lower league B teams. (As in England, and unlike in Spain and Germany, Italian reserve/B teams do not compete as separate entities in the lower leagues, though there are moves to change that in Italy.) Chelsea took the Udinese model, now widely aped across football - though never bettered - and tweaked it. Whereas Udinese found players, then loaned them out so that they got better, then used them in their first-team to make that better, then finally sold them for fat profits to make their bottom-line better, Chelsea saw that there was real money to be made in the second stage of the process. Whereas Udinese saw the real pay-day coming at the end of that development-cycle, Chelsea realized that loan-payments produce a strong annual yield if managed correctly whilst still allowing for an eventual pay-day should the club decide to sell the player. Unlike Udinese, Chelsea do not need to bring the young players into their squad after the loan-stage of their development to make the Chelsea first-team better; they can keep on sending them out on loan and keep on cashing the loan-payment checks until that day when they decide to cash-in for good. It’s a money-making system that not only - in theory at least - produces under-contract players to bolster their squad, but also allows them to steal and keep a great deal of young talent out of the hands of their true competitors at no cost to the club.
Brexit might have changed all that. It’s not the Chinese Super League that Chelsea has to worry about. (Not for a good decade or so yet anyway.) It’s that the current UK government looks set, regardless of the cost to the nation, on drastically restricting EU migration to the UK. The Premier League already is the hardest league to get into for players who both don’t hold EU passports and aren’t full-time internationals because of governmental immigration and work-permits rules. If and when the UK government finally does go through with Brexit in its hardest terms, it’ll mean that footballers with EU passports will be added to those who currently have to - often failing in the process - jump through governmental hoops just for the privilege of playing on these Isles. If that happens it’ll not only be harder for English clubs to bring in young talent from around the world, but it’ll make young British talent far more valuable to British clubs.
The Chelsea loan system might have a natural endpoint. But don’t think that’s because Chelsea are as near-minded as 52% of those who voted in the Brexit referendum. The loan-system’s the gift that keeps on giving for Chelsea, right up until the government takes it away.