Loan Watch: How Are Premier League Prospects Across Europe Faring?
According to Transfermarkt’s somewhat conservative figures, Premier League clubs currently have 125 players out on loan. Given that Chelsea alone would seem to have more than double the number quoted by that site, the real total could well be north of 150. While many are placed within the English pyramid, others are given a spot on European teams.
There are two primary reasons teams loan out a young player: to further their development or to increase their market value. While both can often be served by a loan in the Championship, a move abroad can open a young player up to different experiences and approaches, benefiting both their on and off-field growth.
This article focuses on the younger players, 23 or under, who have been placed further afield across some of the biggest leagues in Europe. Players who will hope to impress sufficiently to earn themselves a role in the first team squads of their respective teams next season.
Arsenal would have struggled to find a better landing spot for 19-year-old Reiss Nelson than Hoffenheim. A Champions League club, located in a quiet, university city short on off-field distractions, led by an intelligent young coach who asks a lot of his players, it has proved to be an excellent environment for him to get minutes and develop his game.
His radar shows a player who is making a solid overall attacking contribution without yet standing out in any particular area. A combined 0.43 xG + xGA per 90 is very decent for his age and also carries over into the smaller sample of his Champions League appearances, in which he recorded a combined 0.38xG + xGA per 90.
Nelson’s initial position has largely been on the left flank, with license to cut inside onto his favoured right foot, but Julian Nagalsmann is a coach who regularly rotates the roles and positions of his players, and that is very much evident in the split of Nelson’s per 90s to date.
Nelson scored six times in his first couple of months in the Bundesliga off of just 11 shots and 1.38xG, but has unsurprisingly cooled down since.
His performance levels have also gone through peaks and troughs, with accompanying praise and criticism from his coach, but that is to be expected given his inexperience. Even though only five of his 18 appearances in league and Champions League play have been starts, he is getting more minutes than he would have done at Arsenal and is performing well enough to merit continued inclusion. His ability on the dribble at times been decisive.
Nelson isn’t ripping up the league to the same degree as his fellow South-Londoner and former Southwark Under-11 teammate Jadon Sancho at Borussia Dortmund, but he is doing enough to suggest he has a bright future ahead of him. Reports this week suggest that senior figures at Arsenal are keen to see him remain at Hoffenheim until the end of the season, despite coach Unai Emery expressing an interest in recalling him in January. When he does return in the summer, he will do so as both a better player and a more valuable asset.
For a third consecutive season, Manchester City have loaned out attacking midfielder Manu García. Having just turned 21, this is arguably one of the last opportunities he has to convince the club that he is worthy of joining the first team group. After half a season at Alaves in his native Spain and 18 months at NAC Breda in the Netherlands, this time around he finds himself in France as part of a lower mid-table Toulouse side.
It was a move that García was happy to make, aware that performing well in a physical league like Ligue 1 would help prove that his small, 5-foot-7 frame would not be an impediment to future success.
He has had plenty of playing time, registering 15 starts and a further two substitute appearances, but results so far have been mixed.
Usually deployed as a central attacking midfielder, he has showed himself to be an able dribbler and foul winner who doesn’t give the ball away too much, links neatly and is able to provide a solid off-ball contribution in terms of pressures and pressure regains. But he has contributed very little in the final third, barely advancing into the area and producing just 0.10xG + xGA per 90. He has notched zero goals and two assists to date.
His profile as a central midfielder, a role he has occupied at times, also provides little to suggest that he has a long-term future at City.
However, this is not exactly a loan that provides much opportunity to analyse that assumption. A move from a pass-and-press heavy, dominant attacking outfit to one of Ligue 1’s worst attacking teams, one who are not even particularly proactive out of possession, was never going to provide a relevant gauge of his level.
According to their official website, Chelsea currently have 40 players out on loan in various locations across the globe. Some of those are first-team signings that didn’t come off, others are players approaching their mid-20s unlikely to ever turn out for the club itself, and the last group are younger youth-academy graduates and signings seeking to earn themselves a place in the first-team squad or at least secure a move elsewhere.
Ola Aina falls squarely into that last-mentioned group. A two-time winner of both the FA Youth Cup and the UEFA Youth League in his time in the club’s youth system, an England youth international at various age groups and already a senior international with Nigeria, his solid if unspectacular loan spell at Hull City last season left him really needing to impress this time around.
The 22-year-old had various offers on the table last summer, but he elected to join Serie A side Torino. It was a step up and a step into the unknown, but he jumped at the opportunity to improve the tactical side of his game under a detail-orientated coach like Walter Mazzarri.
Throughout his youth career, Aina was a quick and strong, defensively sound full-back, two-footed, neat and tidy on the ball and an occasional presence further up the pitch. He has managed to retain those qualities whilst adding more attacking thrust to his game as a right or left-wing back in Mazzarri’s 3-5-2 formation.
Aina has exceeded pre-season expectations, starting 12 times (alongside four substitute appearances) and earning praise, alongside the odd criticism, from his coach. It seems that Torino have a €10 million purchase option on him, but Aina has made it clear that his preference would be to return to Chelsea if a first-team place is available.
Depending on how their summer transfer moves work out, that doesn’t seem as unlikely a scenario as it once did.
Liverpool Loanees - Ojo, Grujic and Allan
After three loans to Championship teams in England, Sheyi Ojo joined French side Reims this summer. He has started just three times as part of 4.8 per 90s to date. And there has been little in his output to indicate a long-term future at Anfield awaits. He still doesn’t provide enough end product to justify his very low passing completion percentage and high number of turnovers.
Like Ojo, Marko Grujic extended his Liverpool contract before he was loaned out to Hertha Berlin last summer. A pair of ankle injuries, the latter of which is likely to keep him out of action until the end of January, have reduced his playing time to six starts and one substitute appearance. When he has been on the field, the 22-year-old’s output has been steady at best.
Allan also signed a new deal before departing for his fifth consecutive loan away from Anfield. The Brazilian midfielder, signed from Internacional back in 2015, has never appeared for Liverpool’s first team. He made just two starts and two substitute appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt before suffering knee ligament damage in November that will sideline him until mid-January. More minutes will be necessary to draw conclusions.
Everton parted with £10 million to sign Nikola Vlasic from Hadjuk Split in the summer of 2017, but he never really got a proper run in the side during his first year in England. He only once started consecutive league matches as part of seven starts and five substitute appearances. Attacking arrivals midway through that season and at the start of the current campaign pushed him further down the pecking order.
So Everton sent him out on loan to CSKA Moscow, where he was a standout performer during the Champions League group stage for a side who somehow contrived to finish bottom of their group despite defeating Real Madrid home and away.
Playing in a variety of positions across the attacking midfield line, he provided a combined 0.24xG + xGA per 90, yielding one non-penalty goal (plus two penalties) and two assists for a scoring contribution of 0.47 per 90. He most impressed with his ability to progress the ball forward on the pass and the dribble. He led his side in successful dribbles and deep progressions, and ranked second in terms of moving the ball into the penalty area.
What he provided to his team sat somewhere between a midfielder.
And an attacking midfielder/winger.
Given the quality of opposition, with Roma and Viktoria Plzen the other two teams in the group, this relatively small sample suggests Everton have a player with a very interesting skillset who is capable of taking on a more central role than the right wing position he was generally assigned last season. Will he get the opportunity to show it?