Building a competitive Premier League team is an expensive business. Last summer witnessed a record £1.47billion spent with the average player costing in excess of £10million and 12 clubs breaking their transfer record.
The market is fraught with danger as there are no sure-things in football and such are the potential financial pitfalls, clubs are sensibly investing more in scouting, analytics and building sounder structures in recruitment.
But for every Andrew Robertson or Pascal Gross is a Davy Klaassen or Roque Mesa – sometimes, no matter the extent of your due diligence or the quality of the player you think you’re signing, things just don’t work out.
The loan system offers a different recruitment route for those clubs not willing, or able, to stretch themselves financially on unproven additions and while monetary commitments on wages vary (Grzegorz Krychowiak’s £110,000-a-week PSG wages being paid in full by West Brom as an alarming example at the top end) it often represents a low risk, high reward scheme.
True to form, it’s been a mixed bag across the 13 clubs who tested the temporary market as we highlight the best five loan deals of the season.
Here’s one for the tactics gurus, straight out of chapter one of Arrigo Sacchi’s playbook: playing players in their natural positions often leads to positive results.
Chelsea’s dogmatic insistence on turning the Brazilian into a left-wing back quickly shifted from the interesting to the maddening as Kenedy lacked the discipline, defensive instinct and concentration against a lack of coherent minutes to adapt to the role.
Rafa Benitez is one of the game’s great thinkers and strategists but it didn’t need a Mensa-like understanding to bring him to St James’ Park in January, station him in an advanced position on the left-flank for Newcastle and watch him fly.
In black and white he’s flourished, delivering two assists and scoring twice in nine appearances, making 1.2 key passes every 90 minutes and 1.4 successful dribbles. Of players under 23, who have made at least five starts, that puts him alongside Marcus Rashford and Harry Winks for the first category and Dele Alli for the second.
He’s still a little raw and maybe too ambitious in possession – his 4.4 unsuccessful touches per 90 puts him 11th in the Premier League – but finally, three years after he moved to England with a degree of fanfare given his displays in Brazil, we’ve got to see what the fuss was all about.
What happens next will be intriguing, although given his positive performances all signs point to a return to Chelsea’s bench. Should the Blues choose to sell, however, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich are believed to be in the conversation which will only inflate his value probably beyond Newcastle’s means.
A perfect example of the short-term benefits and long-term restrictions of the loan market.
The globalisation of the Premier League has led to the curious phenomenon of the unknown foreign goalkeeper signed on the cheap as a deputy or third-choice only to make a few fleeting appearances and then move.
For those who aren’t followers of the domestic game in the Czech Republic, Denmark or his native Slovakia, Newcastle’s six-month acquisition of Dubravka from Sparta Prague had all the signs of a Kostas Chalkias, Kevin-Stuhr Ellegaard or Giedrius Arlauskis.
Signed on deadline day, with his name unlikely to have generated much excitement from Jim White, Dubravka’s arrival proved a significant source of friction between Benitez and the Newcastle board.
The Magpies already had two relatively established senior ‘keepers in Rob Eliott and Karl Darlow with the England Under-19 international on loan at Aberdeen. The question was obviously, “why?” with so many other areas of the field seemingly with more pressing need amid the threat of relegation.
But the Slovak has been sensational with Alexandre Lacazette’s fine finish on Sunday the first he has conceded at St James’ Park. In the seven league games Dubravka has started, Newcastle have won four, drawn one and lost two, keeping four clean sheets with just four conceded.
The opposition xG during those matches was 7.79, providing one, albeit with other factors to consider, indicator of his presence. While with Dubravka between the sticks, Newcastle are conceding a goal every 19.5 shots; with Elliot or Darlow before January 31, it was 8.10 having shipped 38 goals against an opposition xG of 38.54.
He has also proved an excellent organiser of his defence, which is deeply impressive given how little time he’s had in English football with no pre-season to really get to know his team-mates, personally or professionally.
Dubravka is expected to cost Newcastle £4million when they activate the clause in his loan agreement with Sparta Prague proving a win-win situation in both the here and now for Benitez and notoriously frugal owner Mike Ashley.
He may possess one of the most unpronounceable surnames in the Premier League but it’s been clear the Kosovan-born Swiss has made a considerable contribution to Hudderfield’s Terrier-like defence and, as a result, could be going to the World Cup.
Whatever Hadergjonaj’s preconceptions were about swapping Germany, where he had spent just a season at Ingolstadt after signing from Young Boys, for West Yorkshire he would have known once he earned a place in David Wagner’s starting XI, he’d be busy.
Wagner is a clearly an incredibly-skilled coach and tactician but even with the culture he has fostered at the club and a wide-ranging summer transfer window in which they made 13 signings, Huddersfield still started the season with recognisably the weakest squad in the top-flight.
As part of a strict defensive unit, the right-back/right-midfielder has contributed to a back four which gives up just 11.4 shots per 90 minutes – the seventh fewest in the Premier League – with the 13th lowest opposition xG of 46.90.
Admittedly he’s only started 16 of 34 matches but his own individual stats reveal him to be Huddersfield’s third-most creative player with 1.3 key passes per 90, not far behind midfielders Aaron Mooy and Alex Pritchard (both 1.5). That figure also puts him fifth overall among Premier League right-backs who have made at least five appearances.
He’s also proved a proficient crosser with 1.0 per 90, second only to Mooy (1.1) but what clearly needs working is his overall passing which stands at 67.4 per cent for the season. However, with Huddersfield’s collective average at 74.4 per cent it’s slightly understandable.
His reward for a season of real promise has been a three-year contract with the expectation there is much more to come.
Another Terrier who could be on his way to the World Cup is Lossl. Like so many Scandinavians before him, he has settled into life in English football extremely quickly having signed last summer from Mainz.
Along with Danish countryman Mathias Zanka, Lossl has been ever-present this season and while there have been a few wobbles – his own goal against Brighton earlier this month – he is seventh overall in the top flight for clean sheets with nine.
Significant thanks must go to the outfield players in front of him, given how relatively few opportunities Huddersfield tend to present to the opposition, but Lossl’s ubiquitous status in goal is for good reason.
As per the Premier League’s goalkeeping statistics, he’s third in total punches (21), seventh in high claims (29) and fourth in sweeper clearances (24) but perhaps more signifying of his importance is his proficiency with the ball at his feet as no goalkeeper has more accurate long passes per 90 (11.2) or overall passes (34.4).
Outside of the numbers, Lossl has also proved and influential and popular member of the dressing room and has endeared himself to the Huddersfield fans, helped by his continual media presence pre and post-match which always provide a strong character reference.
Just like team-mate Hadergjonaj, Huddersfield have already agreed to make Lossl’s loan a permanent deal and he will sign an long-term contract on July 1.
It’s been a season of considerable promise for the on-loan Chelsea midfielder but also one of frustration as a niggling knee injury has interrupted his second-half of the campaign.
Having established himself in the Palace midfield, he earned England honours, impressing in November’s friendly against Germany as he was named man-of-the-match at Wembley against a Mannschaft midfield which included Ilkay Gündogan and Mesut Ozil.
Consequently, talk was that Loftus-Cheek could be a wildcard in Gareth Southgate’s 23 for Russia, offering energy, poise and a calmness in possession. However, between December 29 and March 30 he didn’t set foot on the field for Palace dampening the debate.
Thankfully for the 22-year-old his injury looks to have healed and he now has four more matches to recapture the England manager’s eye which, given, the lack of credible World Cup central midfield candidates is a definite possibility.
Loftus-Cheek has played across four different midfield positions – central, attacking, right and left – which must be an instant attraction for Southgate given his apparent desire to experiment with formations on a game-to-game basis.
He’s been Palace’s sixth-most creative player with 1.4 key passes per 90 minutes and is their second-most proficient dribbler with 3.2 per 90, behind only Wilfried Zaha’s 4.1 of players who have made at least five appearances.
He could still improve defensively with just 0.9 interceptions, 1.0 tackles and 1.4 clearances per 90; all well outside the top 10 of Palace players this season but clearly his strengths lie in getting on the ball and making magic happen in the final third.
Loftus-Cheek’s injury has taken some of the gloss what has been an impressive breakout campaign following which Chelsea are almost certainly set to take him back. They’d be mad not to.