There's an endearing tale told by a Chelsea blogger about the club's hitherto archaic scouting network. The author, whose name isn't revealed, had impressed at a handful of soccer schools run by Chelsea in London and had contacted the club about a potential trial.
Bernie Dixon, then the club's Youth Development Officer responded to the young hopeful's letter by asking him to send a list of fixtures so he can pick one to send a scout to.
Upon learning that the youngster played his football in Brighton, Dixon replied that his scouting network didn't stretch as far as the south coast. This wasn't in some forgotten time in the 1960's. This was in 1996, well after the Premier League revolution had been sparked.
More than a quarter of a century on and Chelsea's sophisticated scouting network has evolved to the point where it can comb the earth and pluck potential future stars from obscurity and turn them towards the limelight. Jose Mourinho apparently believes that Chelsea's network is the most sophisticated in the game.
Global scouting network
Chelsea employ thousands of scouts all over the world to seek out the brightest and best, and they feed into a centralised database which is only accessible to a handful of people, including Roman Abramovich, who reportedly has a specially-designed app on his iPad which enables him to access the reports.
The system is a labour of love borne out of a partnership between Technical Director Michael Emenalo and head of international scouts Scott McLachlan, formerly of Fulham, who holds a Masters in sports coaching science. Since teaming up in 2011, they've finetuned the bloated and costly system implemented by Frank Arnesen, who was forced to resign after failing to unearth a single player to make it into the Chelsea first team.
"It is my job to educate them [scouts] scientifically, to tailor their observations and analysis to data presentation," McLachlan says in Michael Calvin's The Nowhere Men. "I've got to stop them using silly cliches, like this boy does this and that, and get them to focus on trends and averages."
He continues: "We at Chelsea are looking at how we measure and quantify talent - that's why we're seeking links with performance scientists from all over the world."
The search for the best
Key to Chelsea's plan is what McLachlan calls 'peer group testimony' - essentially a form of crowd sourcing and consensus amongst scouts. According to the Daily Mail, Chelsea won't sign a player if he scored less than average of 90% in the reports of the scouts who have watched him play. Radamel Falcao scored less than that so was passed up on. Andre Schurrle hit the magic mark and was soon at Stamford Bridge.
Although plenty of leading Premier League clubs have invested heavily in trying to objectively analyse what is essentially a subjective matter through the use of statistics and data, Chelsea appear to have hit upon a way of not only nourishing their first team with the best of the best, but also funding their growth as they square up against commercial giants like Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Indeed, while Manchester United rake in the cash and fund their growth through outlandish and obscure sponsorship deals, the Blues are balancing the book by turning their hand to the human trade.
Turning a profit
In November last year Chelsea announced that they had made a profit of £18.4 million for the 12 month period up to June 30, 2014 - only the second time they've achieved that in the Abramovich era. The statement also revealed a record turnover of £319.8 million - a figure driven in part by the sale of key players including David Luiz and Juan Mata for close to £90 million. They easily cleared the Financial Fair Play regulations, while fellow big-spenders Manchester City did not.
In the most recent January window Schurrle was sold to Wolfsburg for a reported fee of £24 million, less than two years after the Blues purchased him from Bayer Leverkusen for £18 million. Chelsea paid roughly £2 million more to sign Romelu Lukaku in 2011 - before selling him on to Everton for a club-record £28 million.
All that means that the Blues have recouped around £140 million in transfer fees for four players they either didn't wish to keep or weren't part of the first team. Not bad work if you can get it.
It seems then that Chelsea are reaping the rewards of a sophisticated approach to analysing potential signings - the players they sign have an inherent value amongst clubs that remains high regardless of if they're first team regulars at Stamford Bridge, which then means a buyer has to pay a premium price.
Lukaku in particular represents Chelsea's approach best in that he was a highly regarded youngster who was sent out on loan to both West Brom and Everton. The Belgian developed away from Stamford Bridge, had his wages paid by his temporary employers and actually commanded a loan fee, before he was sold to the Toffees for a sizeable profit with little work on Chelsea's behalf.
Indeed it's when Chelsea's use of the loan system combines with their financial might that their approach becomes more dubious and the lines start to blur. Mohamed Salah's loan to Fiorentina means that the Blues now have no less than 28 players placed with other clubs - almost double that of Manchester United. According to this superb article on We Ain't Got No History the 25 players who were out on loan last season were "costing Chelsea around £16m on the FFP books this season, or a mere £640,000 per player".
On that list of Chelsea loanees was Ryan Bertrand, who has now made his move to Southampton permanent for a fee of £10 million - meaning Chelsea have more than 25 of the best young players developing their games, either to return and make Mourinho's senior squad like Thibaut Courtois or more likely, be sold at a massive profit, just like Kevin de Bruyne. With fees amortised across the length of contracts and some costs to Chelsea - plus some of the vagaries of the FFP rules - it's not as simple as that, but the basic premise is there.
Chelsea appear to have honed their clinical approach to player recruitment; shifting from scouring for players with a view to developing them for the first team to market speculation in an attempt to turn a profit off the back of young players as the worst possible outcome. The suggestion is that all of these players on loan aren't ever going to play for Chelsea, but instead help make them money. They're commodities or assets to be traded like anything else.
The conveyor belt has seen 31 new players arrive at Chelsea in the three full and complete seasons since McLachlan and Emenalo teamed up ahead of the 2011/12 campaign. Of that 31, only eight are still at the club, including Nemanja Matic who was initially sold to Benfica as part of the deal for David Luiz.
20 of the 31 were aged 21 or younger, with 14 of the overall number currently out on loan - amongst them are full internationals and established Premier League players. The figures seem to suggest two things; a clear emphasis on signing young players with a view or retaining a high sell-on value, and a high turnover - which could be interpreted as a form of commodity trading.
Players like De Bruyne, Marin, Salah and Schurrle all came to Chelsea all highly rated, but have been moved on, either on loan or sold, without so much as causing a ripple in the first team.
Youngsters in trouble
Those players did however make the first-team squad, but below them is another level of player, those such as Lucas Piazon and Gael Kakuta are yet to spend any real time at Chelsea but maintain their reputation as highly promising youngsters thanks in part to loan spells at Vitesse Arnhem and now at Eintracht Frankfurt and Rayo Vallecano respectively. These are the types of players most at risk.
"We think this is the best way to go," says Emenalo. "We identified that for young players, the ages of 18 to 21 are the most difficult time as they wonder if they are good enough for the Chelsea first team and what is next for them”.
“We felt it is better for them at that age to go on loan to somewhere where they get visibility and good competition. For psychological and physical reasons that is the best thing to do at that age.”
The case of Vitesse Arnhem in particular has caught the eye of the Dutch Football Federation, who are looking into the relationship between both clubs. Current owner Alexander Chigrinsky is a good friend of Abramovich, and a host players have made a temporary move to the Eredivise side since 2010.
Partners in crime?
The agreement has raised more than a few eyebrows. The influx of Chelsea youngsters has artificially inflated Vitesse's standing in Dutch football. In the 2010/11 season they finished 15th. Since then they have finished: 7th, 4th and 6th. This season they're 10th, with three Chelsea players on loan.
One former director has accused Chelsea of exerting its influence over Vitesse to stop them from qualifying for the Champions League in an attempt to stop a closer look at their dealings; UEFA rules say no one owner can have more than one club in the competition. Chelsea board member Marina Granovskaia is involved in Vitesse's business operations.
Another little perk for Chelsea is the Dutch FA's relatively lax attitude towards work permits for non-EU players, allowing them to sign youngsters from all four corners of the earth who would never be allowed to play in England straight away.
Chelsea are not alone in the way they work, but they are blazing a trail in what is essentially a Wild West of a loan market. There are few regulations from either FIFA or the Premier League over what they can and cannot do, while the welfare and future these young players is barely considered.
'No mood' for change
Ominously, the Premier League says there is 'no mood' for rule changes in England, and say that international loans are beyond their remit. FIFA, who could do something to help curb player trading and protect young players, remain silent on the matter.
They could be inclined to change their minds if they saw some of the victims of Chelsea's approach. Chelsea were so desperate to land Gael Kakuta in 2009 that they broke the rules sufficiently to land a two-window transfer ban, while Kakuta was fined €780,000 and banned for four months. The ruling was later overturned.
The young Frenchman has been bounced around six different clubs since then. Guy Hillion, the scout who first alerted Chelsea to Kakuta, laments what he calls a "huge waste" of one of the most talented players of his generation. He's played a sum total of six Premier League minutes for the Blues.
For the players, this is their chance to sign for a global superpower for relatively large sums of money when otherwise they would have no chance. Even as Chelsea's use of the loan system becomes more apparent, interest amongst young players, especially from outside of Europe, is unlikely to diminish.
For the foreseeable future there appears little that can be done to stop Chelsea using their wealth to generate more wealth through player trading. The heart of the issue, amidst all of the talk of numbers and money, is a very human one, where bodies are reduced down to numbers on a spreadsheet to help bolster revenue figures. At the very least it's a system which is in danger of dehumanising young players from some of the most impoverished backgrounds in the world.
It would be far too extreme and disrespectful to compare the approach to human trafficking but the basic similarities are there; the promise of a bright future, the exploitation and gain by one party at another's expense. Chelsea will argue that they are helping these young players develop and all should go on to enjoy successful careers either in west London or beyond. While that may be true in some cases, the bottom line shows that Chelsea are the only real winners here.