Explaining loan transfers: Sticking plasters or expensive gambles?

To loan or not to loan? It is a question many Premier League clubs have been grappling with during this January transfer window and though only seven have replied in the affirmative, the fact that four of them belong to the traditional ‘Big Six’ proves that temporary transfers are by no means the preserve of those desperately scrambling to avoid relegation.

There are many reasons loans make sense to even the biggest clubs. They can be a sticking plaster for an injury crisis, help facilitate a change of direction under a new manager or simply present an opportunity that is too good to turn down.

Some clubs, of course, almost never make loan signings. Manchester City fall into that category, although they are happy to loan players out. Liverpool also refrain from doing so, although they succumb in emergency situations: Juventus’ Arthur, for example, was brought in to cover midfield injuries last summer. His subsequent record — he has played just 14 first-team minutes after suffering injuries himself — perhaps underlines why Liverpool’s recruitment are so reluctant to do such deals.

Loans can be deemed as a tacit admission that there has been a failure in recruitment planning or execution, but the stigma around them certainly seems to be disappearing, judging by the high-profile deals completed this month.

But what categories of loan exist, and how are they executed in the fraught environs of a winter transfer window?


The high-profile loan

The most desirable players aren’t usually available in January and, if they are, the price tags are often inflated to determine. But this month has proved that top talents can be available — at least in the short term — for clubs willing to move swiftly.

The latest is Arnaut Danjuma, signed by Tottenham from Villarreal, a deal very much in the opportunistic category but which was underpinned by long-term scouting. Danjuma, 25, was on a list of forward players that Spurs had been considering and Tottenham looked at doing a deal in the summer as part of Giovani Lo Celso’s loan in the other direction.


Tottenham moved quickly to secure Arnaut Danjuma (Photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Danjuma already had one foot in the door at Everton after having a medical, but when Frank Lampard’s sacking added another layer of chaos to an already messy situation at Goodison Park, Tottenham sniffed an opportunity. Being nimble and creative in the loan market is important, too, and their preparedness to move swiftly saw him sign.

Which category that two other high-profile deals — Manchester United‘s acquisition of Wout Weghorst from Burnley and Chelsea‘s signing of Joao Felix from Atletico Madrid — fall into is probably best judged at the end of the season. Joao Felix will certainly hope so having been sent off 58 minutes into his Chelsea debut, a 2-1 defeat at Fulham.

Money and unsettled circumstances played a part in both deals. United’s need for a striker was exacerbated by the falling-out with Cristiano Ronaldoa row that ultimately led to his contract being torn up.

That decision solved one problem — the increasingly destabilizing presence of an unsettled player — but created another as it left United light up front. Weghorst has at least offered another option in that department, even if the public perception of replacing a Ballon d’Or winner with a striker on loan from Championship leaders Burnley may have required some at the club to swallow their pride.

Unlike the Ronaldo re-signing in 2021, however, which seemed a vanity project under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, this was exactly what Erik ten Hag wanted and suggests joined-up rather than random thinking. Weghorst’s impact at the World Cup with the Netherlands reminded suitors of his ability, and though the process of extricating him from his previous loan at Besiktas was complicated, Ten Hag clearly deemed it worthwhile.

Either way, it represents a low-risk option financially, an important aspect for United, who had overspent previously. They had long resolved to only sign loans in January (their other arrival this month was Jack Butland from Crystal Palace as goalkeeper back-up) and with the Glazer family looking to sell up, that strategy makes sense.


Loans with an eye to the long term

Wolves use loans quite frequently — as they have done this window with the arrival of Matheus Cunha from Atletico Madrid — but they are usually either loans with options in their favor or loans with obligations to buy.

This approach can also help with shaping your transfer budget for the summer, but only if you’ve done your due diligence on the player and truly see them staying beyond the end of the loan term.

Chelsea’s acquisition of Joao Felix was a little different. It was very expensive, as has become typical since the takeover led by the Todd Boehly-Clearlake consortium. The 23-year-old is costing Chelsea a loan fee of £9.7million ($11.8m) with a £5.3million salary on top. It’s not even a ‘try before you buy’, as there is no purchase option included.

Often that contractual mechanism is included at a reasonable level to keep the possibility open, or in some cases, if certain criteria are met that option becomes an obligation to buy. Neither exists in the Joao Felix deal, and with a total outlay of £15million for less than six months, he represents an extremely pricey temporary hire.

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Overarching club targets can guide the thinking on such deals though. If Joao Felix can ensure Chelsea get back into the hunt for European football, perhaps even the Champions League, then it will be a win-win for all concerned. And if Joao Felix can find a happy home, with his face not currently fitting at Atletico, then the plan will have worked and negotiating a permanent deal in the summer may be the natural next step.

Newcastle‘s loan signing of Matt Targett from Aston Villa last January falls into this category but felt more strategically planned. Targett gave manager Eddie Howe a much-needed option at full-back and after he impressed in the club’s climb away from relegation danger, that loan was duly converted into a £15million permanent transfer.


Matt Targett fulfilled a crucial job for Newcastle United last season (Photo: by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Howe and Newcastle’s sporting director Dan Ashworth prefers loans with a long-term prospect of a deal. But sometimes clubs have to accept other terms. Despite now having Saudi Arabia‘s backing, keeping a close eye on financial fair play (FFP) means deferring spending until the summer can prove a handy tool.

In addition to Targett’s loan, Newcastle also spent £25million on Chris Wood. The price Newcastle paid was reflective of newfound riches and appeared inflated, but it also helped weaken a relegation rival in Burnley.

Having fulfilled his purpose at St James’ Park, Wood was duly made available for loan this month, an option Nottingham Forest were only too happy to take up. That deal could become permanent should certain objectives be met, and in the meantime, his salary will be off Newcastle’s books as they strive to comply with FFP regulations.


Getting young players experience

The majority of Premier League clubs’ loan business is releasing their stable of youngsters into the wild. Some clubs have fully fledged loan departments that see themselves as a business within a business. Finding the right loan for emerging talent looks after both the development and asset value of a player.

It’s widely accepted within the game that under-21 football is too closeted an environment to find out whether a young player will sink or swim in the men’s game. That’s why choosing the right loan, often further down the pyramid, is seen as the best course of action. That not only helps the big clubs but provides an important function of the game in allowing smaller clubs to benefit from talent that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford.

Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich City and Leicester City were stops on the loan journey before Harry Kane started to score goals for Tottenham, for example. Brentford have a good relationship with Wimbledon and have sent five players on loan there in the last few seasons. They’ve brought in Kevin Schade from further afield, Freiburg in Germany.


Kevin Schade has joined Brentford on loan (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Nowadays smart clubs put together presentations on how they’ll use talented young loans. Leeds did this when they signed Eddie Nketiah from arsenal, which became a qualified success before his recall to the Emirates. Leeds are now looking for the right loan for a promising striker of their own in Joe Gelhardt. Clubs with big academy setups need to retain players to ensure teams are well-stocked, but the ultimate aim is to see the cream rise to the top.

At Brightonthey prefer to have players fully on board with their methods. Levi Colwillwho came in from Chelsea when Potter was still at the Amex, was a rare exception only because they weren’t able to sign him permanently and it fitted with the overall strategy once Marc Cucurella headed in the other direction for £56million.

Loans being offered as a makeweight when buying a player can act as leverage in a deal. Chelsea also know that come the summer, Colwill’s value will be far higher thanks to a successful development loan. They may be able to recover much of what they spent on Cucurella if they decide to sell Colwill. Alternatively, he could line up at the heart of the Chelsea defence: either way, it is a win for the club.


Cleaning out the dressing room

Players that are surplus to requirements and sucking money — and sometimes the spirit — from a club are often sent on loan, too.

Trying to do a deal for a player who isn’t playing isn’t always easy, especially for Premier League sides where you’re asking another club to cover high wages. A deal can be agreed between the clubs, but sometimes when players then discuss personal terms there can be a hiccup. One deal from the Premier League to the Championship fell down in the summer because an agency demanded an additional fee to get the deal done, which meant the club pulled out of negotiations and missed out on the player.

The purpose of getting a big earner or disaffected player out of the door on loan can serve a few purposes. If money is tight for the Premier League club, they may be able to redistribute the wages that they have freed up on a player that the manager really wants. Everton, for example, are keen to find a club for Michael Keane but are wary of strengthening a relegation rival in the process.

The other factor is that clubs may value a player more than a manager, who could be dispensed sooner. On that basis, a loan can simply keep that player happy until the coast is clear for a return. If the player who is out on loan then uses it as a shop window opportunity and attracts interest, then it will have worked out well. No clubs want to be paying players that aren’t playing.

Either way, the later in the window it gets, the more likely players and teams push for loans. The final few days of January could get very busy.

(Top photo, left to right: Arnaut Danjuma, Joao Felix, Wout Weghorst; all Getty Images)

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