The past week has seen that old debate over the benefits and drawbacks of the loan system re-emerge at this football club. Although I did explore this theme back in my season preview, it is worth revisiting in light of us having made a series of good loan signings this season, compared to our usual random melange of bodies plucked from far and wide.
It is hard not to feel that in our past three games, the presence or absence of our key loan players have decided the games. Of the eight goals we’ve scored in that period, only one has not been scored by a loan player. With a defence, consisting solely of players under contract, crumbling in front of us, the importance of having attacking players such as Adam Armstrong, Ryan Kent and Joe Cole has become especially apparent of late.
In my last look at the pros and cons of the loan system, my argument was that at the very least, loan players should improve the squad. For the most part, the loan signings we have made have constituted improvements to the options previously available. Tony Mowbray deserves praise for ensuring that for the most part, the loan signings have added quality to the options he’s had available.
Considering the desperation there was over the summer to bring in anybody to bolster the squad, placing faith in an almost entirely untried teenager to be our main goalscorer should reflect positively on Tony Mowbray’s ability to judge a player. Whereas the likes of Izale McLeod and Nicky Ajose have been okay for their respective clubs this season, Armstrong is clearly a better player by far and has consistently been the difference between victory and defeat.
Despite the loan signing of Adam Armstrong coming off so well, we’re in a situation where we are more than likely to lose our star striker in January, and without the comfort of a transfer fee to reinvest in the team. Just look at the difference between a lazy performance against Barnsley with our key loan players on Tuesday and a lazy performance against Northampton without our key loan players on Saturday. Shorn of having players in the final third who are clearly a cut above our level otherwise, it doesn’t look like we’re much better than we were last season.
When Tony Mowbray arrived, I expected to see in the medium-to-long-term that the overall level of performance of the team would improve. There just doesn’t really seem to be a team structure behind the way we attack, goals have mainly come from moments of individual brilliance than fantastic team-work. When opponents sit back and don’t leave space for us, we struggle to create clear-cut chances, even sometimes when we’ve had those loan players in the squad.
There is no doubt that the loan players do make a difference in this team. It raises the quandary though of whether it’s better to use high-calibre loan players to improve an otherwise ordinary squad or to not use the short-term fix in the hope that you can build something more sustainable in the longer-term.
Something that isn’t readily included in the debate over loan players at this level of football, is that players under contract aren’t exactly there on a permanent basis. You only have to cast your mind back to two season ago when Leon Clarke left mid-season and everything fell apart. The issue isn’t really a team’s reliance on loan players, but rather their reliance on individual players.
If you have a player who is too good for this level, either on loan or under contract, they aren’t going to stick around. It’s important to both get everything you can out of players while they are still around and also have that structure in place where if individuals go, they can be replaced without having to change the whole set-up of the team.
As we saw with the departures of Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson, getting a fee for a player can be scant compensation for the impact a key player can have on a team. Having a methodology in place to continue to recruit high-quality players, whether they are loan players of permanent players, is crucial, along with having a framework in place to allow players to excel while they are here.
There are positive signs at the moment that Tony Mowbray is currently putting this kind of thing in place. Not only did we sign the likes of Adam Armstrong, Jacob Murphy and Ryan Kent as well as the contracted Ruben Lameiras, but these are talented players who clearly relish playing for this club and specifically under Tony Mowbray. These are very good players, but the type of players who physically might have struggled at other League One clubs. Even Adam Armstrong has had his tough moments for us but Mowbray has kept the faith in him and he has come out of those difficult spells looking as confident in his own abilities as when he arrived fresh-faced at this club.
In a sense, that our best players are loan players and are going to leave isn’t a massive sea change from our best players being under contract and leaving. Having a constant turnover of players is obviously not preferable and whilst players under contract can still be sold, the rate of turnover tends to be lower than with a rotating cast of loan players. You only have to look at what’s happening to Swindon right now to know the perils of relying on loan players to elevate your squad.
Using Saturday’s performance as an indication of how we’re going to do without our key loan players is a little too hasty. Of the six substitutes we had, just one had made a league appearance for the club. That team was thrown together not just down to lack of loan players but also injuries and the suspension of Romain Vincelot.
What it did show is that we are probably too reliant on the performances of individual players to make the difference. That Tony Mowbray our manager has been able to bring in highly-talented loan players to the squad deserves credit. That’s not to say that we can’t be critical of him as well, there are currently too many loan players occupying key positions in the team. It raises a shadow of uncertainty over the team heading into the second-half of this season and further ahead.
Whilst it’s great that we are able to watch players like Adam Armstrong, Joe Cole, Ryan Kent and Jacob Murphy strut their stuff for us, it’s only a short-term fix. The manager now has to prove that the promising signs we’ve seen so far this season that there might be a structure in place behind the recruitment and nurturing of players can be utilised as part of a long-term plan, with players of our own.