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.

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4 thoughts on “Loan Dangers

  1. Hhhhhmmmm agree with this on the whole. However it is a bit doom and gloom. Having watched us at Luton and Cambridge pre-season (without the loanees) it was clear Mowbray had been working on a style of play built around keeping the ball on the deck and short passing. The way Vincelot, Fleck, Lameiras and Madison passed and moved was great to watch and was a huge shift from last year… the only thing that was obvious is that we were lacking a striker or any sort of threat up front. Armstrong is a cut above anything in this league, but I still believe that if we could sign a player with a similar style i.e. quick and willing to run in behind we will do okay without him. As for Kent he has flattered to deceive in many games and although he clearly is destined for bigger things his impact on the team is certainly not irreplaceable. Murphy is here for the rest of the season, which to be honest is all you seem to get out of permanent signings at this level. With Madison and Lameiras in the wings the biggest challenge for me is to replace Reda and Armstrong (very difficult). I still feel Simeon Jackson would have suited this style of play

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    • Thanks for the comment, I think I tend to be a pessimist when we’re doing well and an optimist when we aren’t.

      I kind of feel that our style of play at the moment leans a little too heavily on having great individuals to make the breakthrough, otherwise we’re a bit predictable and can easily be shut-out. Using Saturday’s showing as an indicator of what is to come is, like I said, way too harsh given that we only really had 12 players to pick from but it did indicate just how much is lost when you strip-back the difference that the key players make. I can see why it comes across as nit-picky and overly-critical, because what teams don’t lean heavily on their key players to make a difference?

      On Simeon Jackson, whilst I don’t think that he specifically would have been effective for us in this system, we could certainly do with someone of his ilk who can run in behind, at the moment it’s either Armstrong, who isn’t always available, or Tudgay and Fortuné who are different kinds of forwards. We’ll suffer later on in the season if we can’t find that type of player as our playing style can be a little easy to defend against otherwise.

      The overall point of the article is my feeling of unease at relying on key individuals to make a difference. Whether loan or not, they all eventually leave. If our style of play does have to remain heavily dependant on key individuals, then we need to have a system in place to continue to replace those we lose. We’re at a very early stage in the process, there are positive signs, there are negative signs too. Mowbray’s certainly earned some patience, but how we absorb losing Armstrong and others between now and the start of next season will be crucial on building on what has been a very good start.

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  2. I hear you. At this level though I think the sole objective is to get promoted. You will never be able to build a quality team over 2 or 3 seasons as your best players will always leave in the meantime. True we may struggle without Armstrong’s goals, but in the 3 league games we have been without him we have won 2 and drawn 1 of 3 away games (Burton, Fleetwood, Swindon). Not only that when January comes round we will hopefully still be near the top of the table and in a much better position to attract players (on loan or permanently) to replace Armstrong, Kent and Cole. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed watching Cov as much as I have this year. PUSB!

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    • I agree with you whole-heartedly. There are obviously things you can do to enhance your prospects but it’s ultimately about seizing the moment when it comes. There have been similar starts like this in the past which have fallen awry, we’ve just got to continue to pick up points wherever we can get them now. Get everything we can out of Adam Armstrong while we have him and if the rest of our points come from lucky own goals and we win promotion, so be it.

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