Not so long ago, the loan system was used to give young players on the fringe of a squad some valuable first-team experience elsewhere. David Beckham, for example, was farmed out to Preston North End early in the 1994-95 season, scoring two goals in five appearances before graduating to his Premier League debut for Manchester United in the latter stages of the campaign.
These days, however, top-flight sides appear to use the loan system for more nefarious means, loaning their surplus talent to rivals within their own division. Last week, Liverpool received a huge boost in their title prospects without even kicking a ball when their on-loan striker Fabio Borini scored a goal for Sunderland against Chelsea.
This weekend, Chelsea will face Liverpool at Anfield, but Moses will not be in action. Current Premier League rules stipulate that a player cannot face his parent club, even if he is allowed to do his parent club's bidding against their league opponents.
Loan players shipped out within the same league are effectively secret agents who help their parent clubs without posing a threat towards them. Last December, Jose Mourinho plainly boasted of the benefits of this arrangement to the Daily Mail:
From my angle, I’m happy that [Romelu Lukaku is] scoring goals against our direct rivals, and he doesn’t score against us because he can’t. It’s phenomenal you have a player that, even when he is not playing for you, is scoring against your opponents.
It seems inconsistent that a team like Chelsea can farm out their considerable talents to help weaken their opponents without those same talents being able to inflict equal damage on their parent club.
It is even more inconsistent when the case of Thibaut Courtois is considered. The Belgian keeper has been on loan from the Blues at Atletico Madrid for the past three seasons, but since UEFA have no stipulation against loan players facing their parent clubs, he was allowed to face Chelsea in the Champions League this week (even if UEFA had to overrule a contract clause stating he would only be available at a price).
In most cases, this arrangement wouldn't be an issue—but what if an unscrupulous owner whispered in the ear of his on-loan player, asking him to influence the game in favour of the team who own his contract? Although I am by no means suggesting Courtois and Chelsea are guilty of anything, there is clearly potential for corruption here.
Courtois' freedom to play against Chelsea is made to look even more farcical by Juan Mata's situation this season. Having already played for Chelsea in the Champions League, the Spaniard was cup-tied for Manchester United's European campaign.
So, in the eyes of UEFA, it is not permissible for someone to play against clubs outside his domestic division if he has been sold that season, but if he has been loaned, he can play against whomever he wants, including his actual owner.
Why can a loan player face any team he wants in a particular league, but someone who has been sold mid-season cannot? It makes no sense.
Clearly, the loan system is a mess (as is the cup-tied system, but that's a story for another day). The Premier League and UEFA must have a consistent ruling, while loan players should be able to feature against all clubs in their parent's domestic league (including the parent) or none of them.
Earlier this month, Arsene Wenger criticised the loan system (via ESPN) and made some pertinent suggestions for new rulings:
I believe if you want to continue the loan system, we have to make them available against the teams that loan them out, or the system is not defendable. It is just a protection of the clubs who loan the players out to hurt their opponents and they have no risk at all.
I think the best would be that the players are only loaned in lower divisions or abroad, and even abroad I am not completely convinced it is right.
Wenger's comments are undoubtedly spurred by Arsenal's top-four battle with Everton, whose manipulation of the loan system has brought them the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Gerard Deulofeu and Lacina Traore.
However, his suggestion that players may only be loaned to other divisions or abroad is fair and sensible—particularly if those players sent abroad will not meet their parent club in a continental competition that season.
Whether the Premier League and UEFA will recognise that these changes need to be made is another matter.