A new, less cavalier era beckons for Chelsea

SOME have called it a scattergun approach, others have described it as merely careless, but Chelsea’s transfer market activity since 2003 has been characterised by mass purchases, bold statements and knee-jerk decisions. No matter how many top players Chelsea acquired during the Roman Abramovich era – and there have been many that have worked well –  there have been many mistakes and tales of big-money signings failing to live up to expectations.

The list seems quite endless and includes Mutu, Crespo, Shevchenko, Deco, Torres, Remy, Ba, Rahman, Batshuayi, Morata, Drinkwater, Kepa and, dare we say, Lukaku. Chelsea have sometimes acted like a greedy kid in a sweetshop: “I want, I want, I want.” Perhaps there have been occasions where a big name has been signed to deprive others and there have been cases of downright poor judgement. If further evidence has to be provided as to. Chelsea’s carelessness, let’s just list three players: Mo Salah (Roma and Liverpool), Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg and Manchester City) and Romelu Lukaku (WBA, Everton, Man.Utd and Inter Milan).

But this approach has undoubtedly been consigned to the past with the club on the brink of being taken over by the consortium led by American businessman Todd Boehly. Chelsea will be US-owned and that means a very different attitude to sports investment from the one taken by Abramovich and his entourage. Abramovich appeared to ask for little in return for his consistently committed patronage, thereby making him popular with the Chelsea faithful, but the US ownership team will surely demand a return and a more measured strategy around cash outlay and squad building.

It may have been Chelsea had seen the best of the Abramovich years, despite winning the Champions League for the second time in 2011. They had become a cup team over the past five years and since Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp moved into Manchester and Liverpool respectively, Chelsea’s position had been on the decline. Their last title challenge was in 2017 and the past six seasons have delivered four trophies (it may be five if they win the FA Cup on May 14). Compared to the six seasons starting with José Mourinho’s appointment, when they won eight, and the second six-year period when they won five, it is clear Chelsea’s ability to win silverware has declined or rather, has been challenged by smart competition. Furthermore, their league placings have also fallen away and given they are likely to finish third or fourth in the Premier in 2021-22, their last top two position was in 2017.  

Given Chelsea have a reputation for being a hire and fire club with respect to managers, it is no coincidence the two most successful clubs at present have had their managers for some time. In six years, Chelsea have had Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel. In that same timeframe, Manchester City and Liverpool have had Guardiola and Klopp. At some point, the new owners may well question this strategy for its short-termism. It has worked to a point – witness the number of trophies – but less so recently.

Chelsea may have seen the best of the Abramovich era and had become a cup team while Manchester City and Liverpool slugged it out for the title.

Another aspect of Chelsea’s last 19 years has to be the number of young players being loaned out in the market. At present, there are almost 30 players on loan at clubs like AC Milan, Besiktas, Venezia, Rapid Vienna, Lokomotiv Moscow and Flamengo. Some, such as Michy Batshuayi and Baba Rahman, seem to have been at the club for years, but have little hope of making it at Chelsea. This is really inefficient player management and can destroy their careers, even if Chelsea might get a return on the continual lending of their services. Often, it is a way of off-loading a player who has been bought (Batshuayi cost £ 33 million) who hasn’t worked out. According to football finance professionals, the buy and loan model is very unsatisfying for the players.

As much as Chelsea supporters love Stamford Bridge, the harsh reality is the club needs to rebuild or move to remain competitive. The capacity is barely 40,000, capable of hosting 20,000 fewer people than Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham. Abramovich tried to launch plans to build a new super stadium designed by prestigious architects Herzog & de Meuron, but the £ 500 million project was abandoned in July 2018 after he ran into problems with the UK government over his immigration status. In hindsight, this may have been the beginning of the end for Abramovich and Chelsea and he rarely saw the team in action from that point. It was probably unreasonable to expect him to continue his ownership when he couldn’t even enter the country. With regards to the stadium, it will be interesting to see if the consortium will revisit the possibility of a completely new home or will completely rebuild on the existing site. The club’s matchday income is generally way behind their chief rivals in England, so this revenues stream offers plenty of upside.

So Chelsea will, like some of their peer group, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, become influenced by US sports investor mentality. This may actually strengthen Manchester City’s hold on the English game but it will certainly mean success will become more irregular and Chelsea will have to adjust to a new type of ownership model. It is fairly certain that when the new management rolls into town, they will use many of the tools that are currently being adopted by the most successful  and intelligent clubs in world football. Data will be key, intelligent use of assets will be a prerequisite. It’s not bad news, because Chelsea’s previous model was the equivalent of a “sugar daddy” with cash to spend and few questions asked, at least that what it seemed to resemble. It was never going to last forever, because it couldn’t – football finance expert Kieran Maguire commented that Chelsea were losing £ 900,000 per week, a situation that was completely unsustainable. Nevertheless, Stamford Bridge regulars will forever consider Roman Abramovich a “good owner”, but it is possible Chelsea will be more sensibly run going forward.

Should Russian footballers also be banned?

RUSSIAN football teams have been suspended from European competition and Russian businessmen have had their assets frozen, but what of the thousands of Russians who work abroad? With that in mind, isn’t there a case for Russian footballers also be suspended in response to their country’s invasion and subsequent destruction of Ukraine?

Some might argue it has little to do with Russians who live outside of their own country, but the tennis appears to have suspended Russian players, so surely footballers should also be prevented from competing? The UK Prime Minister has already called for FIFA to ban Russian football officials from their meetings.

The decision to ban Russian tennis players has been met with very differing opinions. Wimbledon has barred all Russian and Belarussians from their 2022 tennis tournament, but the ATP and WTA, along with legendary champion Martina Navratilova, have criticised the move. It will be the first time players have been banned on the grounds of nationality since the immediate post-WW2 era when German and Japanese players were not included.

The Soviet Union excluded itself from European club competition until 1967, although they were early advocates (and winners) of the European Championship. Russia has been banned from FIFA and UEFA competitions and it is unlikely they will be readmitted until the current situation ends. Even then, there is an argument for Russia’s ban to continue beyond the Ukraine war. However, international sports should be something that brings nations together, so prolonged exclusion and insisting on Russia wearing the status of pariah for years to come will have its drawbacks. A recent report suggests that, in response to the ban, the Russian Football Union is now looking at the possibility of quitting European football permanently and switching to the Asian Football Confederation.

There are currently around 190 Russian players dotted around the world, but very few are employed by top football clubs. In the big five European leagues, there are only a handful of Russian players, but in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Estonia, they are plentiful. In Scotland, Livingston’s goalkeeper, Ivan Konovalov comes from Belashikha and is the only Russian playing full-time football in the UK. He was signed from Rubin Kazan.

Some Russian players have subtly expressed support for Ukraine from a distance, but it must surely make for an uncomfortable atmosphere at any club with a Russian player in the dressing room. Any suspension of a player would be temporary, depending on the length and outcome of the war. In 1982, Tottenham Hotspur’s Ossie Ardiles was sent into exile while the Falklands War raged in the South Atlantic. He later returned, but it was designed to get the popular Argentinian out of the way.

Why are relatively few Russians around? Sergei Semak, currently coach of Zenit St. Petersburg, told Game of the People a few years ago that the lack of exported talent was not necessarily good for the Russian game. “Young players do not have the motivation to improve or stretch themselves. They can earn top money in Russia so they do not feel the need to move abroad to get international experience. So they do not broaden their outlook or improve,” said Semak.

The Russian squad in the World Cup 2018 included just two non domestic-based players, while in Euro 2020, there were four. The top flight league in Russia comprises 37% foreigners and more than 50% of the Zenit and Rubin Kazan squads are expatriates. Zenit have a penchant for Brazilian players and currently have five on their books. At the moment, nobody is likely to employ another Russian player even if they became available as the domestic game is not in a good place right now. There has been no shortage of money, but much of it has not been spent very well.

While Ukraine has now formally ended its campaign, the Russian season continues to its climax. Zenit St. Petersburg have just clinched a fourth consecutive title after beating Lokomotiv Moscow 3-1 in front of 48,000 people. As it stands, Zenit will not be able to compete in the UEFA Champions League in 2022-23. Zenit have lost just twice this season in the Russian Premier.

When this sad affair is concluded, Ukraine will have the hardest job in repairing their country, but the international community will surely help them. As for Russia, the damage they have done to their reputation, their global standing and their old relationships will take decades to put right. Against that backdrop, how would the average Russian footballer feel, playing his trade in a foreign country?