Chelsea: Why their summer spree has to work

CHELSEA, over the past 20 years, appear to have behaved like a rich man in a casino, throwing money around, not over concerned if their spending was successful, knowing there’s plenty more cash where it came from. Their transfer market record has been quite mixed, only held up by the bulk-buying nature of their player recruitment. Examine it closely and they have made some big mistakes, hiring players that don’t work out, don’t fit in or simply don’t get given the chance to succeed.

Patience was never a virtue at Stamford Bridge during the Abramovich era, so if players didn’t hit the ground running, they became the lost men of London SW6. Others simply proved to be expensive baubles that would sit in the equivalent of the discount book section until someone showed an interest.

While Liverpool and Manchester City seem to have hit on the secret of virtually zero wastage, Chelsea have frittered away cash on impulse buys and been left red-faced by releasing players who went on to greater things; Mohammed Salah and Kevin de Bruyne are shining examples – ironically, now with the two clubs that Chelsea find themselves trailing behind.

Under Abramovich’s generous and somewhat remarkable regime, Chelsea had periodic spending sprees that reminded the market that they had financial muscle. Rarely did the outlay match the return, though, apart from the early days when good talent spotting picked out players like Petr Cech, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Arjen Robben. Some big names have proved to be disappointments, such as Andriy Shevchenko, Alvaro Morata, Fernando Torres and most recently, the second coming of Romelu Lukaku.

When Chelsea were finding their way in 2004, many of their signings were potential-rich, relatively unknown to the UK fanbase and part of an overall plan. Once Chelsea had reached the pinnacle with their two titles in 2005 and 2006, the targets became more recognisable, such as Michael Ballack, Shevchenko, Nicolas Anelka, Torres and Deco. Chelsea were not only in the hunt, they were also being sought-out by players with track records wanting to join the gravy train. For the club, the prospect of top names joining was also an opportunity to acquire greater credibility. Although this was what Chelsea were striving for, there was something very fresh and exciting about those first two title-winning campaigns. Reaching for the top is often more satisfying than the act of consolidation.

Between 2003-04 and 2021-22, Chelsea spent £ 2.1 billion on players and received £ 1.16 billion on sales. Their net spend in this period was £ 949 million, less than both Manchester clubs, but Chelsea’s gross outlay was higher than every other club. Although some signings clearly didn’t work out, the club has shown it is quite proficient at the player trading game. Since 2003-04 (and up to 2020-21), Chelsea made profits on player trading of £ 682 million and in those 18 seasons, they generated a profit on the disposable of player registrations in all but three.

When Abramovich departed, it was not unreasonable to expect the big spending days were over, but this summer has seen new owner Todd Boehly flex his muscles. He has been accused of playing fantasy football and some of the transactions have looked a little excessive. Chelsea have spent around £ 260 million and received some £ 60 million, a net outlay of £ 200 million. As for the quality of the signings, they are promising, but some of the fees are eye-watering. You do sense, however, that Boehly’s ownership will not be characterised by signings that haven’t been examined properly – decisions will surely be made based on sound data analysis.

That said, Spanish left back Mark Cucurella was bought from Brighton for £ 58 million, more than double the market valuation. Wesley Fofana, secured on a far-sighted seven-year contract, cost an astonishing £ 72 million when most analysts were tagging him at £ 36 million. On the other hand, Raheem Sterling was signed for £ 50 million, somewhat less than Chelsea might have had to pay in any other year.

With the exception of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a strange acquisition of a 33 year-old with some baggage, most signings have one eye on the future, although Kalidou Koulibaly, from Napoli, is a mature 31 years old. Cucurella and Fofana, if all goes well, should have years in a Chelsea shirt, and Sterling still has plenty of mileage remaining in his career. But Chelsea will still need to add a top-class, future-proofed forward in their line-up. Their record hasn’t been good recently, Morata, Michi Batshuayi, Werner and Lukaku have all proved to be disappointing hires and since Diego Costa in 2017, no Chelsea player has hit 20 Premier League goals. If Boehly and his colleagues want to add gold leaf to their statement of intent, a star striker is needed to spearhead the challenge.

There’s no guarantee that Chelsea will spend as much in subsequent seasons. Like all US club owners, Boehly will want some return for his investment, so the new-look Chelsea will need to be in contention. Furthermore, this is a vital season for Thomas Tuchel because he has to impress his new employers. In fact, it is a pretty crucial campaign for the club as it can shape the next few years. So far, the early results are mixed. Goals are hard to come by – just eight in six games, including one penalty. Sterling has weighed in with three, which is a respectable start for the former Manchester City player, but they look lightweight up front. Their three victories have been narrow and largely unconvincing, but their best display so far was the riveting home draw with Tottenham.

Chelsea have enough strength to finish in the top six, but failure to qualify for the Champions League would be a disaster for the new regime, and for Tuchel. It is going to be a very interesting and probably exciting season at Stamford Bridge, but as always, there’s no guarantee that the principal actors will still be in place come the end of 2022-23.

FA Cup final: Kostas stings the Blues

Ultimately, the media got its wish and the narrative was fed just a little more. The double/treble/quadruple (delete as appropriate) is still on, the brilliant white teeth of Jürgen Klopp continue to gleam and the badge keeps getting punched by the tall German.

There was something inevitable about the outcome. Liverpool ooze confidence, have a system built over more than six years, Chelsea’s squad is a bolt-on project, the result of several managers’ influence and a less thoughtful approach in the market. It may rile Chelsea and their fans that they have been down-graded in the trophy-winning stakes – their Champions League success may turn out to have been the last throes of the dice – but the fact is, Liverpool’s self-belief at Wembley seemed a marked contrast to the slightly tetchy, end of the road show of Chelsea.

The tale of two players sums it up. For Chelsea, the performance of Romelu Lukaku, their lethargic £ 97.5 million investment looked like money poorly spent, while the mid-season acquisition of Luis Duiz by Liverpool (a snip at £ 45 million), appears to be one of the season’s bargain buys. In some ways, these two transfers underline the difference between the two clubs, one buying at will, the other purchasing astutely with the system in mind.

Lukaku, like Fernando Torres and Alvaro Morata, looks poised to become another disappointing big money striker. He looked lethargic, out of touch and slightly clumsy. Christian Pulisic, a more nimble and methodical front-runner, might have won the FA Cup for Chelsea with a shade more accuracy, but the Blues were never supposed to rely on the young American. Lukaku was meant to be the talisman, but he is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Thomas Tuchel seems to know it and the new Chelsea regime will undoubtedly change the way the club plays the role of “kid in a sweet shop”. If anyone needed a reminder of how careless Chelsea have been, there was Mo Salah, conversing with Chelsea’s Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia, wondering what might have been had he been given the right chance at Stamford Bridge.

Yet the game could have gone either way, it was remarkably even across the 120 minutes. Liverpool started with menace and Chelsea were fortunate to hang on to parity beyond the first 25 minutes. The pundits and commentators were convinced the day was all about Liverpool’s pursuit of glory rather than Chelsea’s bid to end the campaign with something tangible – “It’s only a matter of time,” claimed one mic man. Salah limped off after just 33 minutes, causing anxiety on the Liverpool bench, but his FA Cup in 2021-22 comprised 123 minutes, Klopp had used him sparingly.

Then Chelsea found their game plan and by the start of the second half, Marco Alonso  – arguably Chelsea’s best player on the day – had struck the woodwork. As the game looked destined for extra time, Tuchel removed Lukaku from the action – Chelsea fans must wonder if they will see him next season in the club’s colours. The half hour that followed was something of a phoney war as both teams tired and penalties loomed, never a satisfactory way to win a cup. But of course, the broadcasters loved it.

The model that served Chelsea well in the early years of Abramovich may have become passé

This week’s hero emerged as Kostas Tsimikas, the 21 year-old Greek defender signed from Olympiacos in 2020. Perhaps there was some justice as Tsimikas had played in most of Liverpool’s FA Cup games right up until the semi-final when the first choice guys took over. Somehow, those watching this vaguely compelling contest knew Liverpool’s “mentality monsters” would prevail. They simply seem in better shape than Chelsea, who really don’t know what to expect in the coming weeks.

If the final, indeed the season, represents the zenith of Liverpool under Klopp remains to be seen, but for Chelsea, they missed out on the chance to end the Abramovich age with a trophy. The resurrection of Liverpool also highlights how football has, and continues to evolve. Chelsea’s triumphs under Abramovich were often the result of bulk buying, impulse acquisition of the next big thing and continual turnover of managers. Although it was short-termism at its most conspicuous, and demonstrated a zero tolerance of failure, it also had a life span. Naturally, Chelsea fans lapped it up as their club was turned into winners after decades of under-achievement.

Somebody, somewhere, identified there was a slightly different way. It would be wrong to consider that both Chelsea and Liverpool are not beneficiaries of elitism, but whereas the London club has continued to hire and fire, Liverpool have allowed Klopp to build something that not only brings success, but also helps the club to operate smartly. Manchester City are almost a combination of Chelsea and Liverpool as they have almost limitless funds to play with, but they clearly use their money well. It is not only the age of Abramovich that has ended at Chelsea, it may be that the model that served them well for a decade or more has become passé. Since Klopp was hired by Liverpool and Pep Guardiola took over at City and, Chelsea have won four trophies to City’s eight and Liverpool’s four. The strategy is not as successful as it once was.

Chelsea’s challenge now is to remain relevant in a new business paradigm. Liverpool and City are on a roll at the moment and the gap between them and Chelsea (it is hard to agree with those that believe the Blues are streets ahead of fourth and beyond) is substantial. But they did run Liverpool very close at Wembley, not once but twice in 2021-22. Klopp’s ebullient team have not “beaten” Chelsea this season, although the records will show they won two trophies at their expense.

Look at the fundamentals and the two clubs have little between them, although it is very obvious Chelsea had to thank their owner for his generosity. They both made well over £ 400 million in revenues in 2020-21, there is just £ 18 million difference in their wage bills and over the past five years, Chelsea’s net transfer deficit is £ 43 million more than Liverpool’s net outlay. Both have very good squads and they have top-of-the-range coaches. These are facts that will puzzle Chelsea’s new owners, but the answer may simply be continuity, patience and planning.  And a bit of luck at penalty shoot-outs, perhaps?