Chelsea need to resist the temptation and stand by Potter

CHELSEA’s current season is in danger of spiralling into a sea of mediocrity. Some fans are calling for the head of Graham Potter, others are questioning the transfer policy of the new owners and the occasional chant for Thomas Tuchel can still be heard at Stamford Bridge. Potter is a mid-term appointment, so he deserves the benefit of a full season before decisions on his future are made. The culture at Chelsea since 2003 is one of zero tolerance. Success has to be instant and consistent. At present, nobody really knows if the Todd Boehly band of investors are adopting this stance, but they have already sacked their first manager. It wouldn’t be too difficult to axe their second.

If Roman Abramovich’s regime was unforgiving at times, it is clear that many supporters now have the same desire for instant gratification. There have been complaints about the quality of players being signed, the sums of money being paid out and the length of contracts being given to the new hires. Potter is not to blame for the overall situation at Chelsea – he is merely the latest incumbent –  but it could be so much different if the club could acquire some very necessary qualities that could change the shape of the future: patience and a little bit of vision.

The fact is, Chelsea have been in relative decline for a few years. They haven’t competed for the title since 2017 and have been between 19 and 33 points off the top spot since their last Premier League success. Furthermore, in the last five seasons (including 2022-23 so far), they have won two trophies, both of which were UEFA competitions. Their last domestic trophy was won in 2018, the FA Cup under Antonio Conte. The only trophy they could still win (and it’s a big ask) in 2022-23 is the UEFA Champions League.

Nobody can accuse the new ownership of lacking generosity or commitment in the transfer market, the latest signing, Mykhailo Mudryk from Shakhtar Donetsk, cost £ 70 million, bringing the total paid out in 2022-23 to over £ 400 million. And yet, despite the influx of fresh talent, there’s a feeling of mild dissatisfaction about the nine players brought in. Among them is Raheem Sterling, who cost a “bargain” £ 47.5 million but is rumoured to be surplus to requirements already. Most of their purchases are young, which is a positive sign, but the prices being paid seem inflated and a sign that more homework is needed from the recruitment department.

Chelsea have had too many signings that have not lived up to their billing. Romelu Lukaku is still their player, but at £ 97.5 million, he is never going to emerge as a good deal. Likewise, whatever happened to Tiémoué Bakayako and Baba Rahman? They are still on Chelsea’s books. The list of under-performing hires down the years includes: Michy Batshuayi, Danny Drinkwater, Juan Cuadrado, Timo Werner and Álvaro Morata among others. Often, it has felt like “quantity over quality”.

For all the trophies and big-name signings,  Chelsea have lacked the ability to introduce the sort of stability that has proved successful at Manchester City and Liverpool. Likewise, long-term planning has been conspicuous by its absence. Between 2004 and 2012, Chelsea won 10 of the 17 major prizes under Abramovich. Since City stepped up a gear and Liverpool hired Jürgen Klopp, success has been more fleeting and they have moved from title contenders to become a team for the knockout competition.

Arguably, Chelsea have become less successful because they have not kept pace with the approaches taken by City and Liverpool, in terms of strategic, smart signings and more consistency in the dugout. In the time Klopp and Guardiola have been at City and Liverpool respectively, Chelsea have had seven men in charge of their team. For a long while, the strategy of short-termism seemed to worked because it kept motivation at a high. But since Klopp and Guardiola have been around, the dynamism has gone or at best, is harder to find.

This is why Chelsea need to persevere with Potter and build for the long-term. The idea of a dynasty is a myth, very few have ever achieved that concept in football, but the club needs to dispense with any fragments of the short-termism cultivated during the Abramovich era. Boehly has already eyed the City multi-club model and hinted that he wants to build a similar structure. If he wants to send a message out to the club’s fans and to the football business community that Chelsea are changing, then keeping faith with their manager is one way to do it. Potter was hired because of what he was doing so well at Brighton. Expectations are undoubtedly higher at Chelsea, but if the club performed its due diligence well, they should have known exactly what they were getting. Dispensing with his services after a very short period would merely suggest they were rash in their decision-making processes. Again.

Football club ownership is about to widen the chasms in the game

WITH Manchester United and Liverpool now on the market, both valued at well over £ 3 billion, another tranche of English football is about to move into the hands of investors from either the Middle East or the United States of America. As it stands, it looks as though both clubs may become part of the asset portfolio of an oil state, which would probably take both clubs to a comparable level to Manchester City and Newcastle United. The competitive advantages that Manchester City have may become eroded and two of the clubs that have complained vehemently about the uneven playing field that state ownership creates will move much closer to their despised rivals. It’s a contemporary version of “if you can’t beat them, join them”.

If, as expected, the new owners of Liverpool and Manchester United emerge as Middle Eastern petrostates, it reinforces the strength of both clubs and also becomes a wedge between them and those scrambling below. In other words, the already substantial gulf becomes wider as more clubs become beneficiaries of Arab money. The protests over Newcastle United’s takeover by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) sovereign wealth fund will surely be replicated in Liverpool and Manchester. Or will they?

Levels

Club ownership now has a kind of league table of its own. The Middle East is top of that league as the owners rarely want much in return. They see a successful football club as good for their image, something which can provide positive public relations, enhance their relationship with football authorities and help smooth the path of business. Call it sportswashing, manipulation or disingenuous, but a club owned by a country with a challenging reputation will undoubtedly receive lots of money. Roman Abramovich had a similar relationship with Chelsea, although his one big requirement was the indulgence of impatience. Managers were not allowed to “fail” but Chelsea fans consider the Russian was a good owner, delivering plenty of success.

The second level of ownership comes from the United States, a growing group of investors who are very different from the oil states. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, among others, are in this group at the moment. Typical US sports team owners demand success on the field, but they also want to run their club as a fairly sensible business, use modern methods to buy and sell players and they also expect some sort of return from their investment. If things go well, the fans sing the praises of the owners, but as soon as success dries up or becomes more spasmodic, criticism of the owners’ lack of investment or financial priorities starts to dominate the narrative. Arsenal fans were very vocal and demonstrative about Stan Kroenke over the past couple of years, but with the Gunners flying high and playing well in 2022-23, the noise appears to have subsided. Kroenke’s name has barely been in the press this season. Fenway were praised when Liverpool won the Champions League and Premier League, but recently there have been suggestions they should move on. Manchester United’s dislike of the Glazers dates back to the very beginning of their relationship, but with almost a decade of aimless wandering, the popularity of the US family has never been lower. It was no surprise when the news was released of the Glazers’ desire to look at fresh investment in the club, a comment that could be translated as, “we want to sell”.

For the few

The sale of Chelsea to a consortium fronted by Todd Boehly, for a very lucrative price, has been the catalyst for a number of potential divestments in the game. At the very top, football clubs are very cash generative and they can be good for your image, although the vast majority of football followers can see the  agenda of countries who want to deflect from criticism of their human rights record and social/political conditions. Sadly, football sells its soul all too cheaply and too many fans choose to ignore the moral hazards of aligning clubs with regimes that discriminate on a grand scale. The winning of silverware should not be more important than the crimes and misdemeanours of intolerant societies. It is also wrong to turn a blind eye if its suits your own purposes.

Modern football is a capitalist game that relies on the generosity of benefactors and investors. Clubs no longer “belong” to fans, apart from those that are bespoke fan-owned models. If you open yourself to the benefits and perils of the free market, then you have to take your chances. Manchester United benefitted from their forays into the capital markets back in the early 1990s and this helped create the empire that dominated football until the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. But in doing this, the club also became an asset that could exchange hands and be the subject of takeovers or hostile takeovers.

The Glazers reputedly used a technique known as a Leveraged Buyout (LBO) when they bought United, loading debt onto the club borrowed to acquire their stake. While this was a much-used method for M&A markets, it was largely unknown in football at the time.

With clubs now worth far more than they ever were, prospective buyers start to become scarcer and in those circumstances, the net has to be cast wider and into territories that may not be wholly compatible. A club worth £ 4 billion only has so many takers and the appetite will also be largely governed by macro-economics as much as personal wealth.

The more owners of the type that have made Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City into clubs with extraordinary resources, the more football leaves behind its past and solidifies the elite. Fans may complain about their owners and also those rivals that have unfair advantages, but deep down, they really want their own club to enjoy the same sort of status and that often means some have to eat their words. Be prepared for campaigns of justification in the weeks ahead if the Middle East rolls into town once or twice more.