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?

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.

Why we should care about owners

A LOT of Chelsea fans were extremely upset about the treatment of Roman Abramovich and the sanctions on his business activities, which ultimately meant the popular but enigmatic Russian was forced to put the football club up for sale.

Given what we now know about the war in Ukraine and indeed some of Abramovich’s business connections, the UK government, on this occasion, did the right thing. As far as Chelsea fans are concerned, he has been a good owner and he has certainly funded the unprecedented success the club has enjoyed since 2003. Interestingly, when he arrived at Stamford Bridge, there was an air of suspicion about Chelsea coming under Russian influence!

It is difficult to get too upset about the sale of Chelsea, especially given the dreadful and totally unacceptable events taking place elsewhere, but we should care deeply about the ownership structure of our football clubs, no matter how old they are, how devoted we may be about our obsessions and how aware we may be of geopolitics, economics and history. While we should not attempt to rewrite history, we should be aware of the consequences of past events. Football encourages myopia, but the sport is supposed to be a thing of joy, not one that has blood-stained hands or dubious secrets locked away in some dark corner.

The fact is, we all become accountable if we support any aspect of life that we know has a darker side, be it corporates, government bodies, charities, political groups and of course, football clubs.  We can bury our heads in the sand, and many do, but at some point, we all have to accept there are far more important things in life than football.

For most of us, football has become an emollient, a sport that brings people together, breaks down barriers and provides a form of global language. Its mass appeal makes it attractive to so many aspects of commercial life: TV, internet, companies, investors and so on. Go anywhere in the world and talk about football to a stranger and more often than not, you will find common ground. Football may be all about rivalry, but when the dust settles, we all understand it (unless you dig into the mechanics of VAR).

But what we are grappling with today is how our clubs are run, how they are financed and how “clean” some of the owners of our beloved football institutions around the world might be. It is naïve to claim owners from a very suspect regime make for ideal benefactors, no matter how much fancy dress and ostrich behaviour tries to obscure the fact very bad things happen. Similary, if you are aware of the history of the Soviet Union and its break-up, it is hard to feel much sympathy with oligarchs who get their assets frozen. It is unfortunate this affects something like a football club, but it would be wrong to make concessions.

This goes way beyond elite football and even extends into the non-league world. One of the overriding emotions in the game is green-eyed envy, which can manifest itself in resentment over budgets, stadium development or the presence of so-called “sugar daddies”. There’s also a lot of nonsense spoken about club wage bills and how much the local centre forward might be earning and also the source of a club’s income. There’s very little confidentiality in football, rumour becomes “fact” very quickly.

Equally, ownership at this level of the game can be equally dubious. Over the years, there have been tales of possible money laundering, property opportunism, tax evasion, shadow accountancy and gate-rigging. The latter is a practice sometimes laughed about when a cup game’s attendance is announced but looking the other way makes everyone guilty by association. League and club sponsorship should be treated with a very robust level of due diligence and subject to strict regulation.

There are also deep moral issues at stake. For example, given the hand-to-mouth existence of many clubs, the temptation to take money from the gambling industry has become a trend that has got out of hand. With clubs going to great lengths to show they are caring, sharing organisations, it does seem somewhat hypocritical to bite the hands off gambling firms knowing what the industry can do to vulnerable people chasing the hopeless dream. Just look at how many clubs have some sort of sponsorship from betting companies. Coming soon… bitcoin and non-fungible tokens.

There is a chance the Chelsea situation could have a profound influence on the future of football club ownership as much as the war in Ukraine will impact the corporate world and everyday life in the future. This may bring some inconvenience, but it could be a good thing for football because for years, the industry had become something of a wild west gold rush. It has not exactly been lawless, but it has been embroiled in politics, financial abuse and very creative accountancy. This has created a form of free market elitism that has been the catalyst for ever-widening chasms between the rich and poor clubs as well as transfer fees that are totally unrealistic and player wages that can border on the obscene.

This has all been fuelled by spiralling broadcasting contracts, sovereign state funding and those billionaire owners sitting with oversized club scarves draped around their necks. Some clubs are now heavily influenced by the money and culture of foreign countries, arguably an inevitable development in this age of globalisation. It’s still the game of the people, but they are very different, often completely detached people. For example, has anyone actually heard Mr Abramovich speak?