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.

The Chelsea collapse, a Real lesson

KARIM BENZEMA was supposed to be finished a couple of years ago, yet since Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid, the Frenchman has come out of the shadows and shown that he remains a superb striker. Chelsea discovered that the 34 year-old still has tricks up his sleeve, twisting like a 24 year-old to head not one but two peculiarly brilliant goals. And if that wasn’t enough, he took advantage of some dire defending by the home side to score his second consecutive UEFA Champions League hat-trick.

But what of Chelsea, the almost certainly deposed European champions and orphaned by sanctions on their owner, Roman Abramovich, where do they go now? Unless a miracle takes place, they may have to hang on to third place in the Premier League. And then there’s the FA Cup semi-final with Thomas Tuchel’s side up against a resurgent Crystal Palace. Chelsea’s season could fall apart by April 17 if they are not careful.

Suddenly, their defence looks very suspect, perhaps because Thiago Silva is 37 after all, or because Andreas Christensen has one eye on a move to Spain, but conceding seven goals in two home games is almost unheard of at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea do have something in their DNA that triggers unexpected capitulation, such as the 5-2 defeat against hapless West Bromwich Albion in 2020-21. It was actually Rüdiger and Mendy that allowed Benzema in for the decisive third goal, but what was happening when his headers sailed into the net? 

Fatigue may be playing a part. Chelsea haven’t been the same since their autumn effervescence and a mid-season jaunt to Abu Dhabi for the worthless FIFA Club World Cup may not have been best practice, but they are also not getting the best out of their expensively assembled squad.

Romelu Lukaku is the new Fernando Torres in so far that expectations exceed the reality of the player. Lukaku may not suit the Chelsea style or the players he has around him – certainly he doesn’t seem mobile enough – but surely this was known to the club before they signed him? For the past two years, Chelsea have been looking for a striker to finish all the good work and dominant possession they enjoy, but Timo Werner hasn’t entirely worked out and Lukaku seems an uncomfortable fit. That’s well over £ 120 million spent on misfit forwards. Admittedly, injuries have got in the way but Lukaku doesn’t look happy and contented.

Fortunately, they have a deep squad and a plethora of midfielders who can score goals, hence they have already netted as many as they did in the Premier in 2020-21 (58). They’ve conceded only 23 goals. However, Chelsea’s goalscoring rate has been in decline for the past few years: in 2017, their last title win, they scored 85, but a year later, they dropped by 23 goals to 62. Last season’s 58 was the lowest of the Abramovich era.

Lukaku’s staccato campaign compares woefully with the post-Ronaldo career of Benzema. He’s scored 124 goals in 183 games for Real Madrid since CR7 moved off to Turin and then back to Manchester. There’s even talk of him winning the Balon d’Or. 

But he’s not the only veteran enjoying an Indian Summer at Real: Luka Modric should be on the punditry bandwagon by now (he’s actually older than Wayne Rooney), but he’s still controlling the midfield. At some stage, Real are going to have to rebuild and replace their old-timers, but they could get one last Champions League victory out of them.

Bizarrely, nobody has really forecast a Real victory in Paris, they were meant to be past it, no longer a contender against the might of the Premier League. They may be 12 points clear in La Liga, but they recently lost 4-0 at home to a transitioning Barcelona. But the comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, thanks to Benzema, hinted there might be one last hurrah from their old boys. And quite typically, Real is one of the few clubs where a successful season can end with the manager getting his marching orders. Carlo Ancelotti’s future is far from certain, but you’d never guess it from his demeanor.

Thomas Tuchel, too, may find a little pressure if the season fizzles out of control, although the zero tolerance approach to trophyless seasons may have ended with the departure of Abramovich’s regime. Tuchel has admitted that on the face of it, the tie with Real Madrid is all but over, an honest assessment of the situation if ever there was one.

Nobody knows how strong Chelsea’s spending power will be when they are taken over. One thing is sure, mass-spending to bolster the squad on an annual basis will be no more. If the new ownership is American, the strategy will be far different from Abramovich’s extreme generosity, the investors will surely expect a return. It is unlikely Chelsea will be as competitive in the transfer market, although they will still be among the leading clubs. They will probably fall further behind Manchester City and possibly Liverpool. Already it is hard to see where the next Premier League title is coming from, Chelsea’s near-term ambition may be to stay in the top three or four.

It may be too early to tell for sure, but Chelsea’s defeat at the hands of Real Madrid may be a signpost that the current glorious era is coming to an end. Their last title was in 2017, so if they win in 2023, it will be a six-year stretch, the longest since they won their first Premier League in 2005. They over-performed in 2020-21 in securing the Champions League, even the most myopic fan would admit they were surprise winners. They had a reasonable run to the last eight this time, but the way they were swept aside by Real Madrid put them firmly in their place. 

And that place will still be among Europe’s elite, so this was not a doomsday defeat and the change of ownership does not warrant apocalyptic skies over London SW6. When Chelsea started sweeping-up in the early years of Abramovich’s reign, the snipe from opposing fans was they would slump dramatically should the mysterious Russian walk away. That was never going to be the case, because the club is now a prime asset in today’s football market. Similarly, there will be other glorious eras at Chelsea, even if they are not as prolonged.

Thank you, Mr Abramovich – Chelsea lose heavily, but wages climb

CHELSEA really did hit the jackpot when they were taken over by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003. He has not only presided over one of the big success stories of 21st century football, funding the unprecedented growth of the club and covering financial shortfalls, but trophies have poured into the Stamford Bridge boardroom at an average of almost one a year. 

In the current climate, Chelsea’s ownership model has allowed the club to ride the waves of the pandemic, even though in 2020-21, they made a massive pre-tax loss of £ 155.9 million. But the Blues rewarded Abramovich with their second UEFA Champions League triumph, won in an all-England final against Manchester City in Porto. This brought the total number of major trophies won by Chelsea in the Abramovich era to 17 in 18 seasons.

Furthermore, Abramovich sanctioned the spending of £ 222 million on new players in 2020-21, including big names like Kai Havertz (£ 72m), Ben Chilwell (£ 45m), Timo Werner (£47m), Hakim Ziyech (£ 36m) and Édouard Mendy (£22m). Abramovich’s backing, whatever the fans may think of it, has proved to be resolute, consistent and unwavering. This has cushioned Chelsea during a difficult time for the game and allowed them to remain highly competitive in the transfer market, even if they did suffer a transfer window ban.

Trophies in the Abramovich era

PLFA CupLge CupUCLEuropaTotal
Chelsea5532217
Man.United5241113
Man.City5260013
Arsenal150006
Liverpool111205
Leicester110002
Tottenham001001
Wigan Ath010001
Portsmouth010001
Birmingham001001
Middlesbrough001001
Swansea City001001

Chelsea’s pre-tax loss, while having limited impact, could so easily have been less, although the influx of new talent obviously pushed their expenses up. But the deficit of close to £ 156 million represented a negative swing of £ 185 million from the profit of £ 35.7 million made in 2019-20.

Turnover increased by 7% to £ 434.9 million, largely thanks to a 50% rise in broadcasting income to £ 274 million. Unsurprisingly, given that most games were played behind closed doors, matchday revenues slumped by 86% to £ 7.7 million.

Against this backdrop, Chelsea’s wage bill soared by £ 49.4 million, a rise of 17%, translating into a wage-to-income ratio of 77%, a jump of seven percentage points on 2019-20.

Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea has also been characterised by a revolving door on the manager’s office. Trophyless seasons are rarely tolerated and in the 18 years since he arrived in London SW6, the club has never gone more than one season without some form of silverware. Ironically, the two Champions League successes have come in a year in which the manager changed mid-term. In 2012, Roberto Di Matteo was effectively a stand-in manager and in 2021, Thomas Tuchel was appointed after the first half of the campaign under the popular Frank Lampard suggested a second consecutive barren season was unfolding.

Season-by-season trophies

SeasonCupsWinning coachWage bill
£
2003-040 Ranieri116m
2004-052Premier, EFL CupMourinho109m
2005-061Premier Mourinho114m
2006-072FA Cup, EFL CupMourinho133m
2007-080 Grant172m
2008-091FA CupHiddink166m
2009-102Premier, FA CupAncelotti173m
2010-110 Ancelotti190m
2011-122Champions League, FA CupDi Matteo171m
2012-131Europa LeagueBenitez176m
2013-140 Mourinho191m
2014-152Premier, EFL CupMourinho216m
2015-160 Hiddink222m
2016-171PremierConte220m
2017-181FA CupConte244m
2018-191Europa LeagueSarri286m
2019-200 Lampard284m
2020-211Champions LeagueTuchel333m

Chelsea also depend on player trading as part of their business model and in 2020-21, they made a profit of £ 27 million from sales, a big decline on 2019-20 when the sale of Eden Hazard to Real Madrid boosted their bottom line. Among the players unloaded in 2020-21 was Victor Moses, who joined Spartak Moscow after multiple loan periods. Chelsea had around 40 players out on loan at various stages during 2020-21, a strong feature of their player trading activities.

Between 2003-04 and 2020-21, Chelsea spent £ 2 billion on new players but also recouped over £ 1 billion on player sales. Their net outlay during this period was £ 950 million, a figure exceeded by Manchester City (- £ 1.3bn) and Manchester United (-£962m).

Chelsea’s squad, valued at € 790 million by Transfermarkt, had 10% of the Guardian’s top 100 players for 2021 and four of the top 30 most valuable players according to KPMG’s Football Benchmark. Furthermore, no club had more players than Chelsea’s 15 among the Euro 2020 squads.

While Chelsea are in a privileged position, they have one glaring weakness in their model and that is dear old Stamford Bridge. A neat, modern ground it may be, but the capacity of 40,000 is way behind the elite group dominating Europe. Whether the project to create a statement stadium designed by the likes of Herzog & De Meuron is rekindled now that Abramovich has more flexible movement remains to be seen. But with fellow Londoners Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham all boasting 60,000 capacity arenas, Chelsea are missing out on a huge chunk of revenue.

It also means a lot of Chelsea fans are unable to see the team at Stamford Bridge because of limited ticket availability. However, their global franchise is underpinned by a vast social media following that numbers almost 100 million across the three main platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). Only Manchester United have more followers in the Premier League.

Chelsea’s position in post-pandemic European football is relatively robust compared to many of their peers in England. It is worth noting, though, that since Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City, the trophy haul has been eight to City, four to Chelsea and since 2011 when the new City won their first piece of silverware, they have lifted 13 to Chelsea’s nine.

Although the club remains reliant on the financial support of its parent company, Fordstam, there is no sign the Abramovich era is coming to an end any time soon. The enigmatic Russian has proved he acquired Chelsea for the long haul.