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.

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.