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.

Red Bull and City Football Group – these multi-club models are just the first of many

FOOTBALL’s elevation to a formally-recognised business sector now attracts accountants, lawyers, financiers, speculators and opportunists, all of which have changed the way we view the game. What was once a haphazard sport is now a gravy train for many, while the entire system now exists in a Darwinian micro climate where growth is a necessity to avoid decline.

While legacy fans wring their hands at the loss of the flat-capped people’s game, globalisation and technology have transformed football into an industry rapidly assuming the characteristics of the corporate world. Whereas in the past, a club was a club, the very idea of one club buying another was unthinkable. Now, a bank’s mergers and acquisitions department is just as likely to discuss with owners the possibility of purchasing another football entity. Welcome to the slightly uncomfortable world of multi-club ownership.

At the moment, acquiring clubs is the name of the game, but at some point, we can probably expect consolidation to rear its head, in other words, clubs merging to attain critical mass, financial efficiency and a stronger brand. The hurdles in achieving this are substantial, not least in convincing fans it might be the right thing to do. But there is a growing appetite for multi-club ownership.

The two most high-profile examples of this are the City Football Group and Red Bull, but there are many across Europe and the list is getting bigger by the year. In the Premier League, there are nine clubs that are part of some sort of portfolio, namely Arsenal, Brentford, Brighton, Crystal Palace, Leicester City, Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, Southampton and West Ham United. There are another nine in the rest of the EFL, including Sunderland, Watford and Cardiff City. Overall, 20% of the 92 are already part of a bigger scheme.

Why is this becoming a trend? Firstly, the football world has become open for a more diversified investor base. American “sports team owners” are now very focused on the Premier League and in fact, own Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, among others. They are not “football people” in the way we once define club owners, they are investors with a little of Wall Street running through their veins. They might want a return (unthinkable in the old days) and they also look for growth.

Football as it stands may have reached or about to reach, saturation point. In other words, much depends on success on the pitch and there are limited ways to make a club even more profitable. In the corporate world, the next phase of company growth may be to bolt-on an acquisition to knock-out a competitor, benefit from the acquired partner’s offering or to gain speedy growth rather than by a slow, organic strategy. For investors in football, buying other clubs offers the chance to spread their investment in the game and also mitigate financial risk.

It can also deliver benefits around synchronised business operations and also create a network that can aid player development and movement and build a pool of players that can benefit the parent company and its subsidiaries. A geographically diverse multi-club structure can also plug into football markets with a regular flow of raw talent, such as South America, Africa and Asia. The more clubs involved, the greater the strategic advantage for the group.

Chelsea’s new owner, Todd Boehly, wants his club to adopt such a model and has already been looking at Brazil and Portugal, among others. Brazil still produces outstanding footballers in abundance and most of the top youngsters want to move to Europe. Indeed, Brazilian clubs need to maintain this player path as it forms part of their business approach. In fact, more players travel between Brazil and Portugal than any other route. Boehly has tried to acquire Santos and the Portuguese club, Portimonense are also on his agenda. Portuguese clubs like Benfica, Sporting and Porto are well connected on player movements from South America and have enjoyed great success in buying and selling young talent from Brazil.

Manchester City’s success has not necessarily been down to its multi-club model, they have huge financial resources, they hire well and they have the world’s number one coach. Their idea may be to create a self-sustaining network, but it is not the reason they are dominating football. And the Red Bull structure has been successful, but it has not elevated the main clubs to elite status – yet. Their overall strategy has a lot to admire, although it has not won them many friends, mostly because their ownership status is at odds with Germany’s traditional football identity. While these two are the most visible examples, there are plenty of others, ranging from private equity firms, venture capitalists, wealthy individuals and sovereign wealth funds. These are not companies involved for any other reason than investment purposes, although in some cases, there are suggestions that attempts at “sportswashing” are taking place, notably when states with suspect human rights records invest in football or other sports.

Yet how does a club gain scale if it is left to grow organically, especially as massive cash injections of the kind that instantly made Chelsea part of the elite may no longer be possible under financial fair play rulings? Becoming part of a larger organisation is possibly one of the few ways it can be achieved, although football is different from other industries and some of the conventional characteristics of corporate life simply do not exist. Human emotions have a big influence on the decision-making process.

It would seem probable that as more driven business people attach themselves to football the expectations and methods of the game’s investors will change and become more aligned to financial markets. There is an underlying sentiment that in the corporate world you “grow, go backwards or die” that will surely become part of the football business’s mantra. As well as acquisitions, more sophisticated products and services will undoubtedly be presented to club owners in the years ahead. We won’t recognise the game we all fell in love with, but that’s supposed to be progress.