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.