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.

Manchester City’s financial power evident on opening weekend

THE LONG-awaited arrival of Norwegian striker Erling Haaland in the Premier League was marked by two goals and a comfortable 2-0 victory for Manchester City at West Ham United. Haaland, who already looking like a bargain at just over £ 50 million, showed what a powerful player he is and might have netted a third with a little more composure. But Haaland is young, has the appearance of a player designed by scientists for a team made by engineers, and he’s nowhere near his peak. It will be a surprise if he doesn’t hit 30 goals in 2022-23.

For the opening weekend, City fielded players that cost them £ 700 million-plus in the market. In this age of five substitutes, the power of Manchester City’s wallet is really going to tell, possibly more than ever. With 50% of the outfield team now replaceable during a game, those teams with bigger or better quality squads are going to have a significant advantage over their poorer stablemates. City are already a step ahead of everyone else, so their strength in depth is going to possibly lengthen the margin of superiority. Certainly, it is not hard to interpret the early season angst of some clubs about their squad.

Compared to their “big six” rivals, City’s first round squad cost substantially more – Manchester United’s team that took the field cost £ 459 million, Chelsea’s £ 422 million and Liverpool’s £ 400 million. Tottenham, who didn’t play their big signing Richarlison, spent £ 204 million on the players who received appearance money in their 4-1 win against Southampton. Arsenal, meanwhile, won 2-0 at Palace with a team that cost £ 370 million. Let’s be clear here – Manchester City’s squad on the first day of the 2022-23 season cost £ 346 million more than the average for the other “big six” members (£ 371 million) – so goodness knows how it measured up against the rest of the Premier.

In days of old, when one, two or three substitutes were permitted, the relative strength of a squad was always determined by the quality of the benched players. That measurement has never been more relevant, but it comes with unprecedented strain for some clubs.

Looking at Manchester City’s replacements at West Ham, which included new signing Kalvin Phillips as well as Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, the quality was far greater than the men that came on for Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United.

Naturally, the cry of “you’re buying it” can be heard in Liverpool and the other side of Manchester, but City have also started to sell talent in the market. Liverpool have spent big on key players, but they cannot afford to bolster their squad in the same way. Manchester United have spent prolifically but their expertise in the transfer arena in recent years has to be questioned. Arsenal have also bought poorly at times, while Chelsea seem to make costly mistakes on a regular basis, such as Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner and Alvaro Morata.

In the 2022-23 window, Manchester City’s net spend is a positive of £ 46 million (as at August 13 2022), thanks to the sales of Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus. Over the past five seasons (including 2022-23), their net spend has been £ 173 million, which is less than every other member of the “big six”. But extend that over 10 years and you see where City’s arms-race gathered momentum; their net spend from 2013-14 to the current window has been £ 824 million, topped only by Manchester United, who appear to have frittered away £ 900 million-plus. The lowest among the top half dozen include Tottenham Hotspur (-£291 million) and Liverpool (-£300m).

Interestingly, in the period between 2016-17 and 2021-22 – the completed Guardiola v Klopp seasons – City’s net spend of £ 711 million is more than three times Liverpool’s £ 226 million. City have won nine major trophies to Liverpool’s four under their current managers, but the gap between the two clubs is small, which tells you that the differential in market prices is far higher than the relative qualities of players.

And yet there are few failures at both clubs, indicating that the player acquisition model, driven by data as much as gut-feeling, is generally sound. There appears to be fewer “forgotten” individuals at City or Liverpool, which says as much about the administration teams and recruitment strategy. The issue is that man-for-man, their starting elevens have very little between them, but City’s wealth allows them to acquire high quality options. A missing key player or two will have more impact at City’s rivals than it will at the Etihad.

City’s other advantage, like it or not, is the business philosophy of their ownership. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are all owned by US investors. Their approach is very different to the one adopted by Roman Abramovich when he owned Chelsea, in other words, no desire to pay himself anything in the form of dividends. City are very much on their own in the Premier (although Newcastle may eventually join them) as “Sports team ownership” becomes more common and increasingly attractive to entrepreneurs and business people both sides of the Atlantic.

The increased substitutions will have a profound influence on the outcome of the Premier League because it can provide transformational impetus to struggling teams. Replacing half your outfield team should/will change the shape of a game dramatically. Hence, Manchester City’s rivals may see them accelerate into the distance in 2022-23, a season in which the term “squad game” has never been more relevant.