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.

Major League Soccer: LAFC favourites to win open season

US MAJOR League Soccer (MLS) gets underway with four clubs being widely tipped as possible champions: Los Angeles FC (LAFC), Columbus Crew, Toronto and Seattle Sounders.

LAFC had a mediocre campaign in 2020, but they went close to winning the CONCACAF Champions League, losing to Mexico’s Tigres UANL in the final. LAFC had an impressive run, though, beating the most successful team in the competition, América, as well as Cruz Azul and Leon, all from Mexico.

That run, along with the club’s much-envied firepower, has made LAFC a highly-fancied side for the 2021 season. Managed by Bob Bradley, LAFC have two of the league’s most outstanding forwards in the Mexican Carlos Vela – considered by many pundits as the best player in MLS – and Diego Rossi of Uruguay.

Vela is well known to European fans as he played 29 Premier League games for Arsenal and made over 200 La Liga appearances with assorted Spanish clubs, notably Real Sociedad. He has been capped 72 times by Mexico.

Vela was injured and absent in the 2020 season, which undoubtedly stymied LAFC’s progress, but Rossi stepped in with 16 goals in 21 appearances. Rossi, who won the MLS Golden Boot, is a player that has already attracted European interest and the 23 year-old will surely find his way to one of the major leagues. 

LAFC have other players who will surely catch the eye in 2021, including South Korean defender Kim Moon-hwan and Corey Baird, who joined from Busan and Real Salt Lake respectively. The Black and Gold kick-off the MLS season with a home game against new members Austin, who count actor Matthew McConaughey among their investors.

Columbus Crew are expected to fiercely defend the MLS title they won last year against Seattle, in fact they may be even stronger this time around. They have Lucas Zelarayán, the MLS Cup Most Valuable Player 2020 as well as Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes. Argentinian-born Zelarayán was a revelation in his first MLS season, also winning the best newcomer award.

Columbus Crew have added to their MLS Cup squad, signing Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kevin Molino and Marlon Hairston. The club will also move into a new stadium later this year, so the positive momentum should continue, although it has to be remembered that MLS Cup winners rarely retain their trophy. The last team to do so was LA Galaxy who were winners in 2011 and 2012.

Toronto have a new coach in Chris Armas but have been somewhat quiet in the player market. They still have Alejandro Pozuelo, who won the MLS Most Valuable Player award in 2020 and is rated one of the best players across the league. They also have Jozy Altidore who was hamstrung by injuries in 2020. 

While Toronto have a strong squad, like all Canadian clubs, they may be handicapped by their exile in the US due to the pandemic. They will be playing most of their home games in Orlando until they are allowed back to Canada.

Toronto have had some stirring battles with Seattle in the past few years and the Sounders are among the fancied sides this year. The club reached their fourth MLS Cup final in five years in 2020, but injuries and departures may have blunted their edge. Much will depend on players like winger Nicolás Lodeiro and Peruvian international striker Raúl Ruidíaz.

A lot of attention will be focused on Inter Miami, who appointed owner David Beckham’s former team-mate Phil Neville as head coach and also signed veterans Gonzalo Higuaín (33), Ryan Shawcross (33) and Blasé Matuidi (34). The Miami team is one of the most expensive ever assembled in MLS and expectations will undoubtedly be very high. Nobody is forecasting that Inter will be a contender, however.

Could 2021 be the year in which the New York clubs, backed by big business and middle eastern money emerge triumphant? The NY Red Bulls were runners-up in 2008, but there’s been nothing since. The City Football Group are surely getting impatient for success?

It has to be acknowledged that MLS has a greater degree of democracy than many European leagues and that it is difficult to predict the ultimate winner. Only three of the current constitution have not played in the play-offs in the past five years: Miami, Austin and Cincinatti. Will that change in 2021?

@GameofthePeople
Photo: ALAMY