THE January transfer window of 2018 will be remembered as much for player power as in any previous year. It was a month that saw Virgil van Dijk, Philippe Coutinho and Alexis Sanchez, who did not gain their desired transfer in the previous summer, depart for pastures new. Yet, perhaps the most striking deal was that of Ross Barkley to Chelsea, who just three months prior had appeared to ‘change his mind’ over a transfer to the Blues and walked out mid-medical.
On the surface, it appears a bizarre set of affairs that resulted in a complete U-turn from Barkley, but on a more cynical level, could be viewed as entrepreneurial ingenuity from Chelsea FC. The club had agreed a £35m-fee with Everton in the summer of 2017, only for Barkley to finally make the move to London for £20m less in January.
Only Chelsea, Barkley and his associates truly know the reasons behind the collapse in the previous negations, but a commonly-held belief is that the 24-year-old – who would be injured until January – was encouraged to postpone the deal in order for Chelsea to reduce their outlay on the player, a portion of which was added to the midfielder’s wages. If true, it provides a fascinating insight into how Chelsea conduct their transfer policy, and their now over-arching desire to reduce spending wherever possible. It is a philosophy, which has become unrecognisable from the early years of Roman Abramovich’s tenure in West London.
The transfer windows immediately after the ‘Russian revolution’ saw an influx of players to Stamford Bridge, the likes of which England had never seen. In 2003, then Chelsea boss, Claudio Ranieri, was handed a blank cheque and with it acquired 11 new signings, including: Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Hernan Crespo and Claude Makelele. That first summer’s dealings exceeded £110m, a marked increase from the £500,000 spent during the entirety of the previous campaign. It was a transfer window that re-wrote the rule book of English football. To be the best, you now had to spend the most, and Abramovich had thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the league.
Chelsea’s summer activity launched the club into a position from which they could compete with the established English elite of Manchester United and Arsenal. However, a second-placed finish (the club’s highest in 49 years) was deemed substandard for the Russian, who dismissed Ranieri and replaced him with a certain Jose Mourinho. For Abramovich, the second-place finish had justified the club’s outlandish spending, and he had no intention of ramping down.
Mourinho spent around £160m in his first two seasons at the Bridge and in doing so established the foundations of a squad who would claim 10 major trophies in seven years, including three Premier League titles. Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira followed ‘The Special One’ from FC Porto to Chelsea, while Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien joined John Terry and Frank Lampard in West London. The English contingent grew in 2006 when Ashley Cole, arrived from London rivals Arsenal.
It was a group of players that remained at Chelsea up until recent times, when age blunted their once razor-sharp levels of skill and fitness. In their place, Abramovich has again assembled a title-winning squad, as seen just last season when Chelsea won their fifth Premier League title under his reign. Yet, the man who once blew everyone out of the water with his unprecedented spending, has established this squad without delving too extensively into his once superlatively deep pockets, because they are simply, no longer the deepest.
While January 2018 demonstrated Chelsea’s proficiency and innovation in the transfer market, it also highlighted just how far they have fallen behind their counter-parts in Manchester. The trio had appeared locked in a joint pursuit of Alexis Sanchez, before Chelsea pulled out, apparently unwilling to pay the Chilean’s wages, something which would have been unimaginable 15 years go.
Soon after, manager Antonio Conte revealed: “Alexis Sanchez, only one or two clubs can pay this type of salary. We never were in this race, ever. Especially because, I repeat, one of the reasons was this amount of salary.” The Italian appears exasperated with the Chelsea hierarchy’s stringent policies, in complete contrast to his predecessors at Stamford Bridge, who even as recently as 2014 were heavily backed in the market.
According to the Telegraph’s Matt Law, Conte had outlined Sanchez, Van Dijk and Juventus’ Alex Sandro, as his chief targets ahead of the January window, none of whom ended up at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea’s financial inflexibility resulted in Sanchez and Van Dijk heading to the north-west, in the same month that Manchester City spent £50m on Aymeric Laporte, and even ‘miserly’ Arsenal shelled out £60m on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. While the Blues’ main rivals signed their first and second choice targets, Chelsea were forced to settle for their fourth, fifth and even sixth choice options in Barkley, Olivier Giroud and Emerson Palmieri.
It is now a common theme of Chelsea’s policy to adopt a somewhat pragmatic approach when selecting transfer targets. Often these players are picked only if they are available, relatively cheap and likely to sign. As well as recent acquisitions, Davide Zappacosta, Danny Drinkwater, Asmir Begovic, Pedro and even David Luiz, have been signed in accordance with this strategy. This is far-flung from the Chelsea who were found guilty of tapping up Ashley Cole, were willing to pay over the odds for an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres in 2011, and 18 months later fought off competition from Manchester United and City to sign Eden Hazard.
A pivotal factor in this alteration is Marina Granovskaia, a club director at Chelsea, who has been an omnipresent employee during Abramovich’s tenure. During the past 15 years, Granovskaia has become an increasingly powerful figure at Stamford Bridge and her influence over transfer policy has expanded to such an extent that she is now almost solely in charge of the club’s incomings and outgoings.
Granovskaia is probably the biggest factor behind Chelsea’s decreased transfer spending. The Russian businesswoman prides herself on being able to sign quality players for less than their rivals. She refuses to be bullied by her competitors and is willing to walk away from transfer dealings that she deems poor value for money (as demonstrated by Van Dijk and Alex Sandro).
Granovskaia has evolved Abramovich’s initial transfer policy of overspending, and has forged fruitful business associates to help expand the club’s revenue streams. As Law wrote recently: “In the early days of the Abramovich era, Chelsea would simply ask ‘how much?’ when it came to trying to sign players, but Granovskaia has helped change the old money-talks philosophy.” This switch in mentality first demonstrated itself in 2014, when Granovskaia sanctioned the sale of Juan Mata to Manchester United, in order to cover the costs of Hazard and Willian.
Mata’s departure was an exceptional transfer at the time and it was the first instance in the Abramovich era that the Blues sold a player who could add real strength to a rival squad. Prior to the 2014 transfer, only two players had been allowed to permanently leave Stamford Bridge and join a Premier League competitor. Even then, Lassana Diarra’s switch to Arsenal in 2007 added little to the Gunners side, and although William Gallas was a quality defender, Chelsea undoubtedly got the better side of that deal, which resulted in Ashley Cole moving to the Bridge.
However, since Mata’s departure four years ago, Petr Cech, Dominic Solanke and Nemanja Matic have been allowed to leave Chelsea and join a top-six rival. Mata’s deal, which may at the time have been viewed as an exception to the rule, appears to mark a significant change in policy. It was a transfer that while benefiting United had little impact on Chelsea, who won the 2015 and 2017 Premier League title, and perhaps provides justification behind the decision to sell Matic last summer.
Where once Chelsea stood alone alongside Manchester United as the only clubs in England who would rebuff offers for their top stars, it is clear that money now talks, and if Granovskaia deems an offer ‘too good to be turned down’, players can and will leave. In 2014, Mata’s departure was the highest transfer fee that Chelsea had received in six-and-a-half years, a time in which market spending was dramatically increasing. However, in the past four years, David Luiz, Ramires, Oscar, Matic and Diego Costa have been allowed to leave the Bridge for sizeable transfer sums. In comparison, during Abramovich’s early years in charge, top stars such as Claude Makelele, Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack were allowed to leave for nothing. These three in particular joined Chelsea at 29 and 30 and left at past the age of 32, leaving no room to gain financially from their departures.
It is unclear exactly why this change of approach has occurred. Perhaps Abramovich (who it should not be forgotten is an incredibly successful businessman) is reluctant to commit obscene sums of money to an entity in which he may be beginning to look towards an end game, where he could possibly sell the club on for a profit. Manchester City’s takeover in 2008 meant Abramovich was no longer the biggest bully in the playground, and Chelsea have simply been gazumped by the astronomical spending at Eastlands over the past decade. The Blues’ trophy haul of the past 15 years (one that no other side in England have matched) may provide justification to the Chelsea hierarchy, that their philosophy works and now they operate an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra.
In reality only Abramovich, Granovskaia and the Chelsea board can explain the decrease in spending, but one obvious factor is the introduction of Financial Fair Play. The regulations were first outlined in 2011 and clubs were told they had three years to ‘get their house in order’. Coincidentally, 2011 marked Chelsea’s biggest spending spree since 2004, perhaps one last hurrah before the impositions were enforced.
The following year saw Chelsea sign sponsorship deals with Gazprom, Audi, Sauber F1 and Delta Air Lines, and along with the club’s Champions League triumph, resulted in the club’s first profitable year under Abramovich. In 2016, the Blues signed a record sponsorship deal with Nike, worth a reported £60m-a-year, which was unsurprisingly brokered by Marina Granovskaia. Just months ago, the club posted a £15m profit for the 12 months ending 30th June 2017, a year in which the club did not participate in the Champions League. It has even been muted that the sale of Oscar in January last year was commissioned solely to ensure the club turned a profit.
A large section of Chelsea’s income is generated through their controversial loan system, which sees the club farm out an incredible number of players on short-term deals, aimed at them gaining first-team experience. This season alone, Chelsea have allowed over 30 players to depart the club on loan. As a result of this regimented policy, the Blues’ youth squad are given few opportunities in the senior side. Players such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kurt Zouma, Kenedy and Charly Musonda, who would be on the verge of the first-team at other top Premier League clubs, have been forced to ply their trade elsewhere this season.
The same applies to the likes of Dominic Solanke and Nathaniel Chalobah who were allowed to permanently leave the Bridge last summer. With progression deemed trivial at Chelsea, the club’s youth graduates are always expendable, and along with the fees gained from loans, help to prop up the club’s transfer kitty.
In recent seasons, Chelsea have begun to target players in or approaching their prime years. In January, the club signed Palmieri (23), Barkley (24) and in the summer signed Danny Drinkwater, Davide Zappacosta, Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Antonio Rudiger, whose average age at the time was 24. The previous year, Chelsea also signed Marcos Alonso, N’Golo Kante and Michy Batshuayi, players all approaching their peak years. In a sense, Chelsea are buying players who the club see as good investments rather than necessarily the best fit for the team, or who the manager wants. It’s akin to shopping in the supermarket; Chelsea are foraging at the back of the shelf, looking to find the product with the longest expiration date.
Any deviations from this policy must be justified by the board as a financially sound investment. For instance, Oliver Giroud and Willy Caballero, who are both over 30, were obtained this season. However, £18m for the French forward, who in the Premier League averaged nearly a goal every other game, over a five-and-a-half stint with Arsenal, has been seen in many quarters as a bargain, while Caballero joined on a free transfer.
This policy, as dictated by Granovskaia, leaves managers with little room for manoeuvre. In fact, Matt Law has previously stated that the board believe it is more sensible to sign players themselves and only give managers a small degree of input, as it limits player turnover and ensures the club buy players in keeping with their philosophy.
In the midst of Chelsea’s policy of signing younger players, the club have developed a habit of stockpiling players, filling their development squad with talented prospects. This summer, as well as Chelsea’s senior recruits, the club once again brought in a fresh wave of youth talent, such as Ethan Ampadu, Kylian Hazard and Billy Gilmour. This is not a new strategy for Chelsea, who for many years have scoured the world in search of the next top talent. Players such as Matt Miazga, Christian Atsu, Marco van Ginkel and Bertrand Traore have been bought by the club and sent on repeated loans.
Chelsea are not alone in this policy, but perhaps what makes them unique is that often youth players are bought with little to no hope of advancing into the first team. While Chris Smalling at Manchester United, Hector Bellerin at Arsenal and Joe Gomez at Liverpool were given time to embed into the first team, Chelsea do not appear willing to, or even interested, in allowing players to develop in their squad. In fact, Chelsea’s primary reason for signing so many young talents is to redistribute them again at a profit.
Chelsea have made huge financial gains on players who have barely featured for the club. Romelu Lukaku moved to the Premier League side in 2011 for a fee believed to be around £17m, yet after just 15 games and no goals in a blue shirt, was sold for a sum close to £30m. The club have also profited on the likes of Andre Schurrle, Thorgan Hazard, and Papy Djilobodji in recent years. These players are similar to business assets for Chelsea. While they may not have an impact on the day-to-day life of the club, they can be a financially lucrative investment.
This stockpiling of young, talented players does occasionally result in the emergence of a first-team player. Thibaut Courtois, Victor Moses and Andreas Christensen, between them spent eight years on loan while at Chelsea, but are now vital parts of Conte’s squad. The trio provide added validation in the eyes of the Chelsea hierarchy, that their policy is prosperous in terms of financial and player capital.
Yet it is far from perfect, and in recent years the Chelsea blueprint of transfer dealings has seen a number of high-profiled players slip through their grasps. Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne – possibly the two best performing Premier League players this season – highlight the club’s Achilles’ heel in the market. While Chelsea made a profit on both players, despite them playing less than a combined 30 games at the Bridge, there is no doubt that their departures were a bad business decision. A lust for money and lack of patience has cost Chelsea two of the most talented players in the league.
And therein lies the real flaw in Chelsea’s transfer policy. The club may run an effective business model, but as Arsenal have highlighted, winners in football are not made in the boardroom, but on the pitch. Throughout the Abramovich era, Chelsea have been so concerned about the present that they have at times overlooked the future. In 2003, while the Russian billionaire was laying the foundations for his empire in West London, Sir Alex Ferguson was plotting his own master plan in Manchester. He and the United board accepted a brief lull in trophies, in order for the young side at Old Trafford to grow and flourish, and when Ronaldo, Rooney and co matured, Chelsea were powerless to stop them. The same mantra at the Bridge could have seen the Blues line-up with an attacking four of Salah, De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku, which would have been assembled for less than £70m.
This lack of foresight is also evident in Chelsea’s dealings with youth players and their loan policy. While the club were scrambling around to sign a striker and midfielder in January, Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (both of whom were deemed good enough for Gareth Southgate’s England squad in November) were representing other Premier League sides. Conte was also forced to sign left-back, Emerson Palmieri, in sheer desperation, and must look enviously at Southampton, where Ryan Bertrand, a former youth graduate, continues to impress in a mediocre side.
There is also the question of whether Chelsea are signing the right players to continue progressing. While their strict budgetary efficiency will be exalted by some, others will highlight how their rival’s January outlays could result in them outmuscling Chelsea to gain a top four finish. Last summer’s failure to sign Romelu Lukaku, Alex Oxlade-Chamerblain and Fernando Llorente, who it is rumoured were amongst Conte’s main targets, could also prove costly as it appears to have perturbed the Italian’s usually infallible psyche. In fact, The Guardian’s Dominic Fifield has even suggested that Bakayoko was Chelsea’s only signing last summer who Conte actually wanted.
As a result, the 48-year-old’s demeanour has turned sour in recent months and this has at times filtered onto the pitch with abject performances. It is now widely reported that Conte is counting down the days until he is sacked, which would result in a hefty severance package, hardly in keeping with the club’s desire to minimise spending. As summed up by the MailOnline’s Joe Bernstein: “Now established as a European super-power, the business model is paramount at Chelsea with a cap on a spending and revenue streams from loaning players out. And if the manager is unhappy about missing out on transfer targets or having a relatively small squad as a consequence, then so be it.”
It is somewhat absurd that so much has been written and said about Chelsea’s transfer policy, one that only nine months ago resulted in the club winning the Premier League. Yet, Chelsea’s ineptitude in the market this season has resulted in considerable analysis of their philosophy. Missed targets and an inability to compete with the Manchester clubs perhaps highlights where Chelsea currently stand. While their spending did remain high last summer (only Manchester City spent more), the income generated from Matic and Costa’s departures highlights the business model that is now deployed at the Bridge. A club, who the Independent’s Miguel Delany recently claimed were considered ‘masters of the market’ between 2010-14, were reduced to laughing stocks in January 2018, as they were linked with any Premier League striker above 6”2.
Perhaps it will go down as simply a bump in the road and life will return to normal at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea churn out profit and trophies. However, many more windows like January 2018, which denote the club’s limitations rather than their strengths, and there could be an ever-growing angry mob formulating in the pubs and streets of West London. For the first time in the Abramovich era, serious questions are being asked over how the club is run and their ability to compete with Europe’s elite sides.