On the one hand, Chelsea were much the better side for the last half hour of the first half at West Ham on Sunday. They scored an equaliser, missed a penalty and had plenty of other chances. Raheem Sterling looked back to something near his best, Enzo Fernández glided about finding space and angles and Carney Chukwuemeka scored a very fine goal, his first for the club. On the other, they lost 3-1, meaning they have won only one of their last 16 games.
It’s not quite 15 months since the Clearlake consortium fronted by the US businessman Todd Boehly completed its takeover of Chelsea, since when 24 players have been signed at an outlay of $1.1bn. Soccer has never seen anything remotely like it. Of the 23 players in the matchday squad when Chelsea won the Champions League in 2021, only two were in the squad at West Ham on Sunday. A team that had won the sport’s most significant club prize, that looked only a few tweaks from being a consistent challenger for major honours, has been transformed into a chaos of potential – at a cost of over a billion dollars.
Buy young talent, runs the logic. Get the expenditure out of the way early in the project, deferring much of the cost by offering long contracts. Exploit the nature of amortisation, a word uttered around Chelsea with the sort of reverence a medieval alchemist might have used for quintessence. Every 100 million raised by player sales can fund 500 million of purchases if the players sign five-year contracts (Uefa now prevents clubs amortising sales over a period longer than five years; the Premier League has no such limit). Which is all fine, except that it also means raising 100 million next year, and the year after that and the one after that and the one after that.
If Chelsea are successful, if this group of extremely talented young players does gel and comes to dominate European soccer over the next decade, all that will look very smart. Boehly and the founder of Clearlake, Behdad Eghbali, who seems far more involved than the vocal front man on the soccer side, will have proved conservative old Europe wrong. It’s a fascinating experiment: soccer is an industry replete with inefficiency and anachronistic tradition. It’s ripe for disruption.
Just perhaps not this disruption. Young players may not retain their value. Development in soccer is not predictable; a player who looks a genius in one system can look a duffer in another. The endless patterns of interlocking contingency are one of the game’s enduring beauties, the reason it is so often able to defy analysis. Even though the offer of long deals has seemingly allowed Chelsea to offer heavily incentivised contracts on relatively low base salaries, a superfluous player sitting out the final years of his term is still a major drain on resources, in both amortised fee and wages and the only alternative is selling at a significant loss. A fuller explanation of Chelsea’s present position is offered here.
That might be less of a worry if there were any sense of a squad being assembled to a careful blueprint. But at the moment it’s very hard to discern a plan other than collecting lots of very talented young players – so many that last season there wasn’t enough space in the dressing-room at the training ground and some players reportedly had to change in the corridor.
Already, some seem to be losing their way. Mykhailo Mudryk was signed from Shakhtar at a cost of $112m in January. He had started just 33 league games in his career – in Ukraine. Although he had excelled against RB Leipzig and Celtic in the Champions League, that was charging into space behind opposing defences; there was no obvious evidence he could also thrive against the sort of low block Chelsea commonly face. When he came off the bench at West Ham on Sunday, he looked desperately short of confidence, something embodied in his ugly sidefoot jab at a decent chance that fell to him on the volley. Perhaps he will yet come good but the sense of flux must be unsettling for everyone.
Moisés Caicedo joined last week for a British record fee of $146m. The Ecuadorian was exceptional for Brighton last season and, on the face of it, would seem the perfect partner for Fernández at the back of midfield. He is 21, Fernández 22. It’s possible the pair could drive Chelsea for a decade. But Caicedo came on after an hour and had an awful debut, culminating in the clumsy concession of the late penalty that sealed West Ham’s win.
Everywhere there were glitches, errors, uncertainty. Most damningly, playing against 10 men from the 67th minute after Nayef Aguerd was sent off, Chelsea barely created a chance. It’s early yet and a relatively straightforward fixture list over the next six weeks may give Mauricio Pochettino the opportunity to gain momentum and calm nerves. The possibility of another season without European soccer would complicate the financial picture even further.
Right now, though, Chelsea are finding that a squad packed with outstanding young talent does not necessarily make a good team.