Friday, September 30

Inside Chelsea’s new transfer strategy

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In mid-July, an agent seeking to break an impasse in a transfer not involving Chelsea had an unusual idea: “Let’s call Todd Boehly.”

The player in question was in advanced talks to move to another Premier League club, but negotiations had stalled for some time over his valuation. Chelsea had previously shown no interest despite many of Europe’s top sides closely monitoring the situation, but the Blues had been linked with so many players at the time that the agent thought Boehly, who had extended his role as new co-owner and chairman to act as interim sporting director following the club’s takeover, was worth a try.

Boehly didn’t even negotiate. After being informed of the asking price — a considerable sum north of £15 million, left vague here to maintain the player’s anonymity — Boehly agreed almost instantly in principle to both the valuation and proposed personal terms. What followed was a series of internal meetings led by Boehly, coach Thomas Tuchel and co-owner Behdad Eghbali at which a final assessment of the player was made. In the end, Tuchel was not quite convinced and Chelsea did not follow through.

The player is now at a rival English club, but this example is a snapshot of Chelsea’s latest transfer window, the first under Boehly and Clearlake Capital’s ownership. It was a summer in which they were playing catch-up from the start, enduring a series of frustrations amid accusations of naivety, but ended with nine signings totaling more than £250 million.

According to Deloitte’s sports business group, Chelsea spent more than any other Premier League club in a record-breaking summer for the division — its overall outlay reached £1.9 billion. The eye-watering sums evoked memories of Roman Abramovich’s first summer back in 2003, when Chelsea splurged £121.5m on 14 players as the club made a powerful statement of intent. The methodology may have been different, but in many ways, the aim this year was something similar.

Abramovich’s ownership came to an abrupt and acrimonious end as sanctions imposed upon him by the UK government resulting from alleged ties to Vladimir Putin essentially triggered the sale of Chelsea earlier this year. Despite this most ignominious of ends, there remain significant swathes of the Blues’ fan base who are willing to revere Abramovich by separating his sporting contribution from his political influence.

He built a relentless, remorseless winning machine: no English club won more than the 21 trophies amassed during his tenure lasting nearly 19 years. A culture where second place was rarely tolerated had its roots in Abramovich’s cash. Money was no obstacle to dismissing an underperforming manager or upgrading a faltering player. There was no tomorrow.

The takeover therefore catapulted Chelsea into the unknown, a feeling of uncertainty exacerbated by the departures of lead transfer negotiator and director Marina Granovskaia, chairman Bruce Buck, chief executive Guy Laurence and technical and performance advisor Petr Cech. Boehly chose to step into the void, becoming interim sporting director partly out of necessity, but also reflecting a decision to alter the level of Tuchel’s influence.

Head coaches habitually had a degree of input in Chelsea’s transfer strategy, but the final decisions on recruitment were invariably made above them. However, sources have told ESPN that Boehly wanted to back the judgment of Tuchel as one of the finest coaches in the world in an attempt to help make up lost ground; the club’s summer plans were heavily delayed because UK government sanctions prevented Chelsea from talking to new signings prior to the sale and from renegotiating contracts, which prompted Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger to leave as free agents for Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively.

The decision to loan out Romelu Lukaku was seen as a vital moment in the club reset. Lukaku had been a problem for months, considered a misfit in Tuchel’s system and a troublesome figure ever since giving an unsanctioned interview to Sky Italia last December when he spoke of one day returning to Inter Milan.

Sources have told ESPN that Cech had been one of several key voices wanting to persist with Lukaku this season. However, Tuchel wanted rid of Lukaku and Boehly decided to endorse that opinion, accepting a modest offer from Inter to loan him back to the Serie A club, even paying a percentage of his £300,000-a-week salary to bring a swift resolution to a situation that could have dragged on throughout the summer.

In fact, that support for Tuchel was effectively bookended in this window by dispensing with one striker at the beginning and gaining another at the end as Chelsea eventually signed 33-year-old Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on deadline day, a deal that made only modest economic sense — £12m plus defender Marcos Alonso heading to Camp Nou in return — but reunited the manager with a player he held in the highest regard after two years together at Borussia Dortmund in the mid-2010s.

What happened in the time between the Lukaku and Aubameyang deals was a bit of a muddle. That was due to a number of factors: a little naivety in negotiations, opportunism from agents eyeing a pay day and a multifaceted approach that was not conveyed with sufficient clarity. Multiple agents involved in speaking to Boehly and Eghbali this summer described the pair to ESPN as affable, polite and professional during negotiations. Both displayed a healthy knowledge of the game and sought to ingratiate themselves with key figures in what is a relatively small world at the highest level. But Granovskaia was renowned as a tough negotiator who only moved on a target when confident the player was willing to join.

This is an ethically murky area given that technically clubs are supposed to agree terms first, yet it is an open secret that a player’s intentions are among the first aspect to be established in modern-day negotiations. Sources have suggested to ESPN that the new regime let themselves down in this regard with Leeds United‘s Raphinha, who had privately made it clear for some time that he wanted to join Barcelona even though Chelsea had an offer accepted for the winger.

Similarly, Jules Kounde preferred a move to Barcelona despite the Blues’ protracted pursuit of the centre-back, and given the exits of both Rudiger and Christensen, it only took a couple of public failures like this to exacerbate concerns Chelsea were short of numbers and floundering in the market. To offset mounting defensive concerns, Cesar Azpilicueta was denied the chance to join Barcelona himself and instead handed a lucrative contract extension worth, according to one source, more than £150,000 a week.

With money to spend and the club looking as if it was scrambling, certain agents sensed an opportunity — not least the one mentioned at the top of the piece. Elsewhere, sources have told ESPN that Boehly met top agent Jorge Mendes in July to discuss the market in general and establish relations, but the idea of signing his biggest client, Cristiano Ronaldo, also came up.

Boehly is thought to have been seduced by the idea of bringing such an iconic player to Stamford Bridge, even at the age of 37. Ronaldo would have been a landmark signing for the new era and also a commercial gold mine. However, Ronaldo’s lack of pressing from the front had been a concern at Manchester United and was a prominent reason why Tuchel wanted to move Lukaku out of the squad. As enduring as Ronaldo’s talent is, he was not a tactical fit. Sources have told ESPN that Boehly raised the possibility of signing Ronaldo on more than one occasion, but Tuchel repeatedly rejected the idea out of hand.

It wasn’t the only time Boehly and Tuchel held differing views: sources have told ESPN that Boehly was primarily responsible for blocking Christian Pulisic‘s exit on loan as the player expressed concerns over his lack of game-time ahead of the World Cup starting in November. There were various reasons for that decision, but losing someone of Pulisic’s profile in the U.S. — much bigger than in England — was not thought preferable so close to the U.S. men’s national team playing in a World Cup.

Tuchel’s palpable and public frustrations over incomplete transfer business once the season began led in part to the club paying what could generously be described as a premium for Brighton’s Marc Cucurella.

The defender wanted to join Manchester City but the club refused to pay the asking price, which was suggested to be in the region of £50m. Chelsea ended up paying £62m, partly because Brighton wanted to sign Levi Colwill on a permanent basis as part of the deal but ultimately took him on loan in return for receiving a higher fee.

Brighton’s chief executive Paul Barber said of Boehly on talkSPORT: “Although this was potentially a new area for him, dealing with football players in the Premier League completely new, obviously, but he was very tough. He certainly did not make it easy to get the deal done and I respect him for that.”

One agent told ESPN in response: “Of course you’ll have all the respect in the world for Boehly if you get him to pay £62m for Cucurella!” However, the Blues extracted better value elsewhere. Raheem Sterling only had one year left on his City contract, but a £45m fee represents an excellent price for a player of that pedigree in his prime.

Kalidou Koulibaly adds valuable experience at the back, offsetting the departures of Christensen and Rudiger, while Chelsea have pursued a concurrent policy of acquiring younger talent for the future; Carney Chukwuemeka, Cesare Casadei and Gabriel Slonina are promising talents, but given they were signed in the midst of struggles to land other players in areas of the squad requiring greater urgency, the overall picture perhaps looked more confused than it was in reality.

It’s also worth noting that the timing of many transfers is often dictated by the selling club. Barcelona’s complicated financial affairs have impacted so many transfers this summer, while Leicester waited until the final week of the window before allowing 21-year-old defender Wesley Fofana to join Chelsea in a deal worth around £70m.

Boehly wanted to be as diligent as possible, arranging for the Los Angeles Lakers’ medical staff to undertake Fofana’s medical — which lasted a full day — to guard against any complications arising from a leg break that caused Fofana to miss 41 Leicester matches last season. He also helped Tuchel react quickly to alarming defeats to Leeds and Southampton, bringing in Denis Zakaria on loan to help Chelsea “toughen up,” as their head coach demanded.

The club are also seeking stability in other ways, attempting to secure players to long contracts — six years in some cases, such as Reece James — while former Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards is understood to have turned down a similar role at Stamford Bridge, a sign that a need for more football expertise has been recognised.

That search will go on, with sources at Chelsea underlining that Boehly and Eghbali have a sustained and passionate determination to succeed. There may have been mistakes along the way, but one thing is clear: Chelsea’s pursuit of excellence will continue.

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