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Can new look Chelsea actually succeed?
This is a hard reboot at Stamford Bridge. Let's look at the early returns.
Stats are from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
Todd Boehly and his friends at Clearlake Capital officially bought Chelsea Football Club on the 7th May 2022, the same day as a 2-2 draw with Wolves. That last game of the Roman Abramovich era was a forgettable affair, so much that you’ve probably forgotten it. Let me jog your memory. Here was the Blues’ starting eleven that day:
Édouard Mendy, César Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva, Antonio Rüdiger, Reece James, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mateo Kovačić, Marcos Alonso, Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner, Romelu Lukaku.
As of right now, just two of that team currently play for Chelsea. Boehly and Clearlake have almost completely rebooted the squad in a very short space of time.
Those first steps obviously didn’t work out last season, with three different managers producing a 12th-placed finish. But it didn’t stop the strategy of signing young players to invest in, so Chelsea have really spent big under new manager Mauricio Pochettino. Comparisons to last season are basically null and void. This is, for all intents and purposes, a completely new team.
Many people have asked about the finances allowing Chelsea to do this, wondering specifically about FFP. I’m certainly not a finance expert, so I’ll defer to the Swiss Ramble, who wrote the most in-depth analysis I’ve read on the subject:
“Even using my somewhat optimistic assumptions, Chelsea are a long way above the [Premier League’s Profit and Sustainability] limit in 2023/24. The projected loss over the 3-year monitoring period is £323m, which can be reduced by £122m of allowable deductions, but still giving a £201m P&S loss, i.e. almost twice as much as the maximum allowed.
The other possibility is that Chelsea have effectively decided to ignore the P&S regulations and take their chances with any punishment imposed by the authorities. As long as this is not a points deduction or a transfer embargo, they would probably not be that bothered.
If Chelsea do qualify for Europe this season, UEFA’s regulations will once again apply.
The 2024/25 monitoring period will only cover two years (2022/23 and 2023/24), so importantly last season’s finances are still valid for this assessment. The allowable limit will be €60m plus €20m for “good health” (i.e. €10m x 2 years).
Note: I have adjusted player amortisation for this summer’s signings to reflect the maximum 5 years allowed by UEFA.
Even with the higher limit, it looks like Chelsea will still fall foul of the €80m limit. My estimated €159m loss for those two years would imply a substantial €79m over-run.
That could be problematic, though my guess is that Chelsea will not be too concerned.
One possibility is that they would simply make a deal with UEFA, as many other clubs have done, with a 3-year or 4-year settlement agreement, which would buy them some time, so long as they fully complied at the end of the agreement.
Of course, they would also have to pay a fine, but looking at the most recent UEFA penalties announced in September 2022, the payments were not overly onerous, even for clubs that were far above the maximum allowed loss.
TL;DR despite briefing otherwise, Chelsea are almost certainly breaking the existing finance rules right now. They’re likely to only incur a slap on the wrist for this, so Clearlake might be comfortable doing so now in order to strengthen the club and get the long term financial house in order. I’d be absolutely stunned if a group of US investors intends to make a loss forever. Chelsea will break even eventually, or else those investors will be furious.
Players have been signed on seven-to-eight-year contracts, with transfer fees amortised on the books over the length of those deals. This has been framed in some corners as prudent long-term thinking, but it could just as easily be read as kicking the can down the road, delaying payments way into the future. The bills will have to be paid eventually. I don’t know how many of the 19 signings this calendar year will work out, but “Tomkins’ Law” has long been that only 40% of transfers succeed. Let’s be generous to Chelsea’s recruitment here and just, for the sake of argument, say that around 60% of these players will succeed at Stamford Bridge. That would still be seven or eight of these signings just failing at the club. The problem comes when they’re on these long-term contracts. If the players have shown they’re not worth Chelsea-level wages, it’s going to be hard to shift them out the door if they have another six years of that salary guaranteed1. If they’re picking up the costs for a number of these players for a long time, it’s going to constrain what they do in the transfer market in the future. And that’s a charitable look. What if most of these players fail? Chelsea could get boxed in without a way of shifting dead wood. That would be a serious problem financially.
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All of this is to say Chelsea’s financial health depends on getting a tune out of this squad. So Pochettino, or another manager if he gets replaced at some point, is under pressure to deliver. In that sense, this is the same as every other club. If Chelsea want to thrive, they’ll need to win some football matches, which is as it should be.
Change runs right through the team and starts with the goalkeeper. Robert Sánchez is definitely the cheaper Brighton signing at £20 million rising to £25m with add-ons. To be honest, I just don’t know that he’s good. Goalkeeping data expert John Harrison had Sánchez conceding 4.7 more goals than expected last season, which isn’t what you want to see. Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi went so far as to drop Sánchez for Jason Steele last March, claiming Steele is better suited to the manager’s short passing game. That’s also not ideal. Chelsea also signed Djordje Petrović from the New England Revolution. I don’t really know anything about MLS players not named Lionel Messi, but trusted opinions seem to really like Petrović, so we’ll see how that shakes out.
One of Chelsea’s biggest problems in the last few seasons was the drop-off at right back when Reece James picked up his all-too-frequent injuries. James does just about everything you could possibly want from a right back when fit, so some drop off without him is inevitable. But the Blues were really struggling when César Azpilicueta played in that role. If Malo Gusto can do 80% of what James does when called upon, it’ll be an excellent piece of business. On the other side, Marc Cucurella is still at Chelsea and will need to raise his standards significantly if he is to fill in for Ben Chilwell properly. So far, Pochettino has preferred natural centre back Levi Colwill in the role, with Thiago Silva and Axel Disasi in the middle2. Chelsea have so much defensive talent that a reliable back four has to emerge eventually. It just has to.
Moisés Caicedo arrived with a big transfer saga, but that’s irrelevant now. All that matters is that he’s a Chelsea player. The Blues haven’t really had the ability to protect their back line from midfield since N’Golo Kanté started declining, and Caicedo should help a lot in that regard. In theory, Caicedo and Enzo Fernández is a dream double pivot. Fernández, as we know, has been fabulous since moving to Stamford Bridge in January. No midfielder in the Premier League completed more than his 9.77 progressive passes per 90. He was signed to replace Jorginho, but I think he’s much better in tight spaces than the Italian. I haven’t seen anyone press Fernández really well and I don’t think it would be easy to do at all. He’ll kill you in tight spaces and in wide open spaces. Pochettino’s Tottenham relied heavily on Mousa Dembélé moving the ball through midfield while defining the term “press-resistant”. “Without Mousa Dembélé”, the manager once said, “we do not exist”. Fernández does it in a different way, but I think he could tie this new Pochettino side together as much as that one.
The problem is that right now, Fernández can’t “just” be a midfielder. Carney Chukwuemeka was playing the number ten role, but his injury meant Pochettino moved Conor Gallagher into that position. Gallagher seems less trusted in that role, so he and Fernández continually swap between the deeper sitting midfield role and the number ten position. This is presumably supposed to be very fluid and natural as part of the team’s “automatisms” (read: patterns they practice in training over and over again to become automatic). But they’re not instinctive right now, so the team looks flat and predictable whenever Gallagher sits and Fernández pushes up.
Chukwuemeka is expected to return in early October, so perhaps he will improve the fluidity of the team. Or maybe new arrival Cole Palmer will be the answer. Palmer says he’s comfortable either on the right or as a ten. We saw him come on as a ten against Nottingham Forest, though he did drift out right a lot, which I thought hurt the team structure. It’s easily fixed by time in training. I don’t have a strong read on how good Palmer really is, so it’s hard to be confident of outcomes here. I do know he was good at the Under-21 European Championships this summer, but not quite at the same level as England’s standouts like Curtis Jones, Anthony Gordon and Chelsea’s own Noni Madueke. He’s probably in a similar bracket to those players in terms of ability, and I think we’ll see Madueke about as often as him this season.
Raheem Sterling has been a real positive this season on the right. It’s worth emphasising just what he’s actually doing better. His expected goals and assists per 90 are virtually identical to last season, but I don’t think that’s a big problem. In the absence of a true provider in the final third, Sterling is taking on more of the creative work than we’ve usually seen over his career. His shot-creating actions, progressive passes both made and received, progressive carries and touches in the box are all up compared to last season. I don’t think he’ll score in this role like he did for Man City, but he’s doing more of the work before the goal than he probably ever has. It’s impressive that he’s been able to adapt his game this way.
On the left, it probably says a lot about how Pochettino rates his options that converted full back Chilwell is starting there. Mykhailo Mudryk would be the obvious choice, but doesn’t seem to be trusted. I didn’t understand the fee for Mudryk at the time and I still don’t see the case for him. He’s certainly fast, but looks a straightforward case of lacking decision-making skills. You see this divide in young wingers sometimes. Take Sterling as an example. As a teenager at Liverpool, he was capable of blowing past people, but also took up better positions and understood space than many. His decision-making wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly ahead of what you’d expect from a teenager. His team mate Jordon Ibe, on the other hand, was a better dribbler and looked more technically able. But Ibe at no point looked to have decision-making skills beyond his age, and now one is a four-time Premier League champion while the other doesn’t have a club. If I’m being brutally honest, Mudryk looks closer to Ibe than Sterling right now.
On the other hand, I think I do actually like what I’ve seen of Nicolas Jackson. No, he hasn’t been the most composed striker in the league so far, but he’s causing defenders all sorts of problems with his movement. Only Erling Haaland has more than his 3.0 non-penalty xG in these very early days, and it’s easy to see why. As long as he keeps doing the same things, I expect the goals will come. The worry is that if he misses more chances, his confidence will drop and he’ll stop making the same runs. But he has everything there to be an excellent striker. Teams can’t live with him right now, even if the ball isn’t always going in the net.
Chelsea have 16 players in the first team squad under the age of 23, signed for a combined fee of A Lot. Nobody knows how these players’ careers will progress, but a median outcome would see at least a few of them become legitimate stars. Chelsea are playing the volume game. The only way to tip the scales and increase the chances of plenty of top players is by building a positive and stable environment at the club for them to flourish. The worst thing they could do right now would be continually changing managers and signing a bucketload more players. Stable, stable, stable.
Are Chelsea good right now? They did enough to beat Forest in the last half-hour, even if the chances didn’t go in. And they were probably unfortunate against West Ham. I wouldn’t worry too much right now. Even if this team isn’t good enough for top four, it’s still markedly better than last season with room to improve. I have some questions about the finances, but if this is the path they’re taking then Chelsea just need to stick with it. Pochettino is more than capable of making it work with these players. They need to see the project out.
Yes, the club have briefed that these deals are heavily performance-incentivised. But I do not believe they would have been able to get all those players through the door, beating off competition, without a decent wage guaranteed whatever happens. The main reason a Lavia chooses Chelsea over Liverpool, or a Mudryk chooses Chelsea over Arsenal, is all those years of secure earnings whatever happens. You can’t attract all these names without paying for them.