Chelsea’s gamble on young guns looks like another shot in the dark by US owners
Amortisation over a long-term deal. Heavily incentivised contracts. A couple of relatively quiet windows before Roman Abramovich was forced to sell the club. There’s been a lot written over the past few months about how Chelsea can afford a spree that will hit £620m when the Christopher Nkunku deal happens next June. But perhaps the bigger question is why? What on earth are they doing?
Structure the deals as cleverly as you like, that money still has to be paid at some point. Chelsea’s spending has been of the sort you would expect from a megalomaniac billionaire taking over a club, when the point is to have fun or make a splash, when long-term planning means less than “Get me Robinho, now!” In that regard, the careful squad-building of the Saudi Public Investment Fund at Newcastle has been a huge disappointment.
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Abramovich’s 19 years at Chelsea cost him £900,000 a week: you can’t expect that sort of expenditure under Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, we were told. At which point they embarked on an unprecedented spree. But you really can’t expect that sort of expenditure from a private equity firm. They are not a state laundering their reputation or inveigling themselves into the sporting establishment. They are not a giddy tycoon ordering a £100m midfielder in the way he might demand a diamond-encrusted towel rail. They are cold-eyed capitalists there to make a profit.
Admittedly, they might just be quite bad at being cold-eyed capitalists. This, after all, is a club that it has been claimed failed to loan Hakim Ziyech to Paris Saint-Germain due to their inability to send the correct documentation: once because the email didn’t send and twice because the club attached an unsigned document.
It’s also a club that spent a month locked in negotiations with Benfica for Enzo Fernández before paying the €120m release clause Benfica had demanded from the off. In that month Chelsea played six times and won just once, going out of the FA Cup while the gap between them and Champions League qualification grew from eight points with a game in hand to 10 points without. How much would have had to be trimmed from the fee to make the delay worthwhile?
Nothing Boehly or Eghbali have said or done so far suggests they have any understanding of how football actually works
“The owners are billionaires, so they’re quite smart,” Graham Potter said last month. “Smarter than me, that’s for sure.” Which may be true, although Elon Musk’s curious recent behaviour means this isn’t a great time for assumptions of billionaire smartness.
But let’s assume Chelsea’s manager is right, let’s assume that Boehly and the Clearlake co-founder Behdad Eghbali are smart and they have spied an opportunity. But what is it? How can this sort of outlay make a return for Clearlake’s investors (one of whom is the Saudi PIF, although no single investor has more than a 5% stake)?
Could there be some huge new revenue stream about to be unleashed? It is possible, particularly as Gianni Infantino presses ahead with plans for an expanded Club World Cup from 2025. A 32-team tournament backed by, say, Saudi Arabia, could be very lucrative. Some revised form of the Super League to which Abramovich-era Chelsea signed up before hastily backing out in the face of a fan backlash remains plausible, even if Boehly has seemed largely dismissive of the idea.
Or perhaps there is a sense that the Premier League is becoming that Super League – after all, Southampton, as well as Chelsea, spent more than every other major league combined this winter. Splurge the cash now, inflate the market, concentrate talent in the Premier League and effectively reduce Spain, Italy and Germany to feeder leagues, further increasing the Premier League’s advantage when it comes to overseas broadcast rights. That’s certainly not an implausible outcome.
An upgraded stadium might help but, squeezed between a graveyard and a railway line, Stamford Bridge presents unique difficulties. It could be expanded, but only at enormous cost and over a period that could extend to five years. That is a long time to wait for profits.
Since taking over Chelsea in May 2022, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital have spent more than £500m in fees on permanent signing. Here is how the spending breaks down – not including loan fees for Denis Zakaria (£3m) and João Félix (£9.7m for six months)
Raheem Sterling (July) £47.5m – contract until June 2027
Kalidou Koulibaly (July) £33m – June 2026
Gabriel Slonina (Aug) £8m – June 2028
Carney Chukwuemeka (Aug) £18m – June 2028
Marc Cucurella (Aug) £60m – June 2028
Cesare Casadei (Aug) £12.6m – June 2028
Wesley Fofana (Aug), £70m – June 2029
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Sep) £12m – June 2024
David Datro Fofana (Jan) £11m – June 2029
Benoît Badiashile (Jan) £33.5m – June 2030
Andrey Santos (Jan) £17.5m – June 2030
Mykhailo Mudryk (Jan) £88.5m – June 2031
Noni Madueke (Jan) £29m – June 2030
Malo Gusto (Jan) £31m – June 2030
Enzo Fernández (Jan) £107m – June 2031
Christopher Nkunku (June) £52.8m release clause, TBC
Just before Christmas, Eghbali said that the new owners “think European sports is probably 20 years behind US sports in terms of sophistication on the commercial side”. Perhaps there are gains to be made, but Chelsea are not the first Premier League club whose owners have come from US sport. Why have none of them exploited these opportunities even when global economic conditions were more favourable than they are now? Given the one concrete idea any of Chelsea’s new owners have proposed was Boehly’s north v south all-star game, it’s perhaps best not to get too excited.
Related: How Chelsea’s transfer strategy works – and what could happen next
And this brings us back to a familiar point, which is that nothing Boehly or Eghbali have said or done so far suggests they have any understanding of how football actually works. An all-star game would be a dreadful spectacle because the best football teams are coherent interdependent units forged over months, not grab bags of excellent players.
Eghbali has spoken of the importance of data, bringing Paul Winstanley as head of recruitment from Brighton, whose transfer activity in recent years has been exemplary. But can any analysis predict whether Mykhaylo Mudryk, David Datro Fofana and Noni Madueke represent a balanced forward line? When they are so inexperienced, with so much flux, is it even possible to tell?
Is there a coherent philosophy behind the spending beyond the players being young? (And what does this mean for Chelsea’s academy, which had been regarded as a success?) If there is a detailed plan, how can the sudden attempt to sign Sofyan Amrabat from Fiorentina on the final day of the window be explained? What of the players already at the club? Have those from the summer spree been written off already? And while the long contracts protect the value of assets, they also mean Chelsea have substantial liabilities – and if the plan is to push the Premier League into what is effectively a monopoly position, who are they protecting the value for? Already Premier League clubs find themselves having to subsidise the departure of players.
There are, essentially, two possibilities. Either football is about to change in ways that nobody else has foreseen, or Boehly and Clearlake have made an extremely costly mistake.