Hijacks, U-turns and a private member’s club in Mayfair: Inside Chelsea’s frenzied transfer window

Hijacks, U-turns and a private member’s club in Mayfair: Inside Chelsea’s frenzied transfer window
Hijacks, U-turns and a private member’s club in Mayfair: Inside Chelsea’s frenzied transfer window

One week in August best encapsulated the unpredictable nature of Chelsea’s summer transfer window in which over 25 players – a full Premier League squad – came and went through what has become football’s most expensive revolving door.

The week in question started with Lewis Hall agreeing a new Chelsea contract and a medical being booked for midfielder Tyler Adams, but finished with a deal being negotiated for Hall to leave and Adams left in limbo.

Adams took his medical on the same day that news of Liverpool’s bid to hijack Chelsea’s efforts to sign Moises Caicedo was exclusively revealed by Telegraph Sport, which sent panic through the club’s Cobham base where co-controlling owner Behdad Eghbali was camped.

Eghbali, who is also the co-owner of Clearlake Capital, had been advised all summer that Brighton would not accept less than £100 million for Caicedo, but was determined to land the Ecuadorian for less and ‘win’ the negotiation until Liverpool threw a grenade into Chelsea’s plans.

Faced with either losing the player who had been his number one target from day one of the window or paying £25 million more than he had hoped to, Eghbali put all his effort into rescuing the Caicedo transfer, which he eventually did by agreeing a British-record deal worth £115 million.

The Adams deal was hastily aborted for reasons that have not been made clear or public, while the strategy regarding Hall, who had been due to join Crystal Palace on loan for the season after agreeing a new long-term Chelsea contract, quickly changed.

Chelsea have perfected the U-turn this summer, having also initially told Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang they would demand a fee for him before allowing the striker to leave for free and ruled out a second successive loan for Romelu Lukaku ahead of loaning him to Roma for the next 10 months.

Romelu Lukaku has ended his standoff with Chelsea by flying into the Italian capital with the aim of joining Italian club Roma in a season-long loan deal that would see the Belgium striker look to revive his career in a third spell under coach Jose Mourinho
Chelsea found only found a partial solution to the question of what to do with Romelu Lukaku - AP/Alfredo Falcone

Eghbali is claimed to have hatched a deal for Hall with Newcastle co-owner Mehrdad Ghodoussi, who he is said to socialise with at the exclusive Twenty Two club in London’s Grosvenor Square, which, if nothing else, made sense in terms of trying to comply with Financial Fair Play.

Hall’s exit caused dismay and frustration around Chelsea’s famed academy amid fears that homegrown graduates are too easily being seen as a bonus on the balance sheet, despite the new deal handed to Levi Colwill and the decision to make Reece James captain.

If some fans have been scratching their heads over the strategy, head coach Mauricio Pochettino’s head must have been spinning by the time Chelsea agreed to make Cole Palmer their final first-team signing of the summer, taking their spending in one transfer window to more than Tottenham paid over 11 windows during his time in North London

With news emerging that the well liked Christopher Vivell, who was confirmed as the club’s technical director in December last year, had been placed on gardening leave, Chelsea spent the summer stressing the importance of co-sporting directors Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart.

Some people outside the club unkindly refer to the pair as co-assistant sporting directors in reference to the hands-on approach of Eghbali and Todd Boehly, who initially took the title of sporting director last summer.

Winstanley and Stewart have undoubtedly been prominent in this summer’s business, with the former Brighton man putting in months of groundwork that ensured Caicedo snubbed a move to Liverpool in favour of waiting for Chelsea’s bigger bid and playing a key role in the signing of forward Nicolas Jackson, which looks like smart business.

Defender Axel Disasi quickly arrived from Monaco, the former club of Stewart, after Wesley Fofana was ruled out for an extended period. Co-director of recruitment and talent Joe Shields led the move for Romeo Lavia and was involved, along with Winstanley, in the move for Palmer, who he knew from his time at Manchester City.

Nicolas Jackson of Chelsea celebrates after scoring the team's third goal during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Luton Town at Stamford Bridge on August 25, 2023 in London, England
The signing of Nicolas Jackson already looks a smart move by Chelsea - Getty Images/Darren Walsh

What is less clear is whether any of the three men were involved in the doomed move for Michael Olise, which ended when the attacking midfielder signed a new contract at Crystal Palace after the Selhurst Park club had threatened to report Chelsea to the Premier League.

Chelsea insisted they had acted above board in attempting to trigger Olise’s clause, but it was claimed that the Blues had in fact been mistaken over the terms of the clause that the player would have needed to activate himself.

Either way, it was an embarrassing episode and underlined the feeling of one source who said: “There are no normal transfers at Chelsea. All of them seem to have a story attached or some kind of drama.”

It may have also contributed to a sense of paranoia around the move for Palmer that was kept a closely guarded secret from the majority of club staff, let alone outsiders, up to the point an agreement was reached with City.

Regardless of Chelsea’s eagerness to attribute transfer business to Winstanley, Stewart and Shields, the influence of Eghbali has unquestionably increased since last summer, which was almost perfectly captured by pictures of the Iranian-born 47-year-old sat in front of Winstanley and Stewart at the London Stadium during Chelsea’s defeat to West Ham United.

A source, who spent the summer dealing with Chelsea, told Telegraph Sport: “If last year was the summer of Todd Boehly, then this one has been the summer of Behdad Eghbali. Todd did a lot of the deals last year when he was having to be sporting director, but Behdad seems to have taken his place on transfers this year.”

Unlike Boehly, who became the public punch bag for everything that went wrong, Eghbali tries hard to keep a low profile but that is becoming increasingly difficult for a man who seemingly likes to have a finger in every pie.

It is Eghbali who is said to have been adamant that Lukaku would not leave Chelsea on loan for a second successive summer, but rejected £23 million and £26 million bids from Inter Milan before the Belgian effectively sabotaged any hope of that move by flirting with Juventus and then decided he did not want to go to Turin.

Cole Palmer of Manchester City celebrates with the UEFA Super Cup trophy after the team's victory in the UEFA Super Cup 2023 match between Manchester City FC and Sevilla FC at Karaiskakis Stadium
Cole Palmer lifted the Uefa Super Cup in a Manchester City shirt ealier this season - Getty Images/Alex Caparros

Having been backed into a corner by Lukaku, Eghbali and Chelsea deserve credit for renegotiating the 30-year-old’s contract as part of his temporary move to Roma to ensure he took a hefty wage cut and now has a £37 million release clause in his deal should he succeed in Italy.

That is not to say Boehly completely sat out the transfer excitement this summer, as it was the 49-year-old billionaire who flew to Saudi Arabia to broker what may have proved to be Chelsea’s get out of jail free card by using his business contacts with some of the country’s most powerful operators.

It was thought that Boehly initially negotiated a fee for a five-man package deal that would see Lukaku, Aubameyang, Hakim Ziyech, Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly move to Saudi, although Chelsea insist all negotiations for players were handled separately.

Lukaku, though, threw an immediate spanner in the works of any planned package deal by turning down Al-Hilal, but Mendy and Koulibaly did move to Saudi, much to the annoyance of Gary Neville, who amusingly demanded a Premier League investigation.

As Neville will have since seen, Chelsea were not the only club to financially benefit from the growth of the Saudi Pro League but Boehly’s fast work in securing the sales of Mendy and Koulibaly gave the club early and unexpected room for manoeuvre.

Just as the strategy on Hall and Adams reversed in the blink of an eye, Chelsea quickly changed course over their goalkeepers by allowing Kepa Arrizabalaga to join Real Madrid on loan o

n the eve of the Premier League season, just a day after Pochettino had warned new signing Robert Sanchez that the Spaniard would start the campaign as his first choice.

Sanchez immediately switched to number one and Chelsea went about trying to find a suitable deputy, which involved a call going in to Pochettino’s old Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, before, apparently on the recommendation of Ben Roberts and with the blessing of Eghbali, deciding to sign Djorde Petrovic from MLS club New England Revolution.

Pochettino is unlikely to have known much about his new number two, just as he evidently knew nothing about midfielder Lesley Ugochukwu, who Chelsea signed from Rennes, as he remarked: “He is a player that is from France that maybe they are signing with the idea to send on some loan.” That idea also evidently changed, as Ugochukwu started the season at Stamford Bridge.

In terms of Chelsea’s outgoings, the club have taken the unconventional route of allowing players to join four of their top six rivals – Mason Mount to Manchester United, Kai Havertz to Arsenal, Mateo Kovacic to Manchester City and Hall to Newcastle.

Kai Havertz celebrates with Mason Mount of Chelsea after scoring their team's third goal during the Premier League match between Norwich City and Chelsea at Carrow Road on March 10, 2022 in Norwich, England
Both Kai Havertz and Mason Mount left Chelsea this summer - Getty Images/Stephen Pond

Negotiations over Mount threatened to get messy when United accused Chelsea of responding to bids through the media before informing them directly, but an initial fee of £55m was eventually agreed upon that allowed both clubs to claim they had got what they wanted.

Arsenal, City and Newcastle were said to be delighted by the speed and ease at which the Havertz, Kovacic and Hall deals were agreed which may not necessarily be what Chelsea want to hear.

Galatasaray are also presumably pretty pleased to have landed Ziyech on loan with the option to turn the move into a permanent transfer at the end of the season, with Chelsea only guaranteed any sort of fee if certain conditions are met.

Despite some of the inflated fees and the twists and turns along the way, Chelsea have achieved what they set out to do at the start of the window by offloading all of the players they did not want or who did not want to be at Stamford Bridge and have landed the majority of their principal targets.

For that, Eghbali and his sporting directors deserve credit for what has been a gargantuan effort. But Chelsea fans must hope the new-look team are far more predictable on the pitch than the club have been off it during yet another frenzied transfer window.