Last week, as the first anniversary of Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital completing their £2.5bn takeover of Chelsea drew closer, the overriding feeling was relief. The season from hell was almost over.
Around the training ground the talk is of widespread misery and players openly looking to leave, though there is plenty of blame to go around. The coaching staff have been shocked at the apathy in training. Frank Lampard, whose time as interim head coach ended on Sunday, has derided the dip in standards. Some people believe that Mauricio Pochettino, whose appointment is an undeniable positive, will be in for a shock when he gets to work.
There is no dressing it up: Boehly and his fellow co-controlling owner, Behdad Eghbali, have presided over a shambles. They have achieved something fascinating by getting through four managers in a season, spending close to £600m on signings and leading Chelsea to a first bottom-half finish since 1996. There has never been anything like it.
Inside the club, though, there is perspective. There is unease at the unflattering media portrayals of Boehly. Suggestions that he is dialling back his involvement in the running of Chelsea because of their decline are dismissed as a misinterpretation. As one figure says, it was never the plan for Boehly to be so visible. Another points to the influence of Eghbali, the driving force behind several key decisions. It is stressed that Eghbali’s business partner, José E Feliciano, is another crucial presence.
The insistence is that Boehly’s way is always to spend the first year getting under the skin of a new business. The approach is to defer to the experts once they are in situ.
But Chelsea are different and, to understand why it has gone so wrong, it is necessary to go back to before they were up for sale. For all the success of the Roman Abramovich era, it is possible to question some of the methodology. Chelsea were lagging behind rivals with more modern set-ups. They were in a state of limbo after Abramovich was subjected to sanctions after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen left on free transfers. Chelsea, unable to plan for the summer market, were playing catch-up as soon as the owners took charge. Recruitment specialists at rival clubs predicted there would be problems. The transition was harder when two Abramovich allies, Marina Granovskaia and Bruce Buck, left. Petr Cech quit as technical and performance adviser. The former Chelsea goalkeeper had been asked to stay.
There was a void. Boehly stepped in as interim sporting director and the pressure grew. Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea’s brilliant but demanding manager, was said to be “screaming for signings”. Above all Tuchel needed defenders, but tensions soon emerged. The German did not want to be involved in recruitment meetings. Sources were soon predicting a part of the ways.
Sacking Tuchel, who had made Chelsea world and European champions, was not the plan. The owners listened to him on signings. There was surprise when the idea of buying Gabriel Jesus from City was rejected.
Instead the defence was bolstered with Kalidou Koulibaly (£33m), Wesley Fofana (£70m) and Marc Cucurella (£62.5m). Raheem Sterling, the marquee buy, joined from Manchester City. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was signed to lead the attack. Denis Zakaria was an afterthought of a loan in midfield.
Chelsea did not look stronger. They made a middling start and there were whispers of Tuchel losing the dressing room. Given the manner of the performance in his final game, an insipid 1-0 defeat at Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League, it was arguably not that much of an outrage when he was fired.
Tuchel’s relationship with the board had plummeted but there was still a naivety to letting him go. He has just won the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich and his tactical acumen probably would have kept Chelsea around the top six. There is regret over the speed of his dismissal now.
Tuchel’s relationship with the board has healed in recent months. But there was no going back last September. Chelsea were wooed by Graham Potter’s reputation as English football’s rising star and paid £21.5m to take him and his staff from Brighton.
There was absolute faith in Potter. The owners loved him and bantered with him about his so-called glow-up. “Graham, you’re a Lamborghini away from being a superstar,” Feliciano said.
Potter laughed it off, insisting he would never be caught driving a Lamborghini. But Feliciano would not let it lie. When Chelsea thrashed Milan 3-0 in the Champions League, Feliciano gave Potter a present: a toy Lamborghini in a glass frame.
There was a party atmosphere at the Milan game. Yet results soon dipped. Potter was chopping and changing too much. Players loyal to Tuchel were unconvinced. Potter never lost the dressing room but was he tough enough? One player trained after nights out.
The odds were not stacked in Potter’s favour. Chelsea went into overdrive in January, buying seven players and loaning João Félix. Only Jorginho, who joined Arsenal, left. Technical glitches scotched Hakim Ziyech’s hopes of joining Paris Saint-Germain on deadline day; there was bemusement when Potter started him against Fulham three days later.
It heightened the impression that Potter was too indecisive. But what chance did he have? The squad was oversized and the dressing room too small. When it came to naming a squad for the Champions League knockout stages Potter omitted Aubameyang, Benoît Badiashile and Noni Madueke. Aubameyang, the only fit striker, had admitted to Potter he was not producing his best form after leaving Barcelona.
Potter had warned against too many signings and told the board that Enzo Fernández, the Argentina midfielder, was overpriced at £106.8m. Chelsea pressed ahead, Eghbali instrumental in talks with Benfica.
They did not want to miss out on Fernández. The impression was of an attempt to disrupt the market. Handing out unusually long contracts means Chelsea can use the accounting practice of amortisation to spread the cost of big transfer fees. Chelsea, who are trying to cut their wage bill, believe young players on incentivised eight-year deals will feel they have the club’s support. But one big target told Chelsea he would never sign an eight-year deal.
Nonetheless there were signs of a strategy. Last summer’s buys were scattergun. Yet Chelsea had spent much of the autumn building a recruitment team. Brighton’s Paul Winstanley and Monaco’s Laurence Stewart were to take over as sporting directors. Joe Shields left Southampton to become co-director of recruitment and talent. Christopher Vivell left RB Leipzig to become technical director.
Clubs such as City have an army of employees working to make life smooth for Pep Guardiola. Chelsea were building from scratch. There was identity to their January buys: Fernández, Badiashile, Madueke, Malo Gusto, Andrey Santos and Mykhailo Mudryk are young and dynamic. There is confidence that Christopher Nkunku will improve a malfunctioning attack. Do not be surprised if the France forward regularly plays as Chelsea’s No 9 next season.
But it will not be for Potter. The faith disappeared after Chelsea drew 2-2 with Everton in March. Insiders felt he was under too much pressure. There was alarm over his selections and substitutions. The final straw came when Chelsea lost at home to Aston Villa last month.
There is never a perfect time to sack a manager and Chelsea were just over a week from facing Real Madrid in the Champions League. Yet Eghbali pushed hard for the decision, and Stewart and Winstanley were on board with it. They could not see a way out, although there is modelling to suggest Chelsea’s performances were better than their results. Supporters of Potter have argued we would have seen a different Chelsea if Potter had been given pre-season.
We will never find out. Recently Boehly has been heard wondering whether Potter should have had more time. Sacking him has not made Chelsea better. Bruno Saltor, part of Potter’s backroom team, took charge of one game and Lampard’s return has not worked. Chelsea lost meekly to Madrid and finished 12th. Lampard, who won one of his 11 games, has criticised the standards in training, the team’s physicality and the lack of leaders.
The decision to sack Potter was not made on a whim. Criticism that a permanent replacement was not ready is met with a response that Chelsea wanted to take time over the appointment. They met Julian Nagelsmann and Luis Enrique, and looked at several other candidates.
Best practice dictates that well-run clubs have interim and permanent succession plans at the start of every season. Chelsea’s sporting structure was not fully in place until February. Why not take time to make sure that Pochettino, who first met Chelsea when they sacked Tuchel, was the right fit? They had to know more about his backroom staff. They had to be sure his reputation was justified; that his motivation was intact after his travails at PSG.
Pochettino is the real deal. The former Tottenham manager improves young players and his man-management is second to none. The summer, though, will be hard. Chelsea’s recent accounts showed losses of £121m and they need to trim their squad, although suggestions they are under pressure to sell because of Financial Fair Play concerns are rejected by multiple sources. The aim is simply to make the squad more manageable. Buying clubs may try to take advantage of Chelsea’s need to sell.
There will be concerns over identity. Mason Mount, the academy’s poster boy, is likely to leave. It is said that raising funds will not be hard. Is that because a host of academy players are about to be sold?
Several players want out. Aubameyang’s contract could be terminated by mutual consent, Madrid asked about Kai Havertz last summer and Mateo Kovacic will leave. Players feel the training ground has become a less familiar environment. There was a feeling that the injury crisis was exacerbated by sudden changes to the medical team, though the ownership stands by those changes.
Chelsea, who regard signing a midfielder as more of a priority than a striker, back themselves to get it right. They have had problems off the pitch – Tom Glick, appointed as president of business last summer, is to leave – but it is felt that the previous regime did not do enough to maximise commercial revenue. Confirmation on Tuesday of Chris Jurasek’s appointment as chief executive is cause for hope. The stadium is on the mind. Chelsea’s preference remains to expand Stamford Bridge but it is not a simple project. Moving to Earl’s Court has not been ruled out.
This is not a toy for Boehly, Eghbali and Feliciano. It is a long-term investment and there is an acceptance that mistakes have been made. Boehly did not know how his comments about a Premier League All-Star game would be received. Sometimes his passion gets the better of him. He was trying to be spontaneous when he told a reporter that Chelsea were going to beat Madrid 3-0. He was trying to motivate when he entered the dressing room after last month’s defeat to Brighton and told the players the season had been embarrassing.
It goes both ways. Year one has been a disaster. Yet Chelsea feel that lessons have been learned. They are confident the next anniversary will be one to celebrate.