While their biggest rivals are busy spending and acquiring players for ever more lavish fees, Chelsea remain conspicuous by their lack of activity in the transfer market. What exactly is going on at Stamford Bridge?
It is surely saying something about the spiralling lunacy that is English football’s off-season transfer market that a club belonging to a plutocratic Russian billionaire could claim to represent the voice of temperance and sanity. That is not a description lightly applied to the Chelsea of Roman Abramovich, but in the last-minute tug-of-war with Manchester United for the services of Everton striker, Romelu Lukaku, it is they who occupied whatever scrap of moral high ground that was visible.
No doubt that is a rather amusing notion to fans of rival clubs. Discerning Chelsea’s strategy or motive in all of this isn’t easy. If the belated effort to derail the United deal was genuinely as frantic as some in the press made out, then it seems odd they were merely willing to match United’s reported £75m offer with no equivalent of a Wayne Rooney bargaining chip. And if appealing to Lukaku’s better nature by insisting a more modest cut would go to his agent, how did we imagine that was really going to run?
Indeed, if you were of a cynical nature, you’d wonder whether Chelsea were all that inclined to secure a deal in the first place. If their intention was simply to try and force United to increase their offer, as has been suggested, then it would seem a risky game to be playing with a player you have no particular urge to sign. Either way, it seemed a rather weak and half-hearted intervention at best.
According to reports Antonio Conte was said to be furious that his prime summer target had been let slip into one of their chief rival’s grasp. The Chelsea manager’s patience is supposedly wearing thin with a board that appears to be taking a serene approach to the hectic business of summer. And Conte is also said, in some places, to be ready to walk away if his determination to offload striker Diego Costa is met with implacable internal resistance. Is some or even any of this true?
That the relationship between manager and player remains dangerously toxic is beyond dispute. Yet, regardless of the question of value in relation to Lukaku, few would seriously argue that the Belgian striker, while four years younger, is a significant upgrade on Costa. The notion of Chelsea setting out on their title defence with the Spaniard leading the line doesn’t seem all that fanciful. If the club’s directors weren’t questioning the wisdom of a hefty financial outlay on a perceived inferior replacement, it would represent a grievous dereliction of duty.
No question: Lukaku is a very decent striker and may well justify a price tag that is said to be in the region of £90m when the various add-ons are included. Yet it seems likely that his value for United will be judged almost exclusively by the number of goals he scores because he palpably lacks the all-round skills to become any kind of creative hub. United fans may well be excited by his arrival, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic he most certainly is not.
It is all very well pointing to Lukaku’s statistics which, impressive as they unquestionably are, simply don’t tell the full picture. Lukaku would be far from the first free-scoring striker to find the pressure of a move to a top club too much to bear. And what would a literal reading of the statistics tell you about Paul Pogba’s first season at United? The truth is there is as much chance of Pogba’s numbers improving in his second season as there is of Lukaku’s taking a tumble. All we can do is wait and see how it all plays out.
Right now, though, and mindful of potential internal rumblings, Chelsea are in an intriguing position. Conte, if you can trust all the well-placed sources quoted in the press, has set his sights on six major summer signings. They say the manager has one eye on the club’s last title defence which included ignominy and the sacking of Jose Mourinho. Chelsea spent £90m that summer but, Pedro apart, it was not fruitful business. Perhaps the crucial thing for Chelsea now is not just to spend big, but to spend wisely, for all it might test supporters’ patience.
What the papers say Chelsea need and what Chelsea actually want are entirely different things, of course. There is every possibility – and this suggests a radical approach – that the club is happy enough to stay its hand while its main rivals splurge increasingly lavish sums in desperate efforts to keep up. The average age of Chelsea’s squad was one of the lowest in the Premier League last season and the departure of John Terry will lower that even further. All clubs can do with fresh and exciting talent, of course, but Chelsea don’t absolutely need it.
No team ever wants to stay standing still, of course, but Chelsea look strong in all areas. Pedro was one of last season’s main success stories and further progress looks likely. Cesc Fabregas has at least two good seasons left in him and remains a wonderful option off the bench. Resolve the Costa question and it’s not abundantly clear how the team could be improved short of the offload of many of Abramovich’s millions.
Whether Conte approves of this laissez-faire approach to the transfer market or not, the truth is he has never come across as a so-called chequebook manager. Admittedly, he did have a net spend of £80 during his first season at Juventus, but his biggest outlay was a modest £18m and many of those players, most notably Arturo Vidal, were subsequently sold on for a healthy profit, or at least a reasonable recouping of their initial outlay. In his final season, Juventus made a net profit of £13m on transfers and still managed to deliver the Serie A title.
It hasn’t always been that way at Chelsea, but recent seasons have seen a noticeable restraint when it comes to the business of spending. Consider that in the past three seasons, Chelsea total net spend on new players amounts to a paltry £20m and those three seasons have incorporated two League titles. In contrast, the two Manchester clubs boast a net spend of £700m during the same period between them and we keep hearing, now that Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are in town, that they are slowly getting there.
Consider too that Conte’s major signings last summer – N’golo Kante, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso – all played key roles in their surge to the title and were bought for a collective fee just in excess of £90m which is almost exactly what United are splashing out on a striker in a move that will probably not send shudders through the cream of Europe’s best defences. Even by the old standard of strikers commanding silly prices, there is surely pause for thought in that.
This mightn’t necessarily go down well with fans who continually thirst for the arrival of big-name superstars, hunger for regular statements of ambition, hanker for any little bit of excitement to lift the long, sultry summer days until the countdown to action resumes again. They see their closest rivals unveil a glittering parade of new stars, seemingly almost daily, while the best they can do is a 35-year-old goalkeeper offloaded by one of those teams. And it worries them because this runs totally counter to the “have money will spend” doctrine of the Premier League. If you’re not spending, you simply can’t be moving forward.
Yet, the sense in it seems almost incontrovertible. None of this is to suggest that we should all rip up our preferred colours and switch our allegiances to south-west London overnight. Conte may well set out on a lavish spending spree to beat all spending sprees before the summer is out, but it seems doubtful and right now, in the madhouse of comings and goings and rumour and speculation and counter-rumour and more speculation, it’s just comforting to know that there is one oasis of calm and serenity.
Even if it is begrudging, that seems worth a small bit of applause at least.