Thursday was a busy day on Chelsea Twitter, as fans were blessed with a double ‘Here we go!’ from Fabrizio Romano. Continuing the trend set by the summer purchases of Carney Chukwuemeka and Cesare Casadei, Chelsea are set to further bolster their army of U20 talent with the additions of Andrey Santos and David Datro Fofana for a combined €32m. While many are excited by the Football Manager-style prospect of a Chelsea dominant for years into the future, others are quick to point out the need to address the less-than-ideal actuality facing Graham Potter’s disjointed and underperforming squad.
A bleak run of form just before the World Cup has left many Chelsea fans under a dark cloud of negativity, growing increasingly frustrated with the ownership of Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali. Many criticise the bulldozing entrance which saw them rip up the entire internal structure of the club, culminating in the sacking of Thomas Tuchel, who was so greatly adored by the Chelsea faithful. These events seem to have generated a widespread view that the new ownership is out of its depth, lacking the necessary knowledge to cut it at the top level of football. Any action now comes under immediate heavy criticism, and fans are questioning the signings of youth players amidst the need for ready-made reinforcements. However, in moments like these a bit of level-headed objectivity can go a long way. While Chelsea are in need of first team signings, we also have to appreciate the work being done to rectify the lack of sustainable progress the club has made over the last five years. The establishment of solid, long-term foundations for success is, really, incredibly exciting, and it is important to remember what Boehly & co have come here to do.
Also on Thursday, a month-old interview with co-owner Behdad Eghbali surfaced on Twitter. Encouragingly, it confirmed the ambition that many of us had seen in the new ownership, with Eghbali again displaying a desire to establish a multi-club model. It was interesting to see the Chelsea man reiterate the inefficiency he sees across many clubs in Europe, highlighting the opportunity for clubs to be more optimally and sustainably run. In fact, he explicitly states that Chelsea ‘was not terribly well managed on the football side, sporting side or promotional side’. He goes on to speak about the Red Bull model, citing their ‘50 to 100 million a year profit in player sales’ and underlining the importance of ‘using data […] and a cohesive global structure’ in order to ‘produce a winning product’. Indeed, Chelsea themselves have already entirely restructured their board, bringing in the ex-Red Bull technical director himself, Christopher Vivell. He brings his multi-club expertise to a team of Joe Shields, Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley, four specialists replacing Marina Granovskaia who, in theory, previously carried out the jobs of all four. Already, you can see the optimisation mentioned by Eghbali is being put into place, ready for the January transfer window. Logically, bringing in some of the best in their fields should prevent Chelsea from continuing to make the wrong decisions, squandering millions on failed signings and missing youth development opportunities.
It may not be immediately clear how a multi-club model would do anything other than expand the assets of the Clearlake enterprise. Fortunately for the fans, both Eghbali and Boehly, in an interview dating back to September, have emphasised the model’s role in player development, allowing Chelsea to present their youth players with reliable pathways to the first team. See following from Boehly’s interview:
‘The challenge at Chelsea is that when you have 18-, 19-, 20-year-old superstars, you can loan them out to other clubs, but you put their development in someone else’s hands. Our goal is to make sure we can show pathways for our young superstars to get onto the Chelsea pitch while getting them real game time. To me, the way to do that is through another club somewhere in a really competitive league in Europe. […] What we really need is a place to put our 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds to develop them, in Portugal, Belgium or somewhere like that. Get them the (GBE) points they need and also get them out of South America and into Portugal, which is a perfect example, we think, and then to get them on the pitch for Chelsea.’
This really is nail on the head from Boehly. How many times have we seen talented Chelsea youngsters either stagnate at a poor loan, or force a permanent move away for their own development? Just look at the progression of the likes of Marc Guéhi, Jamal Musiala and Fikayo Tomori since leaving the club. What might have been for Callum Hudson-Odoi had the right structure been in place for him to maximise his potential in his favoured position? How did Billy Gilmour go from starting regularly in the Premier League under Frank Lampard, dubbed the ‘Scottish Iniesta’, to being sold by the club for a measly £9m? I could go on and on, but the point is that Chelsea have grossly mismanaged the abundance of talent produced for years at their very own training ground. For Boehly to identify this issue publicly and accurately, and present us with a convincing solution, must inspire confidence. His mention of Portugal as a facilitated entry point for young Brazilians displays his knowledge of the task at hand and might provide a hint as to the eventual destination of Andrey Santos. Regardless, it’s clear that Boehly and Eghbali are extremely ambitious with their plans for Chelsea, and that the new owners are committed to the prolonged and sustainable success of the club.
As mentioned above, many fans seem to have difficulty getting excited about this, still hurt by the ruthless sacking of their beloved Thomas Tuchel. While understandable, some perspective needs to be applied here. The truth is Tuchel never displayed a desire to develop the young players at the club. Instant success was always prioritised, hence his blocking of Hudson-Odoi’s Borussia Dortmund loan to keep him as wingback cover, amongst other questionable decisions. Even with the new ownership in place, Tuchel had the power to break the cycle. Yet, after less than one week of Chelsea’s pre-season tour of the US, Tuchel sent home Billy Gilmour and Harvey Vale, neither of which seemed to have imminent loans lined up. Meanwhile, the likes of Ross Barkley, Michy Batshuayi and Kenedy, all entering the final year of their contracts, remained. Apart from the glaring mismanagement of the squad from the previous board, leaving these players under contract and on a never-ending cycle of unproductive loans, Tuchel must be held accountable for his decisions. Both Jorginho and N’golo Kanté were entering the final year of their contracts, and Billy Gilmour had shown the ability to perform as a 6 at the highest level. Academy Player of the Year Harvey Vale had the potential to provide effective squad depth in the attack, where both Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech were heavily linked with moves away. Yet, Tuchel preferred to keep the deadwood in the squad. It was difficult to understand, and decisions like these are simply not compatible with the new direction of the club. Boehly himself has made this clear:
‘The reality of our decision was we just weren’t sure Thomas saw it the same way we saw it. No one’s right or wrong, we just didn’t have a shared vision for the future. It wasn’t about Zagreb, it was about the shared vision for what we want Chelsea Football Club to look like. It wasn’t a decision made because of a single win or loss, it was a decision made about what we thought was the right vision for the club.’
Emotion removed; this makes sense. Now, under Potter, we are seeing the likes of Charlie Webster, Omari Hutchinson and Lewis Hall training regularly with the first team. This isn’t a token gesture, it’s because they are good enough to be there. Under previous managers, that fact hasn’t always been enough. It’s crucial that these players are given the time to grow in and around the first team set up, rather than being given one five-minute cameo, under all the pressure in the world, before being thrown back to the academy and deemed below standard. It’s also essential that the manager is allowed the time and space to do this, as seems to be the case currently. In his latest press conference, Potter stated:
‘I met up with Bedad (Eghbali) and had a good chat. I’m even more confident, more aware of the support I have now than I was three months ago. That tells you something. It’s a credit to them and their support. It’s been fantastic. […] We all know the pressure and the demands at Chelsea, but we have also got enough people who can see the perspective. I’m really looking forward to the weeks, months, years ahead.’
This is extremely encouraging, and it truly looks like Chelsea are finally going to be backing a manager for the long run. Part of doing this is accepting the bumpy ride that is part and parcel of the process – things are not always going to be perfect. Potter’s press conferences and general demeanour leave plenty to be desired, and the new ownership certainly didn’t handle their first transfer window particularly well. There is no doubt that improvements must be made. But, like most successes in life, you need to endure the difficult times first. If we have to play Europa League football next year, so be it. It’s proven to be an extremely effective competition for player development. Choose to see the positives. The same fans calling for Potter’s head will have mocked Arteta as a useless manager after Arsenal’s three straight losses at the start of last season, now silenced as the north Londoners sit top of the table, 19 points ahead of Chelsea at the halfway point. It’s like selling your Bitcoin stocks during the March 2020 dip, before seeing it skyrocket over 1000% into 2021. Don’t be that guy. Have some patience, have some faith. At the end of the day, this is the direction the club is going in. As a fan, why not be excited? Why not support your club, your youth? I promise you, in good time, we will be back.
To quote Mr. Marley:
Written by Tom Driver