As we enter the final month of the 2021 summer transfer window, Chelsea are finally beginning to make some moves with the pursuit to bring Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge looking increasingly more likely by the day. However, as silly season comes into full effect, just how sensible is Chelsea’s recent transfer activity?
As is the case with most high profile signings in contemporary football, the numbers involved are staggering. The widely reported €120m (give or take a few free unwanted players thrown in for good measure) would be a British transfer record, topping the recent £100m acquisition of Manchester City, Jack Grealish, by a mere £1-2m. Yet, at a point in time in which elite goal-scoring 9’s are at a premium, the signing of Lukaku, who put up 30 goals in 44 games as he spearheaded Inter Milan’s first title win in 11 years, was always going to be an expensive one.
With such a high transfer fee comes undeniable risk, at the age of 28, Chelsea is signing a striker in his prime with the returns on the investment being solely reliant on him being a blistering success in front of goal. Despite Chelsea being no strangers to expensive acquisitions, previous recent high profile signings of players like Werner and Havertz were made with the reassurances that whilst an immediate impact was expected, they were also signing players who would develop and contribute to the club over a long period of time with an asset value that could well increase. With Lukaku, there is no such safety net of retained value, Chelsea will need the Belgian to put up strong numbers for the majority of his contract to justify the expenditure. Additionally, the pressure will be on Chelsea’s young core to ensure their development continues at an exponential rate in order to maximise the peak of Lukaku’s powers.
A lot has been made of the lack of resell value, with comparisons being made to the acquisition of Didier Drogba, aged 26 for £24m, however, in truth, the most comparable signing of this profile is that of Fernando Torres in 2011. The Spaniard, despite rumours of injuries already taking hold, was signed for a record-breaking fee at the age of 27 with the hopes that he could push Carlo Ancelotti’s side to the next level. Despite a few unforgettable moments, El Nino’s time at the club was largely underwhelming, with the club struggling to move the player on when it became apparent to all parties that the desired outcome was likely never going to be achieved. This not only cost the club a lot of money but also restricted opportunities to implement alternative solutions, including a newly acquired Romelu Lukaku from Anderlecht. Such an experience will have undoubtedly played a part in the club’s cautiousness to pursue a transfer of this profile up until now, an entire decade later.
In isolation, Lukaku the player is rightly a reason to be excited. A versatile, determined and effective leader of the attack, Lukaku will likely provide the clinical instinct and mentality that an all too frequent toothless Chelsea attack has lacked. However, what in a single moment in time is a very exciting prospect perhaps masks a much more worrying underlying narrative of how the club have got to this point. It’s hard to find a player who represents the ugly side of Chelsea’s mismanagement of assets more than Lukaku himself. Signed as a promising talent in the Summer 2011 window, Lukaku’s time at the Blues was largely spent on loan as he struggled to secure a spot ahead of the aforementioned Torres, in addition to the likes of Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Loic Remy before departing the club permanently in 2014 to Everton.
The club were interested in bringing the Belgian back to Stamford Bridge in 2017 however the board, largely unconvinced by the reported transfer and agent fees, ultimately lost out to Manchester United and instead focused their attention to Alvaro Morata (although the less said about that, the better). In fact, it appears to have taken Lukaku finally playing under Antonio Conte, the exact manager they didn’t provide Lukaku to in 2017, to convince the club to part with even more money than they would have had to pay 4 years earlier.
Whilst admittedly, it’s easy to call out these mistakes with the power of hindsight, there’s still plenty of signs to suggest that the club are arguably making the same mistakes this summer, partly to fund this deal. Before the excitement surrounding the opening of Roman’s wallet, the feeling around the club was one of frustration as a large number of highly promising Chelsea youngsters departed for a host of reasons, primarily centred around a lack of belief in first-team opportunities. Despite the inclusion of various clauses that may one day see those players return to the club, there should be no greater example for persevering with suspected elite talent as you never know, it might just save you £100m one day.
The sale of such assets has largely been inevitable when combined with the fact that the club is unable to shift a large number of ageing players with depreciating value, both on the pitch and financially. This pre-season specifically acting as a worrying representation of the ghosts of transfer windows past as the likes of Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta took to the field as the club struggle to find suitors. The positive for fans is that such transfers weren’t repeated last summer and show no sign of taking place this summer either (despite a brief flirt with Adama Traore), yet the presence of so many players, combined with a look at the talent that has departed, should act as a startling reminder of the damage that can be done if the club doesn’t correctly manage their assets. Ultimately, continued selling of your 19 to 23-year-old Lukaku’s will ultimately prevent you from signing your 28-year-old Lukaku’s eventually.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Chelsea, as European champions, are on the brink of adding one of the best strikers in world football to their squad. A board that has been frequently guilty of failing to strengthen from a position of power, appear to have learned from previous lessons and wish to take the club to the next level. In Tuchel, we have a manager that deserves to be backed and whilst it’s undoubtedly a risk, if the club insists on releasing Tammy Abraham this summer then it’s hard to argue that the club hasn’t gone all-in on the best option available. It just so happens that Lukaku might not only be Chelsea’s most expensive signing, but also their most expensive lesson.