It is still relatively early. There is still a month before the Premier League begins again. There is plenty of time for a club to make signings. Chelsea began from a position of unusual chaos. There is no reason to panic yet. It might all be fine. But equally it may not and it’s fair to say that if you’re planning a major overhaul of your squad, it’s easier if you haven’t just lost a load of leading figures from the recruitment department.
Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect too much this summer, so soon after the removal of Roman Abramovich. Todd Boehly didn’t formally complete his takeover until 30 May. As others began to land long-term targets, Chelsea began to shed executives. Bruce Buck stood down as chairman, Petr Cech left his role as technical and performance adviser and, perhaps most significant of all, Marina Granovskaia, who had in effect run the club for Abramovich, resigned. None of that was particularly alarming – indeed it may have been a necessary part of the club’s de-Abramovichisation – but it has made recruitment more difficult.
This would have been a tricky summer anyway. The flaws in this Chelsea squad, disguised to an extent by the Champions League success in 2021, became very apparent over the course of last season. Not only was Romelu Lukaku not the final part of the puzzle, but his failure exposed a multitude of problems elsewhere.
Timo Werner, willing runner that he is, has not shown anything like the finishing ability that brought him 28 Bundesliga goals in his final season at RB Leipzig. Hakim Ziyech, despite his quick feet and technical ability, has looked only fitfully as though he can hurt opponents. Christian Pulisic continues to struggle for fitness and is yet to convince he is anything much more than a straight-line runner.
Raheem Sterling may be so familiar to English audiences that his signing has been greeted almost with indifference, but he is reaching his peak, is an England regular and has played successfully under the tactical godfather of modern football, Pep Guardiola. Still, for all the subtlety of Mason Mount and promise of Kai Havertz, there is need for a major rethink of the forward line – the part of the team that, given recent investment, should have been sorted.
Midfield was always going to demand consideration given N’Golo Kanté is 31 and Jorginho is 30. And at the back, Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen both left when their contracts expired, leaving Thiago Silva as the only senior central defender – and at 37 he is hardly a long-term option.
That probably meant at least four and perhaps as many as six additions had to be made, a major project for any club. For a new owner with no previous experience in football, undertaking the job on an interim basis, it may be impossible. That Boehly initially seemed keen on the sort of player swaps common in US sport, in which players have far less agency, did not suggest somebody with a firm grasp on the new role he has taken on. Which raises the question of why he is doing it. Why did he not have a sporting director ready to step in? Or was losing Granovskaia not part of the plan?
When Boehly was preparing his takeover, he spoke of ambitious investment plans. After the largesse of the Abramovich regime, he may feel there is need to buy big this summer if only to convince fans that he is not going to be a US owner in the style of Stan Kroenke or the Glazers, who are perceived as investing just enough to keep the club ticking over while milking it for dividends.
An environment in which spending becomes an end in itself is rarely a happy one – as the example of Barcelona when they felt the Neymar cash burning a hole in their pocket demonstrated. As the owner of the baseball franchise LA Dodgers, Boehly has favoured signing big names, such as Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, and that has largely worked.
But baseball is a very different game to football: one great individual can make a huge difference to a side and, other than the player he replaces, doesn’t really make much difference to anybody else. Upgrade a spot in the squad and you upgrade the team.
Football is not like that. A team is not comprised of 11 individual units but, at its best, is a single unit whose 11 component parts interact positively with each other. The temptation to sign celebrities is strong. They bring glamour and prestige. They probably do help the club market itself. For a swaggering new exec, there’s probably a dopamine hit in being the man who brought a megastar to your club. But they do not necessarily help you win football matches.
And that’s where Thomas Tuchel’s role will be so important over the coming weeks. There have been rumours linking Chelsea with moves for Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo. Tuchel has worked with Neymar before and perhaps believes that he could inspire a renaissance in a player whose career is in serious danger of anticlimax, his immense talent unfulfilled. At 30, there is perhaps one final chance for Neymar to reach greatness after the years of self-indulgence in Paris; there were days in his Barcelona pomp when he proved he could sacrifice himself to the system and press as Tuchel would surely demand he did.
Ronaldo is a different matter altogether. Excluding centre-backs, no outfielder in Europe’s top five leagues pressed less than him last season. He scores goals, but reduces the overall goals output of his side. And the vastness of his status is inevitably disruptive. There may be an appeal to Boehly and Chelsea’s commercial department in landing one of the biggest players in football history, but if Lukaku was too immobile for the Tuchel system, there is no way Ronaldo can be the answer.
Tuchel is supposedly playing a major part in Chelsea’s recruitment process. Having experienced the ego-filled nightmare of Paris Saint-Germain, his job now is to prevent Boehly turning Chelsea into PSG-on-Thames.