‘Imagine being promised something extravagant for your birthday, waking up to nothing but a card from Tesco, then being told the gift will instead be delivered months later at Christmas with seemingly no explanation.’
It seems an awful long time – it’s actually a little less than four months – since we were questioning the seemingly bizarre decision not to strengthen Chelsea’s squad in January, when the four-point gap to fifth looked precarious after a run of just four wins in 13 matches.
This looked like a squad in desperate need of an injection; Tammy Abraham’s unexpected goals had dried up a month before, Frank Lampard was on his third, less-than-satisfactory left-back, the world’s most expensive goalkeeper had been benched and the hot breath of Manchester United – rejuvenated by Bruno Fernandes – was on their necks.
Now – in June – we are imagining the joy of Christmas Day when there was has been a present rollover from an underwhelming birthday. This becomes the Christmas of Christmases, with Hakim Ziyech already under the tree, a deposit paid on Timo Werner and extravagant Ebay bidding on all manner of other fancy toys. And all of this while others are unwrapping an orange, a bag of nuts and a single knock-off Hot Wheels car. Chelsea could not have foreseen a crisis that would severely limit the spending of their peers, but they could not have planned better even if they were forewarned. They have the ultimate rainy day fund at a time when it is pissing down on the rest of the Premier League.
A combination of a transfer ban, the sale of Eden Hazard, Chinese investment in unwanted Brazilians and steady profits eked from the churn of the loan machine means that the club so synonymous with extravagant spending has actually barely spent more than net spend champions Liverpool over the last five years. Bournemouth and Brighton are among 12 clubs who have spent considerably more. They are hardly in a position to plead poverty but they could certainly argue that belts have been tightened, either by choice or by punishment.
All indications are that Chelsea are now ready to be gluttonous again, with £90m already either spent or allocated and numbers like £75m and £60m being mentioned for high-profile players like Kai Havertz and Ben Chilwell. All the noises coming out of Stamford Bridge are that this summer offers opportunity, as vulnerable clubs are forced to sell and traditional rivals either exercise financial caution or at least pretend to exercise financial caution as they live in fear of a PR misstep.
“How can I talk to players about things like wage exemptions and on the other hand buy a player for £50-60million – we would have to explain,” said Jurgen Klopp this week. But Chelsea have no such concerns, buoyed by the transfer inaction that has left them with enough money for two years of spending squeezed into one glorious summer when the goods on offer are more plentiful than the potential buyers. If ever there was a summer to have a rainy day fund, it is 2020.
That Chelsea were blessed with a crop of young players to pull them through a season with their Champions League place likely intact – with Manchester City’s ban offering a safety net – was an extraordinary bonus. They could not have planned for Abraham and Mason Mount to thrive, nor for Fikayo Tomori or Reece James to hold their own. At the very least, the value of those players will have soared. They would not have chosen a transfer ban but as devastating blows go, this one has been surprisingly painless.
Can Chelsea mount a title challenge? Instinctively, it feels like the gap to Liverpool is too wide. But Liverpool themselves gained 22 points on Manchester City in one season so it is not impossible, though Jurgen Klopp already knew how to win titles and had already built a free-scoring front three, if not a defence to match. Nobody should really expect Chelsea to be champions, but they could reasonably expect that them and Manchester United – who have also signalled their intention to spend – will help to form a Big Four once again, leaving behind Arsenal and Tottenham to their Europa League squabbles.
Seventeen years after Roman Abramovich took over Chelsea and changed English football with his free-spending largesse, it feels like we are returning to that same place again. Back in the early part of this century, it took two seasons to claim the title; the Blues would be more than happy for a repeat of that kind of schedule.