Chelsea picked the wrong time to stand up to Brighton, letting Liverpool swoop and leaving Mauricio Pochettino ill-equipped, even if they hijack the hijack.
Liverpool panicked late on Thursday night, blurting out the sum of £110million while Brighton were hawking Moises Caicedo between them and Chelsea. But the real stench of desperation comes from Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea seemed to have lost a race in which, for most of the summer, they were the only runner. Having spent the window refusing to pay Brighton’s asking price, they belatedly relented, offered even more, and still ended up with custard dripping from their chops.
That they have hijacked the hijack at least corrects the mistake Chelsea made in letting Caicedo slip through their fingers, but that they ever reached that stage in the first place is a sign of incompetence.
No-one should know better than the Blues how Brighton work. The Seagulls are masters of their particular craft, flipping footballers to make almost £400million in the last three years all the while improving each season.
Chelsea have chucked more than £100m in Brighton’s pot over the last year when they took Marc Cucurella, Graham Potter and Robert Sanchez. Todd Boehly knows Tony Bloom doesn’t f*** about. Every player has his price, no discounts. Yet Chelsea have been angling for one all summer on Caicedo, the one player they really need.
Fair dos to Liverpool. They needed to remodel their engine room, and though you would be right to question the equally haphazard way in which they have gone about it, their midfield, with Caicedo, Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboslai, would look strong. If a little thin on depth.
Compared to Chelsea, though, the Reds have depth for days. The Blues’ midfield consists of Enzo Fernandez; Conor Gallagher, who they would happily have sold by now; and a couple of imported teenagers, one who might be sent out on loan this season and another who almost certainly will.
Few managers will spare any sympathy for Mauricio Pochettino. That quartet still cost £140million, and one is home-grown. But given the money Chelsea have spent this year, and the volume of their recruitment, to go into the Premier League opener so light in such an important area is head-meltingly negligent.
Chelsea are reaping what they sowed. They took a misguided stand on Caicedo having skewed the market for themselves and everyone else in January.
When they paid a British transfer record £106m for Fernandez on deadline day, after the Argentina international had spent barely half a season at Benfica, every elite central midfielder was suddenly worth nine figures. Fernandez’s fee became the benchmark upon which Declan Rice and Caicedo’s values were measured. It’s impossible to present yourself as hard-nosed negotiators when you’ve played the patsy as often as Chelsea have – just for Brighton.
Had Chelsea read the Bloom as everyone else has learned to by now, they would have signed Caicedo weeks ago, for less than the number they shrieked down the phone on Thursday night. And Pochettino would have the perfect foil for Fernandez in his midfield. Instead, fuelled by a panic over potentially facing Caicedo in Pochettino’s first game as manager, Chelsea are scrambling together a fee far larger than any the Seagulls were demanding at first, for a player who might take weeks to acclimatise.
Mercifully for Chelsea, the transfer window remains ajar for three more weeks yet. Even if they sign Caicedo he alone will not be enough. Southampton will have noted the bidding war between them and Liverpool which, if it were needed, should serve to solidify Saints’ resolve over the valuation of Romeo Lavia.
But Pochettino, after the signing of Lesley Ugochukwu last week, spoke of a lack of seniority in his engine room. “We need experience in midfield,” he said, which Lavia cannot supply.
USA captain Tyler Adams, at 24, is a veteran comparative to Pochettino’s other options but Chelsea would have to wait for the Leeds midfielder to shake off a hamstring injury sustained in March that currently looks likely to keep sidelined until next month.
We shouldn’t have ruled out the prospect of them doing something mental over Caicedo to wrestle back the initiative from Liverpool and Chelsea’s situation is hardly irretrievable. But that makes it no less of a shambles that after a full, uninterrupted summer, Pochettino is spending the opening weekend scratching around for a midfield.