Chelsea have spent the summer fighting with Barcelona over players, and they will start the new season as something of an unfinished article.
We all already know that Joan Laporta is about as shameless as football executives come, but even so his interview with CBS Sports ahead of the start of the new season raised an eyebrow or two. Barcelona have spent the summer acting as though Chelsea were their scouting network, repeatedly parachuting themselves in to hijack whichever transfers the Premier League club were trying to seal.
Raphinha, Lewandowski, Kounde and Dembele would have made a pretty decent backbone for the start of the Boehly era at Stamford Bridge (remember that £200m transfer budget that was being thrown about earlier in the summer? Well, they haven’t spent half of that yet), but all of these players will now be plying their trade in Spain instead, thanks to Barcelona’s decision to mortgage their summer spending spree against future television contracts.
It remains true to say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but annoyance at the way in which Barcelona have behaved has been increasing at Stamford Bridge all summer, and now we’re at a point at which Chelsea are reportedly blocking the possibility of Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso – both of whom have just a year left on their Chelsea contracts – from joining that particular exodus.
But despite all of this, Laporta told CBS, presumably while wiping a bead of drool from his mouth, that “I respect Cesar and Marcos as footballers. They are very, very good players. They show their quality and talent at Chelsea. But I don’t want to talk about them as a matter of respect for Chelsea.” Respect, huh? He’s got a funny way of showing it.
None of this faux humility will have buttered any parsnips in west London, of course. It remains to be seen where Azpilicueta and Alonso end up by the end of the transfer window, but even without their departures this summer, Chelsea had work to do. Antonio Rudiger left for Real Madrid and those are huge boots to fill. Chelsea’s defence needed reshaping, and the arrival of Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli – talented though he is – only partly resolves that particular issue.
It’s fair to say that this summer has been a baptism of fire for Todd Boehly, who took over player negotiations when he assumed control of the club at the very end of last season. But the Premier League is an unsentimental place, and with less than a week to go before the start of the new season, Koulibaly and Raheem Sterling are the only Big Names to have arrived at Stamford Bridge this summer, while the attack still doesn’t have a true focal point.
Sterling is a curiosity of a signing. It can’t be the case that he was brought in as a direct replacement for last year’s expensive malfunctioning part, Romelu Lukaku. Sterling has never been a great scorer of goals and Chelsea looked muddled in attack at times last season.
Only Brighton, Crystal Palace, Southampton and Burnley drew more games, and this failure to kill off matches was the biggest single reason why they ended their season looking over their shoulders at Spurs and Arsenal below them rather than looking up at Manchester City and Liverpool.
Chelsea have issues in midfield too, but at least there are signs of how those can be improved. N’Golo Kante remains injury-prone and isn’t getting any younger, while Jorginho isn’t quite the creative outlet in the centre of the pitch that you’d want, but Connor Gallagher was one of the revelations of last season on loan at Crystal Palace, and he returns to Chelsea’s first-team squad a significantly improved player for his year at Selhurst Park. But will they even be able to find a space for him? It’s certainly not guaranteed.
And then there’s the manager. Thomas Tuchel can be a combustible character, as was seen in the nature of his departures from both Borussia Dortmund and PSG, and having stuck with the club through the first few months of this year, when what Chelsea’s future might look was very much up in the air, he could also be forgiven considerable irritation at the way in which the summer has played out. Will he blame Barcelona or the club that employs him?
All of this leaves Chelsea going into the new Premier League season in something of a quandary. It certainly seems like a tall order to expect them to make up much ground on Manchester City or Liverpool, and if the squad revamps at Spurs and Arsenal have the desired effect, the three point and five-point leads that they held over these two clubs at the end of last season are leads that could be overhauled.
After the events of the last six months or so, perhaps Chelsea could do with a clearly defined ‘transitional season’ during which the pressures of football’s culture of instant gratification are put on a back burner in favour of building a base for their new future.
But the modern game doesn’t seem able to allow that; the need for greater riches has long been a perpetual loop.
One of Chelsea’s great skills of the Abramovich era was their reinvention, but with the financial security that he underwrote now gone, this reinvention may prove trickier.
Chelsea made Kepa Arrizabalaga the most expensive goalkeeper in the world when they signed him from Athletic Bilbao in 2018, but he played only four Premier League games last season; Romelu Lukaku arrived last summer on a wave of optimism, but a year and three goals later he was on his way back to Milan on loan.
These two players alone cost the club almost £170m. They were the sort of mistakes that Chelsea could afford to make with Abramovich underwriting their losses. That may not be the case anymore, and Chelsea head into the new season with tempered expectations meaning that Champions League qualification would be something of an achievement.
At least once the transfer window closes at the end of August, they’ll be able to forget about Barcelona for a few months.