Chelsea will have to step away from the transfer roulette wheel eventually

Ian King
New Chelsea signing Mykhailo Mudryk shoots against Liverpool

Chelsea are in 10th place in the table but are spending money like it’s going out of fashion. Is there a method behind a scattergun  transfer policy?

This season has been one of considerable change in the Premier League. Arsenal and Newcastle United have established themselves as creditable Premier League title challengers. Manchester United, having finally rediscovered something approaching a sensible way of conducting their recruitment, have clicked back into gear after the best part of a decade off. Even Brighton & Hove Albion have been looking like a team capable of challenging for a top-four place.

But not all of this change has necessarily been positive. Liverpool have conspicuously failed to repeat their successes of recent seasons and now find themselves at something of a crossroads. Everton are a muddled mess, jumping from one manager to another with the whites of their eyes clearly visible at the possibility of relegation.

And then there’s Chelsea. Few clubs in the history of the game have changed quite as much in quite as short a time as Chelsea over the last year or so. Over the course of less than 12 months, the club has come under new ownership, been on a summer spending splurge, replaced the manager and the backroom staff, and are now in the grip of a winter spending splurge that may even end up out-stripping their activity last time around.

Chelsea spent more than £260m on transfer fees during the summer. It’s within the parameters of distinct possibility that their January spending could top a further £300m. And it’s worth remembering that transfer fees don’t take into account the wage commitments that are made when bringing in new players. They’ve gone big. Very big.

But one of the Premier League’s defining tug-of-wars this season has been the gap between the amount of money that the club has spent in the transfer market and their current position in the table.

Chelsea return to Premier League action at the weekend in 10th place, and having won just two league matches since the middle of October. They were eliminated from both domestic cups at the first attempt by Manchester City and although they’re still in this year’s Champions League, winning that competition might already be the most likely way they can qualify for a return.

And then there’s the small matter of the manager. Thomas Tuchel was jettisoned shortly after the end of the summer transfer window and replaced by Graham Potter, but progress under Tuchel’s replacement has been fitful at best.

And while there may be some mitigating circumstances surrounding their failure to properly ignite under their new manager – their injury record this season has been horrendous – it becomes somewhat more difficult to take cries of ‘woe is me’ from around the club terribly seriously when they’ve been spending so much money in the transfer market.

Potter’s future with the club remains at the mercy of this tug-of-war. On one end of this rope is a vision for the club which seeks to marry the cohesion that Potter brought to his previous charges with the financial might of the club’s new overlords. The club has been very open about its desire to support the new manager despite his faltering start, which we might interpret as an attempt to stamp a new identity on Stamford Bridge following the Roman Abramovich years.

But on the other end is the instant gratification culture of the 21st century. Fail to win a handful of games in 2023 and the chances are that pressure will start to build on the head coach, and that pressure doesn’t take long to reach a point at which even club owners who may have considered themselves a steadying hand on the club’s tiller could be spooked into jerking their knees, especially if criticism starts extending beyond the coaching staff and is targeted at the owners themselves.

Some of this spending has been messy. Raheem Sterling was brought in from Manchester City at a cost of £47m without that much of an apparent plan for what to do with him. £10.3m was dropped on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang just a few days before Thomas Tuchel was sacked, when reuniting those two seemed like the best way to make a potentially troublesome signing work. Marc Cucurella has failed to sparkle, despite having cost the club £60m during the summer. Wesley Fofana cost £75m from Leicester City but injury has limited him to just two league appearances so far.

And there has certainly been a feeling of the changing of the guard around the playing squad to align with the change of ownership. Timo Werner, Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger and Romelu Lukaku all left last summer, and it seems likely that Conor Gallagher, Hakim Ziyech and Jorginho will also leave, if not on the last day of January then this summer. At some point, space has to be made to accommodate all these new acquisitions.

But improvement on the pitch this season under Potter has been at best incremental. Four points from their last two games hints at a corner about to be turned, but their 1-0 win against Crystal Palace was less than inspiring while their goalless draw at Anfield against Liverpool looked like exactly what it was, a mid-season stalemate between two mid-table teams, neither of whom look particularly likely to trouble either the top or bottom ends of the Premier League table this season.

It’s not all bad news. The constant slew of transfer rumours does rather obscure the fact that many of the signings that Chelsea have made since the summer have been for very good players. And even though they remain in mid-table in the Premier League, they are just two points off sixth place, while their Champions League round of 16 match against Borussia Dortmund looks winnable, with their opponents currently in fourth place in the Bundesliga.

The upshot of all of this is that Chelsea’s activity over the transfer market has become a blank slate upon which we can all scrawl what we think of the excesses of the spending of modern football clubs. At one end of that spectrum sit the very online fans for whom ‘winning the transfer window’ often seems to be more important than winning actual football matches, while at the other are those wondering whatever happened to Financial Fair Play and where this current obsession with spending nine-digit figures in every window might end.

It was established from the outset that the club’s new owners were in for the long haul, and their spending since then seems to confirm this. But there will come a point at which Chelsea will have to step away from the transfer roulette wheel and focus on what they already have. In this season of transition they remain a work in progress, but it is absolutely unclear what they will transition into.

The history of the club suggests that all of this could yet end brightly. Mykhaylo Mudryk in particular was a bright spot during their recent draw at Anfield, and as Arsenal, Newcastle and Manchester United have all demonstrated, substantial improvement can come quickly.

In 2012, Chelsea won the Champions League despite finishing sixth in the Premier League. In 2017 they raced to a comfortable Premier League title win despite finishing in 10th place the year before. Money usually finds its voice in the end. But the question that may come to define the remainder of this season is how calm under pressure the owners of the club will remain should results not quickly start to improve.

Because this money isn’t being spent out of the goodness of the new owners’ hearts. They will expect a return on their investment, and given the pace of transition since they arrived at Stamford Bridge it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see even more over the coming months, even though you can still only field 11 players on the pitch at any one time.

A period of calm after this transfer window closes would likely help Graham Potter actually sort his expensively assembled group of players into something more coherent than they have been for much of this season.