Chelsea are signing experience and that makes sense given their poor record of signing potential and their need to keep up in the Premier League…
“I arrived as a 20-year-old. Today, I leave a man,” Raheem Sterling said in an emotional farewell to Manchester City as he flew out to join his new club Chelsea, who have changed their transfer strategy from Boyz II Men this summer as they attempt to keep pace with Manchester City and Liverpool in the Premier League.
Sterling will be the leader of Chelsea’s attack, while centre-back concerns look likely to be imminently eased through the arrivals of Kalidou Koulibaly and Nathan Ake. That’s two 27-year-olds from Manchester City, who have won multiple trophies and have a bank of Premier League experience, and the 31-year-old captain of Senegal with 232 Serie A appearances to his name. These are men.
After seasons of stockpiling potential, which in the main has failed to come up trumps, Chelsea are targeting players better equipped to adapt to a new environment through their experiences on and off the field. Todd Boehly and Thomas Tuchel are building a squad to challenge now, not in two or three years’ time, and news of these arrivals should be music to the ears of Chelsea fans and those who want more than a two-way race for the title.
That’s not to say they will challenge. Concerns over whether Sterling will get enough chances to be as prolific at Chelsea are valid, as are worries over Ake’s ability to be more than a squad player in a Champions League team and Koulibaly’s transition to the English top flight. But there is no more cause for apprehension than Gabriel Jesus to Arsenal, Richarlison to Tottenham, or even Kalvin Phillips to Manchester City. And Chelsea fans feeling uneasy at signing experience over potential need only consider the club’s recent work in the transfer market to allay their disquiet.
It’s comforting to see Timo Werner scuffing his latest attempt at goal past the post and to think to yourself ‘don’t worry, he needs time to adapt’. Or to watch Christian Pulisic run at a defender, lose the ball, fall over and say to the person next to you ‘he’s only 23, he’ll come good’. It gives you, the fan, but more importantly, the players and manager, an out; a way to delay the inevitable final assessment that we all, in our heart of hearts, knew months ago: that it’s The End Of The Road for them at Chelsea.
The experience of these new additions increases the pressure on everyone, as the time for bedding-in is significantly reduced. Sterling, Ake and Koulibaly need to hit the ground running, and Tuchel will be just as culpable as those players to ensure that happens. And happily, their arrival could spark some jeopardy (in a good way) as the underperforming players attempt to raise their games to meet a newly raised bar.
There is of course a trade-off when signing players in their peak years in that they won’t be playing for a decade or more. But Chelsea have paid, in both senses of the word, for attempting to buy longevity. Christian Pulisic was 20 when he joined for £54m and Chelsea would be lucky to get half that fee three years later. Tiemoue Bakayoko was bought for £36m in 2017 at the age of 22 and is now worth about £10m, as is Kepa Arrizabalaga, who signed for £72m as a 23-year-old.
In the last eight seasons, of the 18 first-team players under the age of 25 signed by Chelsea, only two of them – Antonio Rudiger and Marcos Alonso – have been unquestionable successes, with Kai Havertz and Ben Chilwell’s worth still yet to be fully apparent. In that time, Chelsea have also signed Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa, Pedro, N’Golo Kante, David Luiz, Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic, Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy, all of whom were 25 or older when they joined.
It’s not just that Chelsea are particularly bad at buying young players (though they do appear to be) but that buying experience is less of a risk. That’s not a phenomenon unique to Chelsea, just one that makes both financial and material sense.
Chelsea are signing Sterling, who’s in the prime of his career, English, and was one of the top stars of the European Championship, for £45m. Koulibaly was being linked with a £100m move to all the Premier League Big Six two seasons ago; he’s about to join for £32m. They’re brilliant deals.
And yes, we said the same in Frank Lampard’s summer of fun as we saw Hakim Ziyech, Havertz and Werner arrive. But now there’s certainty and prudence, which may be less exciting, but gives Tuchel and Chelsea a far better chance of winning a fight now rather than later.