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Elite transfers and supporting Potter: How Chelsea owner Boehly can silence critics

16:02 GMT+3 12/01/2023
Behdad Eghbali Graham Potter Todd Boehly Chelsea 2022-23 HIC 16:9
With his stewardship already in danger of descending into farce, the American must act decisively but rationally to stop the rot at Stamford Bridge.

This is not how things were supposed to go down at Chelsea Football Club.

With Thomas Tuchel adamant that he wouldn’t walk away despite the sanctions imposed on the club, the Todd Boehly-fronted, £4.25 billion ($5bn) takeover in May 2022 was supposed to usher in a new era of hope and continued prosperity after the gloomy end to Roman Abramovich’s reign.

Here was a man who had experience running a successful sports franchise and a wallet bursting at its seams; the club was behind schedule in the transfer window when he arrived, but Boehly was willing and able to get them up to speed with his lavish spending.

Fast-forward eight months and the optimism of the early days of Boehly’s tenure has been extinguished.

Chelsea stand little to no hope of reaching the top four, they have fallen at the first hurdle in both domestic cup competitions for the first time in 25 years, and cherished head coach Tuchel is nowhere to be seen.

To compound the torrid time they’ve had on the pitch, none of the statement signings the self-appointed sporting director bankrolled off it have come anywhere close to reaching the standard expected or required at an elite football club, and Boehly's judgement in the transfer window has consequently become the object of ridicule.

Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly and Marc Cucurella have flattered to deceive, while Wesley Fofana has been hampered by injuries.

Ironically, Juventus loanee Denis Zakaria – who didn’t see a single minute of action before November – has been their most successful acquisition to date.

Although each of those transfers generated excitement in the summer, upon reflection – and with the very handy benefit of hindsight – none was an upgrade on their predecessor, nor would they necessarily have propelled Chelsea back into major title contention.

Even after a number of those new faces had been brought in, Tuchel made it clear during the summer that the squad was not good enough and, evidently, he was right.

The Blues now find themselves with a set of players who, barring a few obvious names, would be no more than rotation options at any other top club in England or abroad.

That is where Chelsea find themselves at present, and that is what Boehly needs to understand – and fast.

The current state of affairs makes the American’s summer splurge appear naive at best, like a drunken businessman flashing his card at the bar: dazzling, ostentatious, and ill-advised.

While other clubs deploy modern methods such as data science and statistical analysis to hone in on ideal targets, you can’t shake the feeling that he was playing real-life Football Manager.

Hopefully, the club’s new stewards will have learned the harsh lesson that throwing money at Chelsea’s problems is not the solution – but more expenditure is likely the only possible catalyst for a real change in fortunes.

However, rather than the summer’s scattergun approach, more precise surgery is required. If Chelsea want to count themselves among the Premier League’s title challengers and European football’s upper echelons, they must spend on elite players.

While his movements in January have still drawn derision, there are signs that Boehly now understands the assignment.

Although it is a notorious risk to sign a player off the back of an impressive individual tournament, the so-far unsuccessful pursuit of Enzo Fernandez indicates that those in charge want to raise the overall level.

The same can be said of the long-term courting of Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice, and if Joao Felix’s loan proves successful and he reaches his potential, he would also be a significant upgrade on the existing options.

A deal for Christopher Nkunku is apparently already tied up, and that would prove a shrewd piece of business too if he is able to adapt to the demands of English football.

Tuchel’s sacking left a sour taste for a section of Chelsea’s support because there is a feeling that the players are the problem, rather than the manager.

That sentiment even led their away support to chant the German’s name during the 4-0 FA Cup drubbing at Man City; the message is loud and clear, and there is a reason they weren’t shouting ‘Potter out!’

These are issues that of course pre-date Boehly, but having gotten rid of the Champions League-winning tactician just seven games into the 2022-23 campaign, the dramatic downturn in form after the initial bounce under Graham Potter will perhaps have alerted him and his colleagues to some fundamental flaws that transcend whoever is in the dugout.

While the failure of the previous regime to tie the likes of Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen down to new contracts was a glaring error, the midfield has been allowed to stagnate over a number of seasons, others have outstayed their welcome and Chelsea still lack a proven goalscorer – something they haven’t had since the days of Diego Costa.

This has not all been for the want of trying, but in something of a vicious cycle, the Blues' failure to compete for the Premier League title since 2017 has seen them miss out on the kinds of signings that would have propelled the team to another plane, such as Erling Haaland, Matthijs de Ligt and Aurelien Tchouameni in more recent times.

Something less tangible is amiss, too. Chelsea's modern success has been built upon a dogged grit and determination that would get them over the line when the going got tough, personified by players like Frank Lampard, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta.

However, this group of players hasn’t inherited that mentality, often wilting in high-pressure situations, allowing their heads to drop should they concede first and taking thrashings on an alarmingly regular basis. All of that was exemplified in the humbling at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

Boehly has now stepped back from his interim sporting director role, with the onus on his newly appointed transfer strategists, technical director Christopher Vivell and director of global talent and transfers Paul Winstanley, to land players who not only possess elite footballing ability, but an elite mentality to compliment it – something Fernandez, Bellingham, Rice, Nkunku and Felix arguably share to varying degrees.

The future-proofing that Boehly has overseen in his short time at the helm is undoubtedly encouraging too, as he follows through on his commitment to assemble a formidable pool of Under-25 players.

English youngsters Omari Hutchinson and Carney Chukwuemeka were captured from Premier League rivals in the summer and have the potential to be first-team players for years to come, as does American goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina.

The Blues also moved swiftly to snare emerging talents David Datro Fofana and Andrey Santos in January – both of whom were attracting interest from some of Europe’s elite. Meanwhile, French centre-backs Wesley Fofana and Benoit Badiashile are just 21 years old and ready to compete for a starting place.

Boehly is also reportedly keen to create a multi-club model to replicate the City Group and Red Bull set-ups, earmarking France for its location.

That would create a far clearer pathway for the club’s youth players with talent kept in-house, bringing an end to the years of the so-called ‘loan army’ and the wealth of potential that was never truly realised as a result.

Even if the present is wholly uncertain, the future is secure.

For the time being, though, the key for Boehly is to keep another of his pledges: to stand by Potter come what may, and grant him the longevity to build a squad in his image and implement his bright ideas.

Should he be able to replicate the impressive scouting network and playing style he played a part in developing at Brighton with elite-level players, the possibilities are endless.

The Blues may well be facing a season without Champions League football in 2023-24, and though that will come with a financial hit, it could well benefit them on the pitch, as we are seeing with a rejuvenated Arsenal side this season.

Chelsea have entered the latest phase of what has been an almost perpetual transition since the 2010s. Although Abramovich’s hiring and firing brought peaks and troughs, it has never aided stability.

Boehly must now resist the urge to copy his predecessor’s ruthlessness and make good on his promises to silence the sniggers from outside Stamford Bridge.