Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has changed transfer rules.
More than any other individual, Roman Abramovich changed the financial landscape of the modern Premier League transfer market, creating the feverish moneypit it’s become today.
In his first year as Chelsea owner in 2003, the club’s outlay on players grew from £500,000 to £153million and the spend-spend-spend era throughout English football was underway.
But times have changed at Stamford Bridge as the failure to land established targets Romelu Lukaku, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Fernando Llorente and Ross Barkley have underlined in the current window.
Having once swept all rivals aside – remember the British transfer record fees for Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres, the pursuit of Ashley Cole and gazzumping of Willian – Chelsea now operate within strict rules laid down by Abramovich and enforced by his eyes and ears at the club, director Marina Granovskaia, chairman Bruce Buck and director of football Michael Emenalo.
Now established as a European super-power, the business model is paramount at Chelsea with a cap on a spending and revenue streams from loaning players out. And if the manager is unhappy about missing out on transfer targets or having a relatively small squad as a consequence, then so be it.
It’s not a new idea for Abramovich. He has regularly changed managers while keeping a core group of players and senior excecutives in place.
Where some see a managerial revolving door, others see a stable structure and results, five Premier League titles including the 2010 Double and a Champions League, suggest the Londoners have got it right.
Yet times are changing and Conte and many supporters will be worried by developments in this transfer window.
Yes, Abramovich can still sign off on big deals and the £58million capture of Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid, rising to £70million, was the second-biggest in the window behind Lukaku.
But Chelsea will no longer go the extra mile to make deals happen. They will not forsake loan fees to help Conte have a big enough squad. Hence when the Italian was scratching around for players on the opening day against Burnley, Kurt Zouma, Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and others were already elsewhere.
Time will tell if Chelsea’s policy still works. But the undeniable fact at the end of the August window is that they missed out on key targets. They were all for different reasons but for 2017/18 Lukaku will be wearing the red of Manchester United, Llorente the white of Tottenham and Oxlade-Chamberlain the red of Liverpool, instead of the blue of Chelsea.
As for Barkley, his late u-turn about moving to Stamford Bridge on deadline night summed up the whole chaos of the window.
It was no secret as Lukaku was scoring freely for Everton last season that Antonio Conte saw the Belgian as Chelsea’s No9 for 2016/17, a direct replacement for Diego Costa, with Alvaro Morata an extra option as the club had to juggle Premier League and Champions League football.
Everton played their hand cleverly, slapping a valuation on Lukaku of anything between £75million and £90million.
Chelsea, not wanting to overpay in the market and with Costa still on the books and his future complicated by a transfer ban on his preferred destination Atletico Madrid, played it cool, knowing that 24-year-old felt that he had unfinished business at Stamfor Bridge.
Feeling that Everton would eventually have to drop their asking price, Chelsea became guilty of complacency. Jose Mourinho, still bitter at the way he was fired by Abramovich after losing the dressing-room in 2015, started to court Lukaku at Manchester United, even though he’d been the manager at Chelsea that had sold him.
To United’s advantage was that Lukaku shared an agent, Mino Raiola, with United stars Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Pogba in particular is a close friend of the 24-year-old striker.
In the end, Chelsea – not Conte – decided Morata was a cheaper option than Lukaku, and the manager couldn’t have both while Costa was still under contract. In the old days, Abramovich would have made a statement by swooping for both Lukaku and Morata and tried to sell Costa later, but times have changed. The manager is believed to be unhappy having just won the league title but the manager’s wish is not Chelsea’s command, just ask Mourinho, Felipe Scolari, Andre Villas-Boas or Carlo Ancelotti.
The breakdown in his move from Arsenal was more to do with football than finance. Chelsea had agreed a £35million feee with The Gunners but whereas Conte saw the England international as a right wing-back to compete with Victor Moses for a place, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool saw Oxlade-Chamberlain as a midfielder, something that fitted in with th player’s personal wishes.
At one time, Chelsea might have tried to persuade The Ox by blowing rivals like Liverpool out of the water in terms of wages. In the past, Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell joined Chelsea even though their playing time was severely limited.
But there was no will from Chelsea to financially outmuscle Liverpool out of the deal for Oxlade-Chamberlain. And in the end, they switched their attentions to Davide Zappacosta from Inter Milan on deadlline day for £10million less than the 24-year-old Gunner was going to cost.
Perhaps the most frustrating miss of all for Conte as Swansea City’s asking price for the Spanish international was £14million.
Unfortuanately for the Chelsea manager, the impasse over Diego Costa still hadn’t been settled at the close of the English transfer window on Thursday, with Costa having spent the first weeks of the season back home in Brazil rather than at Chelsea’s training ground at Cobham.
‘We have a very small squad and it’s very important to improve the numerical aspect. We need more players – it’s important that the club knows my opinion,’ said Conte earlier in August after losing Nemanja Matic to Manchester United.
Still, Chelsea refused to go in for the 32-year-old Llorente, allowing Spurs to nip in and take advantage of their hesitation.
The club will point out they signed Danny Drinkwater and Zappacosta on deadline day for almost £60million. Conte would argue that he’s going into a huge season with just Michy Batshuayi and Loic Remy as cover for Morata, while Abraham is on loan to Swansea.
The fact that Llorente went to Spurs has made it clear that while Conte is in charge of the training ground, he’s not in charge of transfer policy.
So many smokes and mirrors, it’s hard to get a categorical take on what happened with Barkley. The Everton midfielder is currently injured and players’ medicals are sensitive issues, but the accepted word is that the reason he didn’t join Chelsea was an entirely personal choice made by the midfielder.
If he had joined Chelsea, one can only assume the club wouldn’t have gone in for Drinkwater in the final couple of hours, though that too is unclear.
Barkley will only have six months left on his contract in January. Conte and Chelsea might still fancy him then but under the present Abramovich rules, it’s not certain they’ll get him. Spurs might even pip them to the post again – payback for Willian in 2013, a time when Chelsea and their managers always got what they wanted.