When Todd Boehly first started taking calls and meetings about football decisions at Chelsea this summer, there were some in the game who felt it could be to their benefit. Put bluntly, they saw pound signs. It was noted how the new Chelsea owner was often asking starkly basic questions about players, right down to what clubs they played for and even positions.
Far from being an illustration of Boehly’s naivety about the game, though, it was an indication of the fastidiousness that made him a billionaire capable of buying the club in the first place. The American businessman isn’t interested in playing fantasy football as some vanity project. He has instead been gathering information so all major calls can be put past a core of experienced advisors who do know what they’re talking about.
Boehly is making sure he’s well briefed. Many executives and officials have been struck by how straight up he is in that regard.
The manner of the takeover’s completion means Boehly has to be involved at this level in this first “chaotic” summer, and there is an acceptance it will lead to some mistakes, but it certainly isn’t the plan for long.
It also isn’t the plan to ever again burden a Chelsea manager with players he doesn’t want. That is why Cristiano Ronaldo has not been pushed on Thomas Tuchel. The new hierarchy, as is the case with a few players this summer, are obviously going to hear out such offers and have the meeting. The takeaways are then put to Tuchel, as the manager has now been put at the center of the club’s transfer strategy.
It is a move that represents the first major change in practice from the Roman Abramovich era. Tuchel, in turn, has very clear ideas about what he wants.
Some close to the manager have already likened it to Liverpool, where the recruitment process is actually conspicuously straightforward. Jurgen Klopp will outline the type of players he is looking for, as well as what specific attributes should be prioritized.
The recruitment team will then go off and suggest a player each, at which point Klopp will decide on one of them or tell them to continue searching.
If this reads like an approach that should be obvious, it is remarkable how few clubs operate like this. Many are just agent-led or structured differently, and not working to the same type of overall idea.
It represents a growing split in the game, that has been pushed by American owners – especially in Italy – influenced by the progress of clubs like Leipzig and analytical models.
This shift also points to Chelsea’s grander plans, and why the new ownership group feels a real opportunity in European football way beyond the summer.
An objective, according to a few sources, is to “be the next Liverpool” – or, as has also been stated, “a Liverpool with the advantage of being based in London”: a resurgent sporting powerhouse.
That may jar for a club that has won as many trophies as Chelsea have over the last 19 years, but it comes from the new owners’ impressions from the first two months in charge. There has actually been a sense that much of the club’s potential was not utilized, which is perhaps reflected by a return of just two Premier League titles in the last decade.
One belief is that Abramovich’s money and personal will – often transmitted through the departed Marina Granovskaia – drove so much that Chelsea did not need to operate according to the best modern football practices. Their way of business was seen as “strange” by other clubs, and even those at Stamford Bridge archly referred to “our unique power structure”.
Now that money is gone, it’s not just a case of having to operate a different way. It is a case of being able them.
The primary focus now is reshaping the structure of the club, and ensuring everything is pushed to the maximum, that it isn’t so “baggy”.
There will be a shift towards analytics, and even greater use of youth, which is why there is obvious truth in the links to Michael Edwards. The former Liverpool official has a longstanding relationship with new board member Daniel Finkelstein, although Chelsea faces competition there from Real Madrid and even Manchester United.
Such a director of football will feed into a hierarchy led by the highly respected Jonathan Goldstein, with Boehly ultimately expected to return to the US and oversee everything from there, with Clearlake also having considerable influence. That will correspond with a huge increase in US sport-style “entertainment” plans, that will boost revenue but may rub some traditionalists up the wrong way.
Even figures close to fan groups accept this is a necessity if you are to compete in a world that has Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City and Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain, although any moves to incorporate betting companies like DraftKings – which Boehly has a major stake in – may test the extent of that. Some around the club will wonder whether sustainability can truly be matched with success in the modern game.
Much of this remains speculative or open to debate. What is certain is that the owners know this will take time to get everything right, though, and there is a provisional timescale of 30 months to get everything in place – on the sport and business side – in the way they want it. This is why Boehly feels the responsibility to be so hands-on this summer. It’s a necessity.
There is consequently that acceptance it will be “chaotic”, and may even look “a mess” to some on the outside. Figures close to Raphinha, for example, complained that there was never any proper approach from Chelsea despite all the noise about interest.
The number of meetings they are having with agents and football people will also mean that a lot of names are linked to the club. They are still trying to impose a more short-term plan on that, though.
Tuchel knows the positions he wants, and the type of player. They are three defenders to go with Raheem Sterling, a midfielder, as well as a striker if possible.
Some of the areas where they need work come at a bad time. That is probably most true of center-forward and center-half, which is why they have moved for Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly. At 31, his age goes against some longer-term ideals. The Senegalese defender otherwise has a lot of required attributes, although, that means a compromise on age and even price – given he only has a year left on his contract – is rational.
A £40m-plus deal to bring back Manchester City’s Nathan Ake should accompany that signing, and the interest in both Sporting’s Matheus Nunes and Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong is genuine. The Dutch midfielder is still seen as more likely to go to United, with Robert Lewandowski expected to eventually complete that long-desired move to Barcelona.
That reflects Chelsea’s acceptance that the nature of this summer will see them inevitably miss out on some targets, but they are prepared for that, as well as the need to act.
The most relevant point of all is that the club is now acting in a very different way.
It is all part of a longer-term plan to be a very different type of club.