Todd Boehly and his ownership group have not stopped spending since taking over Chelsea last May.
The Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner put together a group to purchase the London club for up to $5 billion after sanctions related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced Roman Abramovich to sell the team. After Boehly and his group became the owners, Chelsea spent over $300 million on players over the summer, the most of any team in the Premier League.
The moves were made to fortify Chelsea for a title challenge after finishing third in 2021-22 despite Abramovich’s financial situation. Yet Chelsea currently sits 10th out of 20 teams in the PL. And that underperformance led to another round of spending in January.
The January transfer window is typically slower than the summer transfer window. Yet Chelsea basically matched its summer spend in the first month of 2023 as it sealed a $130 million deadline-day deal for Argentine holding midfielder Enzo Fernandez on Tuesday.
The money Chelsea spent on the World Cup winner was the most any British team has ever spent on a single player and pushed the team’s total spend since Boehly’s group took over to over $600 million. Even accounting for players the team has sold, Chelsea has spent more than a half-billion dollars on transfers in the past eight months.
The moves are not without risk. Simply spending a ton of money on players is far from a foolproof strategy. And they’ve taken some creative accounting too. FIFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules were ostensibly implemented to prevent teams from spending like Chelsea has recently. But Chelsea creatively structured its new player contracts to get within the FFP parameters. And that too isn’t a move without significant risk.
Who Chelsea has signed and why
Chelsea has targeted a mix of established stars and up-and-coming players since May. It spent nearly $100 million on 21-year-old center back Wesley Fofana from Leicester City and approximately half that on star 31-year-old defender Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli. It also spent over $70 million on fullback Marc Cucurella from Brighton & Hove Albion and $60 million on English winger Raheem Sterling from Manchester City while adding 33-year-old Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Barcelona for approximately $13 million.
The moves were made to fortify a defense that relied far too much on 38-year-old Thiago Silva in 2021-22. But Fofana hasn’t played since he was injured in a Champions League game on Oct. 5 and Sterling has been sidelined since Jan. 5 with a knee injury after missing nearly the entire month of September.
They aren’t the only Chelsea stars who have suffered significant injuries either. Midfield stalwart N’Golo Kante has made just two PL appearances for the team and missed France’s run to the World Cup final. Fullbacks Ben Chilwell and Reece James have each played in fewer than 10 of Chelsea’s 21 league games and are both currently sidelined. Koulibaly has played in just 14 league games while midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek is also currently injured and Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic hasn’t played since Jan. 15.
American Christian Pulisic is also out with a knee injury. Pulisic was injured in early January after an extended run of playing time and may not be back until March or later.
The rash of injuries led Chelsea to make a concerted push to add younger talent to the roster in January. In addition to sealing a deal for the 22-year-old Fernandez from Benfica before the transfer window closed, the Blues signed 21-year-old Ukrainian winger Mykhaylo Mudryk for over $75 million, 21-year-old French defender Benoit Badiashile for over $40 million and sealed a summer deal for 19-year-old French fullback Malo Gusto for over $30 million. Chelsea also acquired 23-year-old Portuguese forward João Félix on loan from Atletico Madrid for the rest of the season.
How Chelsea made all the purchases
The sales of players like Jorginho to Arsenal this week or Timo Werner and Emerson over the summer don’t come close to countering the money the team has spent. That’s why Chelsea has turned to long contracts for the young players it’s signed to comply with the current financial regulations.
Both Mudryk and Fernandez were signed to 8½-year contracts that take them past the age of 30. While those contracts lock them both up through their prime playing years, they also allow Chelsea to amortize the transfer fees over the life of the deals. The yearly accounting impacts are lessened with an eight-year deal instead of a four-year deal. So while Chelsea’s overall spend across the two transfer windows is still at $600 million, it doesn’t have to account for all $600 million at once on its books to comply with FFP.
But those contracts look set to be outliers and not a new standard. After Mudryk signed with Chelsea, UEFA reportedly said it would implement a rule that would cap transfer amortization at five years and prevent teams from doing what Chelsea has done with Mudryk and Fernandez.
The contracts are risky too. If, for whatever reason, Mudryk and Fernandez don’t work out at Chelsea, the team won’t be easily able to move on from them anytime in the near future because of the length of the deals.
The team’s upcoming dilemma
Chelsea’s transfer frenzy presents a dilemma for coach Graham Potter. The former Brighton & Hove Albion coach took over for the fired Thomas Tuchel in September and admitted in a Thursday news conference that all of the new players on the team will lead to some “awkward conversations” over the rest of the year as he tries to figure out his team sheets.
“It’s exciting and a test for me and the staff,” Potter said. “We have a lot of good players, we need healthy competition but there will be frustration at times, that’s how it is.
“There will be a few awkward questions and conversations because only 11 can play and you can only have a certain amount in your matchday squad. It’s about being honest and open and transparent and respecting the fact people want to play.”
Potter also doesn’t have much time to figure out his best 11, especially for Champions League matches. Getting into the top four at the end of the season to qualify for the 2023-24 Champions League is improbable if not impossible given where Chelsea sits in the standings. Winning this year’s Champions League is Chelsea’s best route to qualify. And the team’s first round of 16 match against Borussia Dortmund is in less than two weeks.
Chelsea will also assuredly need to move on from some players at the end of the season. Kante is out of contract over the summer, and the team came close to moving Hakim Ziyech to PSG before the deal fell through this week. Silva’s contract is also set to expire this summer, though he said he’s in talks with the club over a new deal.
One of the odd players out could be Pulisic. He was rumored as a potential January transfer or loan target for a team like Manchester United, but his knee injury quieted those rumors. His contract is up in 2024 along with Mason Mount, Kovacic, Aubameyang and Callum Hudson-Odoi. It’ll be very surprising if all five of those players are back at Chelsea next season.
There’s also the prospect of new financial regulations ahead of next season. The current FFP is being replaced with a system that caps team’s annual expenditures at a percentage of their annual revenues. The current system is based over a three-year period.
And Chelsea may have some work to do to comply with the new rules. The team famously operated at a loss under Abramovich and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on players in every transfer window isn’t a strategy to make money. But Boehly and his investors clearly think the team needed an immediate infusion of talent. And only time will tell if that talent infusion pays off, both on the field and on the balance sheet.