In the second instalment of a three part series Joe Tweedie takes a look at how Chelsea’s squad has transformed since our European Cup win in 2012 and the impact of Chelsea’s dogmatic adherence to Financial Fair Play. Have Chelsea bought and sold well? How do we compare to the rest of the Premier League?
This is not going to be a piece that delves into the political spectrum that exists behind Chelsea’s iron curtain. I am looking to remove emotion from the equation. The question is not who is to blame but how have we got here and why. The who does not matter; people are getting caught up in a futile blame game where nobody knows the answer. The how and the why are the questions we need to look at.
Before delving into the data I had some initial thoughts concerning how we have spent money since our European Cup win. In building a competitive starting XI Chelsea neglected the wider squad. As tiredness set in during the 2014/15 season Chelsea could not rotate due to having inadequate replacements. This in part explains the exhaustion seen in players. It is not something a holiday can easily resolve.
Our sell-to-buy strategy, fuelled by a militant compliance to Financial Fair Play, essentially sets us up for diminished returns. Are there ulterior motives at play? Why have we been mollycoddling agents? Are we trying to improve or trying to make money?
If we start at the beginning with figures sourced from www.transferleague.co.uk and validated through other sources if unknown i.e. transfermarkt:
- Since 2012 Chelsea have spent £390,374,000 on players
- Since 2012 Chelsea have recouped £246,950,000 on player sales
- Our net spend is £143,424,000
- This puts Chelsea third in our evaluation period behind both Manchester clubs
Two things immediately standout from Chelsea’s spending. Our deference to Financial Fair Play can really be seen from 2014/2016: we are 16th out of all Premier League teams during this period. Despite spending £190.3m over these two seasons, the net impact is minimal. Generally this means we are selling quality (or perceived quality) to bring in players. Flipping players who maybe do not fit our immediate needs for those who do.
|Rank||Team||Net Spend 2014-2016|
|1||Man. City||£ 161,450,000|
|2||Man United||£ 132,350,000|
|7||West Ham||£ 54,450,000|
|8||Leicester City||£ 49,100,000|
|9||West Brom||£ 45,350,000|
|11||Crystal Palace||£ 40,185,000|
|14||Hull City||£ 25,550,000|
|15||Stoke City||£ 21,450,000|
|18||Aston Villa||£ 16,200,000|
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Newcastle, who face the prospect of relegation despite spending a fortune. Southampton are a well-run football club with a clear philosophy of supplementing their 1st Team squad with Academy graduates. They spend money wisely and are able to develop talent. Tottenham seem set for an extended run of success as their young squad continues to improve. With additional revenue from a new stadium and a manager who can cultivate talent, the future sadly looks bright in North London.
While our philosophy of self-sufficiency worked in the 2014/15 season, it requires an almost impossible success rate to maintain quality within the team. If you sell someone for £40m and the players you buy for £45m do not work out, particularly in the long-term, you have sold quality and introduced mediocrity. This simple idea is the basic premise of what has occurred since 2012.
Breaking down the squad makeup from 2012/13 until today looks like the below:
|Status||Number||Sum of Fee|
Of the 26 players sold Luiz, Mata, Lukaku, Ramires, Schürrle, De Bruyne, Sturridge, Luís, Čech and Bertrand would add starting quality and title winning depth. Hindsight certainly helps in our evaluation – but I am just making an objective point. In a team that lacks goals and creativity how many of those sold would be useful?We have had 97 player transactions since the 2012/13 season. This high volume of turnover has led to 16 players being established as part of the 1st Team Squad. Of the 97 transactions we currently have £80.9m worth of talent on loan, have released 41 players (this seems large, but includes a lot of Academy prospects) and sold 26 players.
We have spent £57.1m on “prospect” players. These are deemed as high potential players with resale value or developmental upside. Depending on your perception of van Ginkel there is arguably only 3 of the 16 players you can consider a success – Zouma, Traoré and Kenedy. Even then only Zouma has really established himself. So our average spend on a “hit” is £19m. Are we trying to unearth a gem? Or pump and dump?
Over the past four seasons the relationship between adding quality to your squad and league position is relatively clear, although two outliers exist in Manchester United and Tottenham. United have spent a tonne of money poorly and Tottenham amazingly have transformed themselves while posting a net profit for four seasons.
Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, the authors of “Soccernomics”, argue that a strong correlation between the amount clubs spend on wages and their final league position exists. Perhaps this argument now extends to net spend and the overall quality of a squad. Rarely can you spend little and hope to drastically improve as a club without a significant commitment to player development. You can only return to the well so many times before it runs dry.
Buying players at a discount is going to become a fundamental aspect of Chelsea’s strategy for the foreseeable future. It explains why so many prospect players are bought each season. Identifying talent one move before they become established is the game. Think about Aubameyang and Kanté moving to Borussia Dortmund and Leicester for less than £10m each. Or in Chelsea’s case buying Courtois, De Bruyne and Lukaku for less than £30m combined.
If Chelsea are committed to becoming self-sufficient and with no real desire to integrate Academy prospects I am unsure how Conte drastically alters the fortunes of this squad. Do we simply admit that the landscape at the club has changed and we did not have the infrastructure in place to pursue this new model of sustainability? Or is there a workable plan to re-establish Chelsea under the auspices of financial fair play?
Trying to put a value on our transfer dealings is difficult as there is no objective measure of how good a signing or departure is. The perception changes from the point of sale to where that player ends up. De Bruyne is arguably the departure who causes the most debate. So we are going to try and break down each position in detail and see how it has developed over the years.
The most basic metric I am going to look at is the concept of a “useable player”: that is to say someone you would entrust to play against 90% of your opponents. If you cannot trust someone in their preferred position they are not useable; often this is reflected in the number of minutes someone plays.
This definition of usability sits uncomfortably alongside youth development. We are not a club who affords a manager the time to play a young player through growing pains and in spite of results. The minutes played this season would suggest Chelsea’s youngsters are simply not useable. Regardless of perceived ability the pressure to win and win now makes it difficult for any manager to justify playing a youngster ahead of an international on a weekly basis. Despite flashes Kenedy, Loftus-Cheek and Traoré have barely featured (particularly when it mattered).
2012/13: Hilario; Turnbull and Čech
2013/14: Hilario; Schwarzer and Čech
2014/15: Blackman; Čech and Courtois
2015/16: Amelia; Begović and Courtois
Net Profit £2m
A complete transformation of our goalkeeping corps, which now sees Courtois established firmly as Chelsea’s number one. The Belgian is exceptionally talented, but inconsistent – his form has been a low point of the season. Undoubtedly those in front of him have not helped, but Courtois should feel disappointed with his level of play this season. Begović is a superior number two to anything we have had over the past few seasons and if our back four was better, is a serviceable number one.
Courtois’ form and apparent desire to move away makes this a difficult one to call. He has the tools to be world class, but has regressed markedly. Begović certainly strengthens the group as a number two. The sale of Čech to Arsenal rankles and I do not buy into the sentimental argument that we needed to comply with his desires to remain in London. Go to Dulwich Hamlets if that is the case. A slight overall improvement.
2012/13: Terry; Bertrand; Cole; Ivanović; Azpilicueta; Luiz; Cahill; Aké, Ferreira & Wallace
2013/14: Cole; Ivanović; Azpilicueta; Luiz; Cahill; Terry; Aké and Kalas
2014/15: Christensen; Ivanović; Azpilicueta; Luis; Cahill; Terry; Zouma and Aké
2015/16: Rahman; Ivanović; Azpilicueta; Cahill; Clarke-Salter; Terry; Zouma and Miazga
Net Spend £6.4m
|CB / DM||2||2||1||1|
|CB / RB||1||2||1||1|
|RB / LB||1||1||1||1|
Bertrand was not (and is not) the second coming of Ashley Cole. However, as subsequent purchases highlight his departure seems both ill-timed and unfortunate. Azpilicueta, Luís and Rahman have all been purchased and played as a left-back at Chelsea. When you factor in the sale of Bertrand that is £19.3m spent on arriving to a situation where Rahman is our only natural left-back. As a rough comparison Transfermarkt estimate Ricardo Rodríguez’s market value at £21m – Luís and Rahman cost £33.4m combined.Cole was certainly the other side of his development curve when he eventually left the club in 2014. An astounding defender who could lock down an entire flank with virtually no assistance, he remains Chelsea’s greatest ever full-back. In the wings was Bertrand, a youngster who had fulfilled the requirements of generally impressing on loan before returning to Chelsea to feature. Any subsequent move from Cole was always going to see a dip in quality, but the extent has been drastic.
Azpilicueta has been a decent signing and offers a benchmark for the quality required at each full-back spot. Does he have the technical ability of a modern day full-back that allows him to participate in all phases of play? Defensively from the left hand side he remains solid but his transition back to the right is proving troublesome. Ivanović, Chelsea’s de facto right back, is very much in the same boat albeit physically declining.
Luís remains the player who got away in this equation. Excelling, again, with Atlético Madrid he could not get on the field at Chelsea. Perhaps an extended run in the side would have aided his acclimation to the league. Going from Luís, who is in conversations for Europe’s best left-back, to the raw Rahman is difficult to comprehend.
My overall feeling is that with Rahman, Ivanović and Azpilicueta the quality in the full-back area has dropped from 2012/13: both from an individual standpoint but also with how the game and the full-back role has evolved. Ivanović is older and less mobile, Azpilicueta is extremely solid but unspectacular and Rahman would struggle to make Chelsea’s FA Youth Cup team.
A clear hole within the squad entering the 2015/16 season was at centre back. The pursuit of John Stones suggested the club saw it as an area that required investment. It then makes no sense why the club spent £12.9m on three completely ineffectual players. We identify a gap for a starting calibre centre half and then buy players who are unlikely to ever have made it through to our U21s in terms of ability.
Luiz, Terry, Cahill and Ivanović were a decent quartet of centre backs. While I appreciate that the Luiz money was used to help fund moves for Costa and Fàbregas, it left a gap at the back which we have failed to fill through a variety of signings. Also, our big match midfield looks incredibly weak without him patrolling ahead of the back four. Chelsea have required a world class talent to succeed Terry for many years. Where is he?
Zouma (£12.5m) is a deal that I liked both in terms of value and upside; while there is still some rawness to his game, he was making a lot of improvements. From Luiz to Miazga, Djilobodji and Hector is a ludicrous downgrade. Whatever your opinion on Luiz, no one would realistically argue three unusable players added to an ageing Terry, Ivanović and Cahill is a positive. If none of these were bought with the first team in mind, are our expectations aligned with the club? We want the best possible squad and the club appear to just want as many bodies as possible.
With Zouma’s injury our starting back four next season is Azpilicueta – Ivanović – Cahill – Rahman. Where is the depth? Perhaps even worse, where is the quality? Frankly, we should be in a position where Terry’s departure is slightly more palatable because a world class replacement has arrived and is playing every week. Instead we have two youngsters who are so far away from playing that the manager would rather John Obeckenbauer Mikel deputise.
2012/13: Romeu; Ramires; Lampard; Mata; Oscar; Obi Mikel; Moses; Malouda; Hazard; Marin and Benayoun
2013/14: Ramires; Lampard; Oscar; Obi Mikel; Schürrle; Salah; van Ginkel; De Bruyne; Hazard; Matić and Willian
2014/15: Schürrle; Fàbregas; Ramires; Oscar; Hazard; Obi Mikel; Matić; Willian; Cuadrado; Loftus-Cheek and Brown
2015/16: Ramires; Fàbregas; Oscar; Hazard; Obi Mikel; Traoré; Kenedy; Pedro; Matić; Willian and Loftus-Cheek
Net Spend £131.3m
|RW / LW||2||1||1|
|RW / LW / CF||1||1||1|
|AM / LW / RW||4||4||3||4|
|RW / LW||1|
Since the dawn of the Villas-Boas era at Chelsea the 4-2-3-1 has been a tactical mainstay. As such you would expect to see four players capable of operating in the pivot and six options rotating in the attacking band of three. This balance is something that has been roughly maintained throughout the four year period.
The first real noticeable point about usable quality is that while the number of midfielders remains largely the same, the actual depth and starting quality does not. We can debate the merits of Marin and Benayoun in the 2012/13 squad, but they were at least experienced hands who were trusted to play. Traoré, Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek add bodies but have not been trusted squad members (just look at their minutes played compared to others).
With the sale of Ramires this essentially left Chelsea with three midfield options –Fàbregas, Matić and Obi Mikel: ahead of them Hazard, Pedro, Oscar and Willian. That is seven useable players for five positions. Whether you think Loftus-Cheek (651 minutes), Traoré (386 minutes) or Kenedy (844 minutes) should have played more is moot. Hazard (2,899 minutes) and Pedro (2,637 minutes) have both been poor for varying reasons – but have played roughly seven times as much as Traoré. Most of Loftus-Cheek’s minutes have come since our season has been over and even then he has played out of position, not trusted to play deeper.
Attempting to be objective about the situation we can dismiss the inclusion of youngsters as a token gesture. If someone is not trusted to play in their actual role against Premier League opposition you question the validity of their place in the squad as anything beyond a mere body. Unheralded Andy King, Leicester City’s 12th man and rotational player has registered 1,421 minutes this season largely as a substitute. More than any “core” youngster.
Chelsea have an almost otherworldly ability to spot good players incapable of playing Premier League football. I would look at Salah, Cuadrado and Pedro as acquisitions that never factored the physical element of the Premier League into their predicted success. That is almost £60m of talent who would lose a 50/50 with a Teacup Pomeranian or cannot control a ball amidst the tempo of a Premier League game.
There is next to no athleticism in this entire group (why we sold Ramires without a replacement makes even less sense now than it did at the time) and a shocking lack of goals. Our most technical midfielder is anonymous against anyone decent. Our two holding midfielders would do well to catch a tortoise in a race. This is probably the weakest our midfield has been in the Roman era. Beyond Hazard there is little in terms of quality and after the season the Belgian has endured I am being generous.
Departures of Schürrle (he was better than Salah and Cuadrado) and in particular De Bruyne seem costly given our lack of goals, creativity and pace. You also wonder whether the amounts spent on Willian and Oscar merit the production. I do like both players for different reasons, but in an area that is defined by decisive moments (goals/assists) they come up short. Even in Lampard’s last season he still contributed a goal or assist at a better rate than Fàbregas has this season 217 minutes to 269 minutes.
So we move to the why. Given the club’s absolute obsession with winning and winning now (note, I am not suggesting this is a bad thing), why are we ending the season with seven usable midfielders? Why did we not look to add goals and creativity? Why could we not see the signs that this group of players had slowed down over 2015? Why did we try to kid ourselves that we have created an environment that would have allowed the trial and error development cycle that Kenedy, Traoré and Loftus-Cheek surely needed?
Is it the manager’s fault for not trusting youngsters in their correct position? Or do you point a finger at the board for implementing a culture that openly gives a manager a short leash when it comes to results? That short leash almost certainly impacts any real ability to develop talent. Every fixture is a must-win and more often than not you will select either your best team or most experience stand-in.
2012/13: Torres and Ba
2013/14: Eto’o; Torres and Ba
2014/15: Costa; Rémy and Drogba
2016/16: Costa; Rémy; Falcao and Pato
Net Spend £5.3m
Did we really play a season with Torres and Ba as our main striking options? It is fairly crazy that Chelsea could be in a position that meant Costa, Lukaku and Sturridge were our strikers. Admittedly that was quite unlikely. However, after the sales of Lukaku and Sturridge Chelsea’s pursuit of a striker led them to Diego Costa. Four season’s on we finish this season with the baffling loans of Falcao and Pato, as well as the highly disappointing Rémy.
We have four strikers with only one capable of scoring goals. Just reread that sentence once more then factor in the sales of Sturridge and Lukaku. I am not debating what happened or the reasons for them being sold: simply looking at things as we stand entering the end of the season. Lukaku is a goal scorer we bought for a mere pittance. Sturridge is a goal scorer who we bought for next to nothing. We sold them and after many iterations have ended up loaning a player who peaked at Atlético Madrid and a forward who never lived up to his billing. We even needed Didier Drogba to return and do a job for a season. We have not bought well.
Ba was useful. Rémy was useful. But our situation is not exactly Drogba plus one of Crespo or Anelka. We entered a season where only Costa and Hazard were likely to score goals. Given they both are about as professional as a rep in Malia (oi oi), when they returned to pre-season looking like sumo wrestlers we were in trouble. Fàbregas, Matić, Obi Mikel, Pedro, Willian, Oscar and Rémy have scored 21 league goals between them this season. We cannot have 8 players ahead of the back four averaging less than 3 goals a season. Hazard and Costa had 34 between them last season and even this year have 15.
Merely as an illustration Vardy has a goal or assist every 98 minutes, Kane every 131 minutes and Costa every 125 minutes (he was every 117 minutes last season). Kane and Vardy are rightly lauded for their performances this season, while Costa appears to have had an off year. A badly out of shape Costa playing in a very mediocre Chelsea side still delivered despite popular perceptions. He needs a supporting cast and to come back next season not resembling a player five years after retirement.
Costa is a significant upgrade on probably every striker we have had since Drogba in his pomp. Yet, the depth around him is non-existent. Anelka was good for double digits in the league. Falcao, Pato and Rémy have scored three league goals between them. Are we better off? By virtue of having Costa, yes we are; still we are a versatile forward away from having anything approaching a decent unit.
Coming towards the end of a dour season is always going to impact how you perceive things. Seeing Chelsea’s inability to adequately prepare for the departure of Terry or add goals to the side is baffling. Over a four year period Chelsea could have bought a world class centre half, persisted with the likes of De Bruyne/Lukaku and recruited better. I think this is undeniable at this point.
How many categorical successes have there been? Of the £390.3m spent I would say Costa, Hazard, Zouma and Azpilicueta have been successful. Matić and Fàbregas have had patches of good form – but would you start the pair of them against Atlético Madrid? In Matić’s case I would argue he has not played up to his level for nearly 18 months. Willian is a good player, someone who I like, but certainly has not added the goals or assists you might expect from a £30m player. We seem to have a squad full of squad players without definitive European top table quality.
We are ending the season with two usable goalkeepers (Courtois & Begović), four usable defenders (Cahill, Ivanović, Rahman & Azpilicueta – given Terry’s departure and Zouma’s injury), seven midfielders who are trusted to play in the Premier League (Matić, Mikel, Fàbregas, Willian, Oscar, Pedro & Hazard) and one forward (Costa): fourteen players in total. It hardly screams European powerhouse – it barely murmurs domestically.
The systematic reduction of quality coupled with our sell-to-buy policy has crippled this team. With each passing week it looks like a miracle that Mourinho actually won a league title with this group. We have been figured out, we are tired and we lack any true quality or depth. We have a bunch of promising but untested youngsters padding out a squad that they are untrusted to contribute towards. If the goal of the club is to improve every season, we have failed. The short term benefit of selling quality for immediate pieces has worn off quicker than anyone anticipated. Where we go from here who knows? My only hope is that whatever game we have been playing the past few years starts to make some sense. At the moment it does not look pretty.