A stark perspective from Ken Barkway on the state of Chelsea and the shape of things to come…
So, we are out of the Carabao Cup. Naturally this has led to an entirely expected outpouring of emotion and moaning about the current squad. Until yesterday the club were nominally at least not out of any competition this season. With a threadbare squad – just a cursory glance at the squad lists on the back of any match programme demonstrates this.
But let us look not just at our rankling new-found inferiority to Arsenal in isolation but at our position in the domestic and European pecking order.
From 2004 to 2008 we had built one of the finest squads in Europe, not by buying marquee players but by buying players that the manager fancied could do the job in the system he had in mind. So, Jose brought in Drogba, Essien and some trusted players from Porto. All of whom played their best football at Chelsea. This was augmented by experienced stars such as Ballack and Deco and the incumbent players like Terry and Lampard. And of course, we also had a sprinkling of the owner’s vanity purchases; Shevchenko and Torres. But we had depth, experience and leadership in abundance.
Since around this period the way the club is run has changed and a “continental” model with a director of football (or technical director in Chelsea’s case) adopted which drew partly on the Lyon valuation model and to some extent the model of production line clubs like Ajax. This was precipitated by a number of factors, the owner wasn’t going to play chequebook football forever, he did this in order to elevate the club to the level where it could attract sponsors, prize money and TV revenue and theoretically become self-sustaining. Compliance with FFP suited the club in this aim, effectively UEFA were pulling the rope ladder up to preserve the position of Europe’s top handful of clubs of which Chelsea were now most definitely a member.
And this was fine until oil rich Emirates came into the picture. A rogue oligarch with a long-term plan and ample, but finite, resources was one thing. But now suddenly there were two clubs effectively owned by nation states. Most will say that PSG and Manchester City are no different to Chelsea. However, there are significant differences in the nature of the ownership and investment. You’ll notice that both clubs are financially viable despite a decade of sustained spending at the very top of the market despite not filling stadia. The revenue growth coming from commercial revenues rather than the traditional match day/broadcasting stream. This is something only nations can do – FFP specifically forbade commercial backing from arm’s length companies. So, for instance Roman couldn’t just pump in a huge new sponsorship from Sibneft when he was the majority shareholder to balance the books. Whilst on the other hand a nation state can own a club and also engage in commercial activity with other ostensibly national concerns, such as the national airline. This has forced other clubs to react; Manchester United have pretty much sold every inch of their real estate to commercial backers – they have a global partner for everything. A short visit to their website will have your head spinning. Chelsea likewise made a Faustian pact with Nike and are also partnering up with all manner of companies wanting the TV exposure.
For those of you still reading after that soporific commercial diversion. This has changed everything. Manchester City have punched significantly below their commercial weight in football terms really until now. Just a cursory look at the table shows that Arsenal and Tottenham apart you could just arrange the league table by commercial strength without kicking a ball.
This new economic reality has shaped the Chelsea squad. The club have effectively created a player trading arm where young players with are bought with a view to reselling them at a profit should they not be required on the playing staff. This has resulted in some odd acquisitions and even odder sales. This trading players by committee seems to have neglected the key point of trading players, which is to improve the first team squad. We have seen an evolution over the past five or so years where very few of the inward transfers have been an upgrade on those players who have retired or otherwise moved on. This naturally has weakened the squad both in terms of the quality and depth. Coupled with the managers inability now to build a squad in his image brings us to where we are now. Conte is in this position because all since Jose Mark 1 have responsibility for a squad they have little authority over which is an unsustainable pressure when you are measured and inevitably fired for not hitting short term goals.
The corollary of trying to build a squad based on value for money when others around you largely aren’t results in what we currently have, a paper-thin squad of compromise or makeshift players. This is the future. Even the new stadium won’t generate the kind of income to compete head-on with oil money so it comes down to management not just the on-pitch coaching.
We currently have about three players who would get in most competitors’ teams; Hazard definitely, Kante and Courtois probably. This clearly needs to improve to compete at the top and across all competitions – and we’ve proven that we can scout and recruit players of Lukaku, Salah and De Bruyne calibre. We have also proven that we can produce the consistently best academy in Europe. In order to compete with the best both nationally and in Europe there needs to be a clear strategy and a longer-term view to continue to recruit and retain the best talent, and to augment it with the best academy talent. Although that is a much tougher task, how many academy graduates have come back to bite us in the backside? I’ll give you a clue. It’s less than one. The man that balances this act will earn the keys to the kingdom. I’d like it to be Conte as I believe he’s continuing to do a decent job given the resources and still has the players on his side.
What is for sure is that the halcyon days of Chelsea chequebook football as things stand are over. Get used to it and back the team. We won’t dominate in the way we have for the past decade or so. But we’ve won the league two out of the past three seasons punching above our weight, we are still one of the top handful of teams domestically, long may it continue.
By Ken Barkway. Follow Ken on twitter @KenBarkway