Under the shade of Koulibaly, Chelsea's new era will be no waltz but strengths remain

The dawn of the Todd Boehly regime was always going to be an adjustment but in the formidable shape of the Senegalese skipper and other arrival Raheem Sterling, a new identity will emerge 
Under the shade of Koulibaly, Chelsea's new era will be no waltz but strengths remain

Battle for London: Arsenal's Eddie Nketiah, left, heads the ball away from Chelsea's Kalidou Koulibaly during the second half of a Florida Cup friendly soccer match Saturday, July 23, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. Pic: AP Photo/John Raoux

If you wandered through one of those alternative realities that the likes of Mark Zuckerberg are keen to entice us into (weird headset still mandatory, for now, but we’re working on the brain implant) you may find yourself occupying a fantasy world where Chelsea are the third team in London behind Tottenham and Arsenal.

Since the takeover in 2003 by Roman Abramovich it has required a rare alignment of the stars for such an event. It happened in 2012, although much balm was applied by Chelsea’s Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich and their victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup Final. It occurred again in 2016, arguably Chelsea’s worst season in the Premier League marked by the pre-Christmas dismissal of José Mourinho with Guus Hiddink parachuted in for a second stint as caretaker manager. The team scored a miserable tally of 59 goals in the league. Even then, there was a delicious, and still celebrated, merry month of May moment for supporters at Stamford Bridge when the Blues recovered from a 2-0 half-time deficit to draw 2-2 with Tottenham Hotspur and wreck their hopes of winning the title.

Based on this pre-season, with the compulsory replacement of the sanctioned Abramovich by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital in a €5.1bn takeover, Chelsea have looked sluggish, and never more so than in a humiliating 4-0 defeat to Arsenal in Orlando in July. The full Roman cabinet has been despatched including fan hero Petr Cech and the steely chief executive and deal maker Marina Granovskaia. This, according to Gary Neville, a pundit with an opinion on everything in the world, is the reason the Londoners have been performing poorly in the transfer market while their rivals have acquired wisely.

And yet we should not underestimate the difficulties of overseeing the biggest acquisition in sporting history and the speed at which deals can be brought home. And, so far, the performance has been good when the madcap influence of Barcelona is factored out.

The biggest loss for Chelsea is Antonio Rudiger, and the impediments in resolving that deal can be laid, as can a number of other failures, at the door of the British government. But the boisterous Rudiger, one of the world’s top defenders, has been substituted by the impressive Kalidou Koulibaly, the Africa Cup of Nations winning captain, who will be wearing John Terry’s Number 26 on his shirt.

Andreas Christensen will not be much missed by Chelsea supporters who long regarded him as flaky, and the question is what further strengthening can take place before the transfer window closes on September 1. Previous interest in Nathan Ake has been replaced by the pursuit of the speedy and left-sided Brighton defender Marc Cucurella who possesses the positional versatility that Thomas Tuchel cherishes.

Tuchel jettisoned a year-long flirtation with signing French international Jules Koundé and the club has agreed a two-year contract extension with long-serving captain Cesar “Dave” Azpilicueta rather than permitting him to spend an Indian summer in Catalunya. This will help to provide cover and assistance and tactical variation for Reece James, one of the team’s most influential players. Chelsea are also interested in the highly priced Leicester and France centre-half Wesley Fofana who impressed against them in their Cup Final defeat to the Foxes two years ago. Manager Brendan Rogers says he is not for sale, but he said that about Ben Chilwell as well.

In midfield there are interesting possibilities. England international Conor Gallagher, Crystal Palace’s player of the year, has been recalled from loan and is poised to become the academy’s latest breakthrough talent following Mason Mount, James and Trevoh Chalobah. Chelsea are also in discussions with Barcelona over the Netherlands midfielder Frenkie de Jong while we may be witnessing swansong seasons for Jorginho and N’Golo Kante. USA captain, Christian Pulisic, also owes his club a consistently good season rather than sporadic contributions.

Clearlake have signalled an intention, also, to invest for the future with the capture of Aston Villa’s attacking central midfielder Carney Chukwuemeka, the England under-19 captain, for €24m.

But it is up front that the American consortium has sent the strongest signal that it will support Thomas Tuchel to build a new side after the volatility of the past 12 months. They have written down the value of Chelsea’s record signing, the ill-starred Romelu Lukaku, to allow him to return to Internazionale in Milan after two failed attempts to integrate the Belgian at Stamford Bridge. Lukaku represents another ignominious entry in a long roster of failed star strikers in SW6. While some point to the signing of Fernando Torres as a comparator, at least the Spaniard scored a goal at the Nou Camp to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League semi-final and an important goal in the Europa League final victory against Benfica.

While Raheem Sterling is a major upgrade and should help to bring more out of the mercurial Kai Havertz, Chelsea still appear to have business to complete if they are to compete for honours. The futures of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech, neither of whom have fulfilled their potential in the Premier League, are open to question. Aside from the proven Sterling, the young Albanian Armando Broja, who impressed on loan at Southampton last season, is the only current addition to the team’s spearhead. And he is coveted by at least four other Premier League managers. Small wonder, therefore, that there remain persistent links to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who worked with Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund and who could be a source of goals.

Everything points to a slow start for Chelsea whose first eight games include Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. But the break for the World Cup in November may be of assistance to them in establishing a meaningful structure and pattern. Tuchel will use the time wisely.

Last season Chelsea lost two of football’s major trophies through penalty shoot-outs and were one minute and a harshly disallowed Marcos Alonso goal away from a more decisive victory at the Bernabeu which would have wrecked Real Madrid’s fairytale. They will carry a threat this season once they settle down. North Londoners may have to wait longer to establish themselves as the capital’s top clubs.

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