It emerged this week Chelsea’s new owners are investing in major upgrades to Stamford Bridge, with renovations to the West Stand in the works and plans to install new murals around the ground leaving supporters excited about what the future will look like now Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital are running the club.
It is an encouraging move from the new regime. Admittedly, there has been no update on increasing Stamford Bridge’s capacity of 41,600, which would help Chelsea close the revenue gap on rivals with much bigger grounds, but the thinking is long-term. The board has sought out Janet Marie Smith, whose work on improving some of the most famous venues in US sport includes the rebuild of Dodger Stadium, home to the Boehly-led consortium’s Major League Baseball side, the LA Dodgers, and the aim is to improve the match-day experience for fans.
That said, those supporters can be forgiven for feeling anxious when they leave Fulham Broadway tube station and head down Fulham Road on Sunday. This, you sense, is not a good time for Chelsea to be hosting a resurgent Tottenham. Weirdly, given Spurs were miles off the pace when they lost three times to Chelsea last January, it seems they have swapped roles: whereas Spurs feel calm and settled after moving away from their usual approach under Daniel Levy by sorting out their transfer business briskly, the season almost seems to have crept up on Chelsea, who are still hunting for signings with less than a month of the window left.
Much of Chelsea’s scramble for attacking and defensive reinforcements is down to the mistakes made on Roman Abramovich’s watch. Is everyone still in awe of Marina Granovskaia’s negotiating skills? Or are people going to look at the state of the defence and wonder how Granovskaia – often described as the most powerful woman in football while she was running Chelsea’s recruitment on Abramovich’s behalf – contrived to lose Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rüdiger on free transfers a year after selling Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guéhi and Kurt Zouma?
There are awkward questions to ponder. Was it really a good idea to spend £97.5m on Romelu Lukaku last summer? The Belgium striker went back to Internazionale on loan two months ago, seemingly inspiring Timo Werner to push for a reunion of his own. This past week the German, who moved to Stamford Bridge for £47.5m two years ago, returned to RB Leipzig in a deal worth £25m. Thomas Tuchel, who wants to sign the Barcelona striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, must look at Antonio Conte’s attacking options and despair. Spurs already had Harry Kane and Son Heung-min; now they have depth in the shape of Richarlison, Ivan Perisic and Dejan Kulusevski.
Chelsea are comparatively thin in the final third. A front three of Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount and Kai Havertz looks modern and fluid, but what of the players in reserve? Callum Hudson-Odoi and Hakim Ziyech want out. Christian Pulisic is unreliable. Armando Broja is untested at the highest level.
No wonder Tuchel has often struggled to hide his frustration. The German was irritable during Chelsea’s pre-season tour of America. He has become increasingly impatient with Chelsea’s struggle to land some of his targets, particularly when Barcelona jumped in to sign the Brazil winger Raphinha from Leeds.
In fairness, Boehly, who took on the role of interim sporting director after the departures of Granovskaia and Petr Cech, the club’s former technical and performance adviser, has been thrown in at the deep end. The American is learning on the job and the intention remains to bring in a new director of football, with Liverpool’s former recruitment chief Michael Edwards a key target.
Someone of Edwards’s calibre would help. Chelsea’s recruitment has been mixed. Signing Sterling for £50m from Manchester City was a big statement of intent and negotiations with Napoli over a £33.8m deal for the Senegal centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly moved swiftly, while Boehly was instrumental in buying Marc Cucurella from Brighton and the £20m deal that brought the 18-year-old midfielder Carney Chukwuemeka from Aston Villa.
Money is not a problem. Chelsea agreed a deal worth up to £62m for Cucurella, who will compete with Ben Chilwell at left wing-back and give Tuchel another option at left centre-back, and are not finished yet. Along with targeting Aubameyang, they want the Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong and the Leicester centre-back Wesley Fofana. The spending could reach £300m if those three arrive.
Nothing is imminent, though. De Jong is determined to stay at Barça and Chelsea are unsure about spending over £80m on Fofana. The 21-year-old is a huge talent but Liverpool bought Virgil van Dijk for £75m. Would making Fofana the world’s most expensive defender make sense when he has just returned from a broken leg? Or would it justify all the noise about selling clubs trying to capitalise on Boehly’s inexperience?
Quite possibly the latter – and yet Chelsea cannot rely on the 37-year-old Thiago Silva to keep performing wonders. They have missed out on City’s Nathan Aké and PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe, who was wanted by Tuchel. They also cooled their interest in Jules Koundé when Tuchel said he did not want the centre-back, who ended up joining Barça from Sevilla.
It is understood Chelsea have no intention of dumping unwanted players on their manager. Interference from above rarely ends well and Boehly listened when Tuchel said he was not interested in signing Cristiano Ronaldo. The aim is to build a squad in the manager’s image.
The problem, though, is Chelsea are playing catch-up because of the unprecedented speed of their takeover. They do not look equipped for a title challenge. A fight for a place in the top four seems likelier and while improvements are being made to the club’s infrastructure, the uncertainty on the pitch will grow if Spurs leave Stamford Bridge with three points.