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Too much soup/broth spoils the cooks — Chelsea’s unfocused season in focus

About a year ago I bought a new house, it seemed like a good deal at the time. The previous owner had to sell up and get out (some new trade rules impacted his business and forced him to put it on the market according to the agent). The house itself was great; it needed bit of a tidy-up here and there, but with a bit of elbow grease, some TLC and a bit of money spent in the right places I knew I could get it back to its former glory. 

When I first moved in, I noticed there was a problem with a leaky roof, nothing major – so I had the leak fixed and re-tiled it. Then, in case that leaked again, I bought another spare roof, and then another one – so I now have a garden that contains two spare rooves – one stacked on top of another. The front door also needed painting, so I went to Home Depot, bought seven front doors and stacked them up against the wall next to it.

Inside I couldn’t decide whether to rip up the laminate floor in the spare bedroom and put down grey carpet or hardwood – so I did both… and then I tiled on top of that.

In the summer I sank even more money in – I had a few extra chimneys installed for no reason and had a real-grass lawn put in the kitchen.

Then, one night, I looked on Zillow and Rightmove and the house was now, remarkably, worth less than what I’d spent on it… AND now it was horrible to live in (apart from the grass in the kitchen, that was pretty cool)…AND, to make matters worse, after all that, I ended up in languishing in mid-table mediocrity, on the fringe of Premier League’s relegation battle, knocked out of Champions league with no European tournaments to play in next season…

OK, OK, I am not a regional Sales Director called Chad, this isn’t LinkedIn, and I’m not skilled enough to dismount one of these fictional analogies properly with a ‘moral statement’ or a Steve Jobs quote for us all to take into our daily lives... something like “Be happy with what you have, but always strive for something better…” – Steve Jobs (not Steve Jobs). 

So I’ll come clean - I am, of course, trying to talk about Chelsea, their overbuying of players, their bloated squad, the strain it’s put on the team, the manager(s) and whole structure, resulting a subpar season that seen them ‘flapping around’ for most of it.

So, what’s happened at Chelsea? (Ironically this would make a good business case-study in one Sales Director Chad’s coveted ‘management textbooks’ called something like “The Growth PivotTM”). 

The last 12 months at Chelsea have been ‘eventful’ to say the least. Without dredging up everything that’s happened, last year their owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich was forced to sell the club ostensibly due to his links with Vladimir Putin – this after ploughing in billions and bringing great success to the club for nearly 20 years. 

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The ‘For Sale’ sign was driven into the front lawn (continuing that weak ‘house selling’ analogy from the beginning of this article), and, in the ensuing episode of ‘Blind Date’, contestant number 3 was chosen and approved by the British Government (no less). Step forward the US consortium of LA Dodgers co-owner, Todd Boehly and private equity firm Clearlake Capital. They put their hands in their pockets and, on 30th May 2022, $5.25bn (4.25bn GBP) later, Chelsea was theirs. Abramovich also threw in a set of mudflaps, floor mats and a full tank of gas as a gesture of goodwill (he didn’t).

Now, after that kind of outlay, and the fact that in the season spanning June 2021-July 2022, Chelsea won 2 out of 6 possible trophies – the Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup, made the finals of the FA Cup and EFL Cup (losing on penalties to Liverpool in both) – made the quarter finals of the Champions League and finished 3rd in the Premier League –  (all with the uncertainty of the club’s sale churning up the waters around them), it could be argued, that, short of replacing the outgoing players and a few usual marquee signings we see from big clubs at the top of the table e.g. Haaland, Jesus etc.  the last thing they needed to do was go out and buy a second team bus, and then attempt to fill it with as many extra players as they could… but that’s exactly what they did.

In scenes reminiscent of the TV show ‘Hoarders’, Chelsea stockpiled and stockpiled… not the bundles of old newspapers, jars of urine and cats one sometimes sees on ‘Hoarders’, but player after player after player - $305m outlay, $250m net of players in the Summer window – and that was just the start.

So why? As a statement of intent? - “I paid $7,000 for a lighter today, we are not the same”, “If you have to ask the price you can’t afford it”, “I just bought a large bag of salad in a UK Supermarket”; the proverbial shlong-swinging fanfare designed to unnerve the opposition? Maybe.  Other reasons? Well, we haven’t mentioned the manager(s) yet, but it could have been a show of solidarity for Thomas Tuchel – less so the proverbial war ‘chest’, more the war ‘vault of riches Scrooge McDuck used to swim around in’.  Think your Granny folding up a dollar bill and secretly putting it in your hand when your parents aren’t looking to “buy yourself something nice” – and when you open your hand it’s actually a check for $800m… possibly?

It also smacks of naivety; even teams who have stood accused of ‘buying their way to success’ typically do so with a little bit of ‘strategy’, with the occasional misstep along the way. (Maybe that’s what the ‘The Growth PivotTM’ in that management textbook is?)

But who have they been buying?

The comedian and fellow West Midlander Stewart Lee once said…

“A Brummie [someone from Birmingham, UK] will tell you Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice.

To which a Venetian will counter,

"Yes, but it's quality, not quantity."”

But in this case Chelsea’s signings aren’t cheap filler or chaff, they are quality prime cuts.  In the summer window that $305m bought them nine players; Wesley Fofana for $85m, Marc Cucurella for $70m, Raheem Sterling for $57m, a veritable smorgasbord of shiny things. 

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And what of the manager? Well, you can have your own opinions on Thomas Tuchel, but trying to train and pick a team from a squad nearly as big as the crowd watching it every weekend is unenviable. Usually, it’s the manager’s job to beg the chairman for more players, then blame the team’s lack of wins on a lack of player options, player quality or squad depth — but having too many players is equally difficult. Not only in the admin required to train and oversee them all adequately, but also in the opportunities and game time you can offer – there’s the league, the cups, Europe, maybe some under 21s… and squad-size caps mean you’re not just leaving quality players not only on the bench, but not even in the squad itself. 

So, as things started to unravel for Chelsea, Boehly turned ‘Queen of Hearts’ and it was off with Tuchel’s head (metaphorically – with a large payoff in the bargain). Step forward Graham Potter, who had shown that he did have a knack of pulling players together from his time at Östersund, Swansea and Brighton (through initiatives such as getting the Östersund players to put on a rendition of ‘Swan Lake’ for staff and locals to boost team comradery). Potter’s management handbook “Motivate =Achieve=SucceedTM” will be in all good bookshops, and some bad ones, in Fall. (It won’t).

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A large ($26m) payment later, to get Potter and his backroom staff released by Brighton (who were two places above Chelsea in 4th at the time), should have moved things forward for Chelsea, but Potter too now had this large squad to deal with and was already on a sticky wicket in the eyes of many given his lack of Champions League experience, lack of experience managing the egos at the top end of the Premier League and lack of ability to shout and berate players from the touchline like an angry drill sergeant when they weren’t playing well. 

Now, let’s be honest here, the large squad is the outwardly visible aspect of all this – the dollars spent, the bench creaking under the weight of unused player’s bottoms - fundamentally it’s a symptom of the lack of clarity and lack of focus within the hierarchy of the club… or, just maybe, it’s 4D thinking? It’s a masterstroke? We can look at that shortly…

Potter lasted 6 months and 31 games. As if the squad he inherited from Tuchel wasn’t big enough, in the January transfer window Chelsea spent another $350m on eight more players, chasing their money with $130m for Enzo Fernandez, $77m for Mykhaylo Mudryk, I could continue.

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At this point Potter was presumably keeping the players not in the first team or squad busy by washing staff cars, folding laundry, maybe with enough players left over to put on a full stage-performance of Ben Hur, complete with two players per pantomime horse costume as a team building exercise. 

To put that $350m winter spend in perspective, that was more than any team in the Premier League, in fact, more than all the teams in Europe’s top five leagues put together!

Graham Potter, or ‘Harry’ or ‘Hogwarts’ as some of his playing staff had allegedly dubbed him, was let go in April, leaving Chelsea mid-table, and annoyingly (for him) still underneath his ex, so to speak, as Brighton, had ‘kicked on’ under their new suitor, De Zerbi and were battling in the European Places. 

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As we know, getting rid of managers itself can be expensive, and getting rid of a couple even more so. So, what is the reward for all this turmoil, change and expense?... A battle for 11th place with Crystal Palace, Brentford and Wolves. It doesn’t feel like much of a return on investment.

So, what of the knight in shining armor riding into town atop a pantomime horse (made from two spare center backs) to rescue the Stamford Bridge Damsel in distress? Well, that will have to wait because they re-appointed ex-manager Frank Lampard as the caretaker manager. Lampard was supposed to be a Band-Aid; the club legend (who they had fired just 801 days earlier) stepping back to ‘steady the ship’ after an unimpressive stint at Everton. In terms of long-term fix, he’s neither long-term (which he admits) or a fix (which has become patently apparent); six games played, six losses and two goals scored (at the time of writing). The fact that Chelsea are still in mathematical touching distance of relegation underlines this point with a brush so wide, and paint so indelible, that it is unwieldy, messy but perfect for making emphatic statements like this. Not even an awkward locker room Delia Smith ‘Let’s Be having you’ speech from Boehly and fellow board members seems to have worked on the players.

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So, what is next? Well, it looks like Leeds are going to roll the Sam Allardyce, and Everton rolled the Dyche themselves earlier in the season, so those ripcord options are off the table – so, Chelsea are probably stuck with Lampard for now.  A lot will depend on who Chelsea appoint at the end of the season. The smart money is on ex-Spurs and ex-PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino coming like a tech support engineer – turning Chelsea off, waiting 30 seconds, then rebooting them. Now, Pochettino is a good manager, he didn’t win anything at Spurs (unless you count a League Cup and Champions League runners-up medals as trophies (they aren’t)). But, in honesty, you could probably put Pep Guardiola or Sir Alex Ferguson in charge at Spurs and they’d not win anything either - as Antonio Conte can attest to. At PSG he did have six seasons of Champions League, and won the Ligue 1 title, the Coupe de France and the French Supercup. 

So, will Poch or [insert name here] be the interventionist that sits Chelsea down, gains their trust, then starts bagging up the players that aren’t needed to clear the hoard? Some for eBay, some for the thrift store, some for the big dumpster in the Stamford Bridge parking lot?... eventually revealing a beautifully ordered and successful super soccer machine? Time will tell, but for Chelsea’s sake hopefully the answer is ‘yes’. They’ll certainly need a yard sale or two just to comply with the Financial Fair Play regulations.

Hopefully for Chelsea their Human Resources will be as busy as the coaching staff, trying to keep up with fewer comings and more goings as the new manager cuts the Chelsea cloth accordingly. 

And now comes the 4D thinking - Maybe the right new manager will find that this huge, bloated squad holds all the answers; the owners have provided them with an Aladdin’s cave of quality that has all the right pieces to put together an ultimate team. This could actually be the case. One thing is for sure though, they probably thought they would be in the European places now when they made the outlay, not battling it out to be bottom of the top half… (of the league table, not a pantomime horse). 

Maybe the manager can use that spare roof, a couple of chimneys and one of the spare front doors and build an attractive extension to the house, boosting the curb appeal, the square footage and ambient light *the house metaphor snaps under strain*. 

They just need to look deep within, do what Tuchel, Potter and Lampard have been unable to do. Nurture the talent that is there, instill confidence and provide the leadership and guidance off that has been missing so much both on the field.  If the new manager can do that, not only will he bring success back to Chelsea, but it will also make a cracking LinkedIn parable; a perfect business-book case-study for us all highlighting the importance of patience, focus, learning from mistakes, the funnel, “The Growth PivotTM’, going after the low hanging fruit and building the plane while you’re flying it. 

Only time will tell. 

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