LONDON — Football fans can be brutal when they want to be. As Chelsea headed towards a 0-0 draw against local rivals Fulham on a night when £106.8 million signing Enzo Fernandez made his debut as the Premier League’s costliest-ever transfer and £88m player Mykhailo Mudryk lasted just 45 minutes of his first home game, the Fulham supporters began to sing ‘What a waste of money!’ from the visitors’ section at Stamford Bridge.
The problem with Chelsea nowadays is that the chant could have been directed at any number of manager Graham Potter’s players, such has been the incredible recruitment drive at the club in recent months. Fernandez, who was impressive in his defensive midfield role three days after completing his record-breaking move from Benfica, took Chelsea’s transfer spending since the end of last season beyond the £600m barrier when he sealed his move to the London team.
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Manchester United are a distant second in this season’s Premier League spending table, having invested £227m in new players. Chelsea’s January spending alone amounted to £323m — more than the combined outlay by clubs in Serie A, LaLiga, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 during the winter transfer window. But what have Chelsea ended up with at the end of their supermarket sweep of Europe’s most talented players?
Fernandez, a World Cup winner with Argentina in Qatar, looked a class act and a sound investment during his first game. There was no hint of the 22-year-old being weighed down by the distinction of succeeding Manchester City’s £100m winger Jack Grealish as the Premier League’s most expensive player. But having joined Benfica from River Plate for just £10.7m last summer — this was just Fernandez’s 30th senior game in European football — it is a valid question to ask whether Chelsea have taken an almighty gamble on their new signing, as well as others.
Mudryk, who gave an exciting cameo during a substitute on his debut at Liverpool last month, was less impressive against Fulham and replaced at half-time due to a heavy cold. Chelsea outbid Arsenal to sign the Ukraine international from Shakhtar Donetsk and again, they appear to have blown their rivals out of the water without considering the inflated price-tag.
Benoit Badiashile (£33.7m) and David Datro Fofana (£10m) also appeared against Fulham. Badiashile looked assured at the back and an imposing presence alongside Thiago Silva, while Fofana was unlucky not to win the game when his goal-bound shot was cleared by Fulham defender Tim Ream on 79 minutes.
But the inconvenient reality for Chelsea and Potter is that a starting team which cost a sum total of £470m failed to win yet again. After 21 games, Chelsea are ninth in the table, nine points behind fourth-place Manchester United in the final Champions League berth, having won just eight league games all season. They have only scored 22 goals, a fraction over an average of just one-per-game.
“We feel we have a very strong group of players,” Potter said after the game. “We have to get and become a really good team. That’s where the work is.
“New players are adapting to a new country and a new league. It’s not straightforward and when the price tag is what it is, questions will be asked, but that’s the nature of the business.”
So for all of the spending, Chelsea aren’t delivering much. Summer signings Raheem Sterling (£47m) and Marc Cucurella (£60m) have yet to suggest they are worth their transfer fees, while the £75m defender Wesley Fofana has played just four games for the club due to injury problems. In less than a year since taking control of the club — a £4.25 billion takeover was completed last May — Chelsea’s new owners have already spent more than a quarter of the £2billion outlay on players that Roman Abramovich bankrolled during his 19-year period in charge.
Chelsea’s spending has been so extravagant, so boundless, that it has led to reports that FIFA and UEFA are planning to implement new regulations that prevent clubs from circumventing Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules by spreading the cost of a player over the course of an unusually long contract. In football, it is the norm for players to be signed on four or five-year contracts, with their transfer fee divided by the length of that contract on the club’s balance sheet. So in theory, a £100m player on a five-year contract would be marked down as costing £20m in annual accounts for the duration of their agreement.
Fernandez, however, signed an eight-and-a-half year contract when completing his transfer from Benfica, so amortisation will see him valued at £12.5m on Chelsea’s accounts. By offloading Jorginho to Arsenal for £12m on transfer deadline day, Chelsea virtually cancelled out the first year of Fernandez’s value on their balance sheet for this financial year.
The club hasn’t broken any rules, merely exploited a loophole that allows such accountancy measures to be applied, but it is likely that the game’s authorities will pull up that particular drawbridge sooner rather than later. Chelsea have prompted eyebrows to be raised by their rivals, though, with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola both commenting on the Stamford Bridge spending spree on Friday.
“I say nothing without my lawyer! No, I’m joking,” Klopp said, when asked about Chelsea’s transfer outlay. “I don’t understand this part of the business, like what you can do and what you cannot do. They are all really good players, so from that point of view, congratulations.
“I don’t understand how it’s possible, but it’s obviously not for me to explain how it works.”
Klopp and Guardiola give their take on Chelsea’s spending
Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola share their thoughts on Chelsea’s recent spending spree in the January transfer window.
Guardiola, who fielded the Premier League’s most expensive starting team last season when his City side against Tottenham in Aug. 2021 cost a collective £553.32m, pointed out that opponents called for his club to be sanctioned for breaking FFP rules three years ago. A Premier League investigation into matter is now entering its fourth year without a resolution.
“What Chelsea decide to do is not my business,” Guardiola said. “There are regulations and rules. I don’t forget, eight or nine teams sent a letter to the Premier League for us to be banned [in 2020, when City were found to be in breach of Financial Fair Play regulations].
“That happened to us when we are the fifth team in net spend in the last five years when we were winning titles. This is the reality.”
At City, and at Chelsea under Abramovich, big spending ultimately delivered big success. But on each occasion, the recruitment was smart and strategic. So far under their new owners, though, Chelsea’s transfer dealings have appeared to be scattergun and extravagant. Time will tell how smart and strategic they have been. And if Chelsea miss out on Champions League qualification, the big question will be just how they will be able to pay for it all and spend again if they need to.