Chelsea’s uncertain future How sanctions, confusion are affecting squad planning for next season
Chelsea’s sale may be edging closer to completion, but the most turbulent period in the club’s 117-year history is far from over as fans, staff, and players face an uncertain future.
Although British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe attempted to gatecrash the process with a last-ditch offer of his own, the consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly was confirmed as the Blues’ preferred bidder on Friday.
Ratcliffe remains hopeful of a late change of heart as Chelsea look to secure UK government and Premier League approval in the coming days, but the Boehly camp is in the driver’s seat to become the new club’s new owners, finally drawing a line under the Roman Abramovich era.
It has been 67 days since Abramovich sought to create distance from himself and Chelsea in an attempt to avoid having to sell the club as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began to intensify. Abramovich passed what he described as “stewardship and care” of the Blues to the Chelsea Trustees, but as it quickly became clear that the charitable entity was simply incapable of running one of the biggest clubs in the world, the Russian oligarch announced within three days that he would put the club on the market.
The UK government’s subsequent decision to sanction Abramovich for alleged ties to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin meant that, as a freezable asset, Chelsea were required to apply for a special license to continue operating and fulfilling fixtures. The situation was unprecedented: Chelsea’s club shop and hotel was closed, travel plans were compromised as budgets were cut, and transfers were banned as the UK government tried to ensure Abramovich could not in any way profit from his ongoing business.
For his part, Abramovich originally vowed to write off the £1.6bn debt owed him by Chelsea, but reports on Tuesday suggested he may now want that money returned after all, throwing into doubt the UK government’s willingness to approve a deal. There may be some distance left to travel after all; as one Chelsea source explained to ESPN, the club is trying to complete something that often takes up to a year: for example, Newcastle’s recent takeover took around nine months.
As the most prominent public-facing employee, head coach Thomas Tuchel faced questions no other contemporary has ever endured, negotiating each hurdle with a mixture of humility and endeavor as he looked to keep Chelsea’s season on track.
For head coach Thomas Tuchel, keeping a competitive mentality is key for players as Chelsea’s ownership uncertainty looms over the club ahead of a demanding summer. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)
Lately, however, the cracks have started to show. Four defeats in nine matches have led to the end of their Champions League title defense and triggered nervous looks over their shoulder as they try to avoid being dragged into a scrap for a Premier League top four finish.
Key defender Antonio Rudiger will leave for Real Madrid when his contract expires at the end of the season, Andreas Christensen is expected to follow, and Tuchel admitted last week that the suspension on transfers until a takeover is completed means they risk being left behind by their rivals in the summer window.
“You’re never fully sure but we would have some targets and would usually have contacted some players and found out about their situations but now our hands are tied,” said Tuchel. “We can still have the talks inside the building but we cannot act so it’s not an ideal situation.”
The Blues’ temporary license to operate runs out on May 31, underlining the urgency in completing a deal. But a closer examination of Chelsea’s squad exposes how the clock is ticking on a number of big decisions they must get right in order for the new era to start with a bang.
Edouard Mendy’s status as Chelsea’s number one is secure, but the club will seek to offload Kepa Arrizabalaga at the end of the season. ESPN reported in February that the Brazilian was facing a fight to save his Blues career despite impressing while Mendy was away at the African Cup of Nations. Kepa has started just one game since then and came off the bench to miss the decisive spot-kick as Chelsea lost February’s Carabao Cup Final to Liverpool 11-10 on penalties.
Sources have told ESPN that Kepa has worked hard to improve his style of goalkeeping, making him more aggressive and learning to command his box better, but there is still a desire within the club to move him on, ideally recouping as much of the £71.4 m fee they paid Athletic Bilbao for his services. Kepa has a contract until 2025 worth around £150,000-a-week, potentially limiting the number of suitors.
Sources have told ESPN that Rudiger’s decision to leave has come as a significant blow to Tuchel and also many of the centre-back’s team-mates. Talks stalled over Rudiger’s wage demands — he’s believed to have rejected a final offer worth in excess of £225,000-a-week — and Chelsea have not been able to negotiate since late-February as a result of the sanctions. Rival overseas clubs have sought to exploit the uncertainty by talking up the clarity that would come with a move away. Real Madrid have won the race to sign Rudiger and a formal announcement is expected soon.
Rudiger has agreed to move to Real Madrid on a free transfer at the end of the season, further exacerbating Chelsea’s troubles to maintain their squad. James Williamson-AMA/Getty Images
Sources have told ESPN that Christensen had all but agreed terms on a new contract earlier in the season, but then upped his demands and talks stalled before the enforced hiatus due to the sanctions. Although the club triggered a one-year extension in Cesar Azpilicueta’s contract, Barcelona have not given up hope as he could push to leave this summer, having completed 10 years as a Chelsea player.
Losing all three would create a major hole in the squad, especially given Thiago Silva turns 38 years old in September while Malang Sarr and Trevoh Chalobah are not proven over a long period at the highest level.
Chelsea have had a longstanding interest in Sevilla’s Jules Kounde, but they’re vulnerable to a rival swooping in given that he has an €80m release clause in his contract. The club were also thinking to be considering offering Reece James improved terms on his current deal which runs to 2025 amid reports Real Madrid are among a number of clubs monitoring the right-back.
Marcos Alonso has one year remaining on his current contract, and a source has suggested Tuchel would be ready to sell the Spaniard if a suitable buyer could be found with Ben Chilwell hopeful of returning from knee ligament damage in time for next season.
Chelsea also have several defenders out on loan including Ethan Ampadu and Levi Colwill who will return; in fact, Chelsea’s entire loan policy, which has proven highly profitable in the past, may be reviewed by a new owner.
Much of the focus in recent months has been on the futures of the three defenders — Rudiger, Christensen, and Azpilicueta — but that has somewhat masked a similar issue rapidly approaching in midfield.
N’Golo Kante and Jorginho, both hugely influential players for Tuchel, are out of contract in 2023.
“It would be nice if we can avoid [more players running down deals] but at the moment it’s difficult [because of the sanctions],” said Tuchel last month. “But [tying down Jorginho and Kante] should be the target for all of us.” Jorginho turns 31 in December, the same age Kante is now.
Kante and Jorginho are major players for Chelsea, and Tuchel has urged the club to renew their contracts at the risk of losing them both in 2023. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
In the past, Chelsea have had issues negotiating contract lengths with players — Willian and Cesc Fabregas are two examples of players who left because the club were reluctant to sanction long-term deals for players over 30. Of course, it’s impossible to know at this stage whether the new owners would continue adopting this policy.
Another factor is the return of Conor Gallagher from a hugely successful loan spell at Crystal Palace. Gallagher is one of the Premier League’s breakthrough stars having won Young Player of the Year at the London Football Awards and Tuchel recently spoke highly about the 22-year-old prior to Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final against Palace.
However, there are possible departures elsewhere with Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s futures unclear while loanee Saul Niguez is expected to return to Atletico Madrid.
Sources have also told ESPN that Chelsea are keen to extend Mason Mount’s contract, but once again talks have not been able to begin due to sanctions. Mount has two years remaining on his current deal and negotiations are expected as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, both Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi have deals that also expire in 2024. Pulisic insisted he was relaxed about the situation when speaking last month but both players have struggled for fitness and not played as much as they would have liked. Billy Gilmour may be in line for a more prominent role once he returns from his loan spell at Norwich City.
Lukaku’s future at Chelsea is unclear after not meeting the heavy expectations on him following his club record move from Inter Milan. Robin Jones/Getty Images
Romelu Lukaku has started three games in all competitions since February 20. That situation is unsustainable for a €115m signing supposedly in the peak years of his career. Although Tuchel handled the initial public fallout well, the damage done by Lukaku’s December Sky Italia interview, in which he discussed a possible return to Inter Milan and voiced frustrations over his second spell at Chelsea, may be permanent. Tuchel currently believes Chelsea are a more potent force without Lukaku and therefore it is not difficult to imagine the club considering transfer offers for the 28-year-old, especially as those fees could then be reinvested elsewhere.
Before the sanctions, it was expected that Chelsea would be open to allowing Timo Werner to depart as well after two unproductive seasons in England. Armando Broja has impressed on loan at Southampton but it is unclear at this stage whether Tuchel believes the 20-year-old is ready for first-team football at Stamford Bridge.
It is one of a raft of decisions he will have to make this summer. And the clock is already ticking.