With his head bowed and his hands in his pockets, Todd Boehly had a rueful look as he walked across the field at Stamford Bridge and likely toward a locker room containing one of the most expensively assembled squads in soccer.
Chelsea had just been eliminated from the Champions League by Real Madrid, effectively ending a wild first season under the club’s American ownership fronted by Boehly.
It’s mid-April, a time of the season when the team is typically in contention for trophies, domestically and in Europe. Not this year.
No manager. No silverware. Seemingly no real direction in a new regime that has overseen an unprecedented level of spending — $630 million — over the last two transfer windows.
And just look where it’s gotten them.
“I think the first step has been made — an incorrect step, but it has been made,” said Chelsea defender Thiago Silva, who described it as a “hard period for the club, with a lot of indecision.”
Indeed, the upcoming weeks and months heading into the offseason will be decisive in shaping the path being taken by one of England’s biggest clubs under owners still getting used to the fast-paced world of elite soccer.
It’s understandable why many will doubt they have the right people in place to make those big decisions. Because so far, it has been chaos.
Chelsea is somehow languishing in 11th place in the Premier League, with no realistic chance of qualifying for European competition next season.
The team is being led by an interim manager, Frank Lampard, who was fired by the club two years ago but who has been brought back on an emergency basis after the departure of two coaches — Thomas Tuchel in September and Graham Potter last month — during the season. Lampard has lost all four matches since his return.
Then there’s a bloated squad that has to be trimmed. It contains about 30 senior players, many of whom have expensive and long contracts to spread “amortization” costs of transfer fees across the whole deal to get past financial fair play constraints. But that has just left Chelsea in a vulnerable position, maybe unable to move players out. And, without a permanent manager in place, who is going to decide which players stay or go?
Added to this is the financial blow Chelsea will take for missing out on European qualification. A conservative estimate would be a $90 million hit to the pocket, just as Chelsea might be struggling to meet FFP requirements following back-to-back spending sprees in the transfer market.
Former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba believes the new leadership made a mistake in getting rid of key personnel from the old regime under Roman Abramovich, like Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia, following the $2.5 billion takeover in May.
“I knew this club with a certain class during the Abramovich era, but today I find it lacking,” Drogba told French broadcaster Canal+ while working the Chelsea-Madrid game won by the Spanish team 2-0 on Tuesday. “It’s very hard for me to see how they got rid of certain people. They should go back to the principles and values they had. I no longer recognize my club.”
Boehly is learning the hard way in his first year in soccer. He installed himself as chairman, then the club’s interim sporting director in charge of recruitment ahead of a summer splurge of nearly $300 million on new players. And he has hardly faded into the background since, with reports in the British media of Boehly frequently going into the locker room to address players after matches.
After Chelsea’s 2-1 loss to Brighton on Saturday, he reportedly addressed the players and told them the season had been “embarrassing.”
Boehly’s priority will be to get a full-time manager installed, with former Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann among the frontrunners. Only then can a strategy be put in place for next season, regarding which players the new manager wants to keep and how big a squad he wants to work with.
Signings like Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly and Mykhailo Mudryk have underwhelmed. Will Romelu Lukaku be brought back into the squad when he returns from a loan spell at Inter Milan? Will Chelsea persist with English talent like Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher, and want to build a future around the often-injured N’Golo Kante?
“A positive point is that there are amazing players in the squad,” Silva said, “but on the other hand there are always players that are going to be unhappy. There is always going to be someone upset because not everyone can play. The manager can only pick 11 from a squad of 30-something — that’s tough.”
That’s the situation facing Lampard in the final seven league games of the season, and potentially the new manager.
For Boehly, there’s a sense that the hard work really starts now.
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