The transfer market is often viewed as a quick fix. A way to immediately strengthen a team in the push to reach the season’s aims, whether that is to avoid relegation, qualify for Europe, or mount a title challenge.
Chelsea’s January 2023 transfer business was the envy of many clubs’ fans. Under new owner Todd Boehly, the West London club made eight new signings for the first team plus the additions of a couple of promising players for their youth system.
Transfermarkt lists Chelsea’s total winter transfer window expenditure at over $350 million, making it not only the highest spender in the Premier League by some distance, but also saw it spend more than all the teams in Europe’s top five leagues combined.
In some ways, it was reassuring for Chelsea fans after the club’s ownership future looked uncertain. Roman Abramovich was disqualified from owning a Premier League club following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sanctions were subsequently placed upon him in the UK.
Boehly came in with plenty of ideas and, apparently, plenty of money, and immediately went to work on assembling a new team. He also replaced manager Thomas Tuchel with the popular, much-lauded Brighton & Hove Albion manager, Graham Potter, in what seemed like an attempt to replicate Brighton’s relative success at a higher level.
Chelsea signed so many players that it could not register them all for its Champions League squad for the rest of the 2022/23 tournament. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, signed from Barcelona as recently as September 2022 at the end of the summer transfer window, was removed from the Champions League squad altogether to make way for new signings Enzo Fernández, João Félix and Mykhailo Mudryk.
January signings Benoît Badiashile, Andrey Santos, Noni Madueke and David Datro Fofana were all left out of the Champions League squad, too. If these players joined with ambitions of playing in European competition they will have to wait at least until next season. Given Chelsea’s current league position well outside the European qualification spots, they might have to wait a couple more seasons.
If January transfers are to be considered a quick fix—a way to bolster a squad for an extra push to achieve the season’s aims, then at Chelsea it has so far had the opposite effect.
The manager now has a large squad to manage and will find it impossible to keep all players happy—as the Champions League squad registration issues show. On top of this, it will be difficult to keep such a large group motivated and together. It could see players split off into groups rather than gel as one unit.
Even one or two players arriving midseason has the potential to unbalance a team and affect the group dynamic. New signings need to be carefully considered, such as Arsenal’s acquisitions of Jorginho and Leandro Trossard (ironically from Chelsea and Brighton respectively) and Manchester United’s addition of Wout Weghorst.
Chelsea has gone about its business as if it is a Major League Soccer expansion team assembling a roster from scratch.
Despite this sudden influx of new players, Boehly and the Chelsea hierarchy have continually spoken more about long-term planning rather than short-term fixes. The suggestions were that Potter would be given time and that the Englishman shared their long-term plan whereas Tuchel might not have.
“We weren’t sure Thomas [Tuchel] saw it the same way we saw it,” Boehly said at a conference last year. “No one’s right or wrong, we just didn’t have a shared vision for the future.”
Many of these new players have also been given long contracts—eight-year contracts in some cases, which is mostly unheard of in soccer. While this could also be considered an indication of long-term planning, it is primarily a way around financial fair play rules as transfer fees can be amortised across the duration of a player’s contract. The longer the contract, the smaller the outgoing amount listed on the books each year.
As the perception of success in football has increasingly become linked to the transfer market, including the idea of winning the transfer window, Chelsea has shown that adding new players can be detrimental to achieving sort term aims, rather than beneficial, regardless of how good some of these players are.
Buying new players is not always a solution, especially in the middle of the season. It’s more about buying the right players.
This isn’t to say Chelsea’s new signings will not go on to have a great impact at the club in the future, as Boehly’s long-term plan hopes they will, but in the short term, their January transfer business has affected the team negatively in the current season. It has done so to the point where they look less like qualifying for European competition now than they did before these new players arrived. They are currently as many points clear of the relegation zone as they are from a Europa League qualification spot.
It will test the club’s faith in Potter, and even if he is sacked the failure hasn’t necessarily been his. It stems from the impossible man-management task he’s been given as Chelsea busted the myth that a club’s problems can all be solved in the transfer market.