That summer, it felt to David Dein as if he — as if English soccer as a whole — was under attack. Roman Abramovich, an enigmatic Russian billionaire, had swept into Chelsea in June 2003 and laid waste to the transfer market, lavishing vast sums on what seemed like any and every elite player he could get his hands on.
Nobody could compete, and scarcely anyone could resist. Hernan Crespo came in from Inter Milan and Adrian Mutu from Parma; Joe Cole from West Ham and Juan Sebastian Veron from Manchester United arrived on the same day. “Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank on our front garden,” Dein said at one point, “and is firing £50 notes at us.”
A few weeks later, Dein found himself in the cross hairs. Over lunch at a restaurant in central London, two of Abramovich’s emissaries made a series of offers for Arsenal’s crown jewel, striker Thierry Henry.
At one point, the bid comfortably eclipsed the $77.5 million Real Madrid had paid for Zinedine Zidane a couple of years earlier. If a single Arsenal player was worth so much, Dein reportedly asked his dining partners, “why didn’t you just buy the whole club?”
It has felt a little like that this summer, too, that same sensation of shock and awe. In the midst of a global pandemic, as the Premier League frets over a possible $908 million shortfall in revenue while stadiums stand empty, and as European soccer circles a $4.5 billion financial black hole, Chelsea has blown the market away.
A $51 million deal to sign Hakim Ziyech, the Ajax playmaker, had already been agreed before the coronavirus hit. When Liverpool dallied over the signing of the Germany striker Timo Werner, Chelsea pounced, at a cost of $68 million. Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell cost $63 million. Thiago Silva, the vastly experienced Brazil defender, was coaxed away from a contract offer at Fiorentina, while the young center back Malang Sarr came on another free transfer. And, finally, for a fee that may rise as high as $90 million, Chelsea persuaded Bayer Leverkusen to part with the 21-year-old forward Kai Havertz.
There may yet be more deals to come: the French club Rennes has confirmed it is in talks to sell the goalkeeper Edouard Mendy to Chelsea for around $25 million, and Declan Rice, the West Ham and England midfielder, would cost somewhere in the region of $45 million. As Frank Lampard — a Chelsea player when Abramovich arrived and now the coach tasked with turning those expensively assembled parts into a coherent whole — said, it has the air of “the beginning of the road” for a new iteration of the club.
That was true in 2003, too, of course. But while the desire to paint this as a reprise of the summer when Chelsea shook the world — to read into it proof that Abramovich must now be re-engaged with the club, with the project, with the sport — is understandable, it is the differences between then and now, rather than the similarities, that are instructive.
Back then, Dein was right to assert that Chelsea’s approach was a little scattergun. Abramovich wanted to make an impact, not just to acquire players but to distort the market sufficiently that nobody could compete — an approach adopted, in the summer of 2017, by Paris St.-Germain — and he wanted not only to win, but to win quickly.
That urgency, coupled with an inevitable lack of expertise in the transfer market, gave Chelsea the air of a child in a candy store. English soccer was less concerned, then, with recruitment models and squad profiles and overarching philosophies, but even by contemporary standards, Chelsea’s signings were eclectic.
There were young players and experienced players, two strikers, three goalkeepers and four central midfielders. With the benefit of hindsight, only Claude Makelélé and Damien Duff of that initial intake could be called unqualified successes.
The summer of 2020 has, if anything, been the polar opposite. As Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s manager, has noted, Chelsea’s privilege is that its plans were not fundamentally affected by the impact of the pandemic — not negatively, at least, since the economic challenges being endured by its rivals certainly served to clear its path. But that does not make it a “spree,” at least in the traditional sense. Chelsea’s approach to the last several months has been surgical, precise, and several years in the making.
Both Werner and Havertz have been keen to highlight the role Lampard played in enticing them to London, in name and in deed. To players in their early 20s, of course, Lampard’s reputation went before him — part of the appeal for Havertz, in particular, was the chance to learn from a coach who mastered a position similar to his own — but it is his personal interventions that seemed to win the day.
Lampard remained in constant contact with Werner during negotiations, sending him clips of the sort of style of play he was looking to institute. Later, in a phone call with Havertz, he offered a detailed analysis of how he intended to use him in his team. But while that is an attractive — and attractively simple — narrative, the reality of modern recruitment is not only more complex, it is much less dramatic.
The stirring phone call, the human connection, is the last stage in the deal. Behind that lays years of painstaking groundwork, carried out not by a single, decisive individual but by an assiduous collective.
Havertz is a case in point. Most of Europe’s elite clubs, the transfer market’s apex predators, have been tracking him for more than three years. Chelsea, like Liverpool, had identified him as a must-sign sort of player as a teenager, should the opportunity ever arise.
A comprehensive dossier, incorporating a suite of scouting reports and a raft of data analysis, had been compiled and filed in Chelsea’s bespoke software. Scott McLachlan, the club’s head of international scouting, had been a staunch advocate of Havertz’s promise.
The player, meanwhile, had long earmarked this as the summer in which he would leave Bayer Leverkusen. His representatives had examined his potential suitors, their coaches and their styles of play, to assess which might be the best fit. At least one major club was ruled out because it was determined Havertz would not be able to play in his strongest position.
At the turn of the year, Chelsea was part of a pack that included Liverpool, both Manchester clubs, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. But the club felt privately confident it had done enough work to win the day.
Its hand was strengthened, of course, by the varying effects of the pandemic on its putative rivals — it was in the spring that it became clear that Chelsea was by some distance the most viable option — but it was no act of opportunism: the club had planned for this.
In that sense, this summer has not been a return to the early days of Abramovich’s ownership: The money that has transformed the squad has been carefully gathered over the course of several years, the profits of the loan farm first envisioned by Michael Emenalo, the club’s former sporting director, and then added to the sales of Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata.
It has been put to use not to sign a phalanx of famous names who may or may not fit, but to acquire specific, long-held targets, identified as the best candidates to turn a squad built around a core of youth drawn from Chelsea’s best-in-class academy. It is a recruitment drive marked not by urgency, but by patience. Rather than demonstrating that Chelsea is just the same as it used to be, it illustrates quite how much the club has changed.