Tuesday marks the first anniversary of the Todd Boehly/Clearlake Capital takeover of Chelsea. The consortium paid an initial £2.5 billion to buy the Blues from Roman Abramovich with an agreement to invest a further £1.75bn to aid the club’s development. “Our vision as owners is clear: We want to make the fans proud,” Boehly said in a statement confirming the deal.
It is fair to say their aim remains a work in progress.
Boehly, who is also part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Californian private equity firm Clearlake have spent more than £600 million to sign 17 players over the past 12 months. Breaking the British transfer record to land Argentina international Enzo Fernandez for £106.8m, that strategy has focused on assembling a core group of young players capable of delivering sustained sustained success, but in trying to build for the future, Chelsea have suffered in the here and now.
The new owners have presided over a 12th-place finish in the Premier League with the Blues’ lowest points tally (44) since 1987-88 (42), when they were relegated. They have sacked two managers, ended up trophyless for only the second time since 2016, and are without any European football next season.
Mauricio Pochettino’s appointment as coach heralds the start of what the owners hope will be an exciting new chapter at Chelsea, but ESPN looks back at how they reached this point.
Although the new owners begin a 100-day review of all departments upon taking over, personnel changes start almost immediately. Bruce Buck is removed as chairman and director Marina Granovskaia steps back from running the club’s transfer negotiations. Both are officially retained as senior advisers, but sources tell ESPN that neither played a significant role amid concerns about their close ties to the previous regime, made publicly toxic by Abramovich’s alleged links Russia president Vladimir Putin which triggered the sale of the club initially. Boehly essentially takes on both positions, becoming chairman and interim sporting director.
The new regime are keen to retain technical and performance director Petr Cech, who had forged a strong working relationship with coach Thomas Tuchel and understood Chelsea well, having spent three years in the role, in addition to making 333 appearances as a goalkeeper. However, following talks with Boehly, Cech chooses to leave the club. Former head of goalkeepers Christophe Lollichon and chief executive Guy Laurence also depart.
One of Boehly’s first acts in the transfer market is to sanction striker Romelu Lukaku‘s return to Inter Milan on loan for a second season. Sources say Cech felt Chelsea should find a place for their £97.5m striker, but Boehly disagrees. Granovskaia was notorious for driving a hard bargain when it came to player exits, but Boehly accepts a cut-price £6.7m loan fee to quickly resolve Lukaku’s situation and help planning elsewhere.
Around this time, Boehly meets with agent Jorge Mendes in Portugal. Sources tell ESPN that Chelsea were offered the chance to sign the 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United after they missed out on Champions League qualification. Boehly was keen and presented the idea to Tuchel, who rejected it out of hand on the basis of Ronaldo’s age and inability to fit into his high-press tactical plan — it would be the start of several disagreements between Boehly and Tuchel.
Shortly after Chelsea embark on their preseason tour of the United States, Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling becomes the first men’s signing of the new era (after Chelsea Women acquired Eve Perisset from Bordeaux) in £47.5m move. Two days later, centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly joins from Napoli for £34m, but rumours quickly begin to surface over Tuchel’s unhappiness, partly at the Chelsea’s transfer activity but also their schedule, which takes in travel across the whole of America.
On July 24, Arsenal thrash Chelsea 4-0 in Orlando after which he says: “The worrying part is the level of commitment, physically and mentally.”
Boehly then raises the prospect of signing Ronaldo again, adding to Tuchel’s irritation. Whereas previously Tuchel was almost exclusively allowed to focus on coaching the team, Boehly and Eghbali expected their head coach to be more engaged with other aspects of the club. Sources tell ESPN the relationship between Tuchel and his new employers became strained by the level of daily communication they expected.
Meanwhile, Boehly organises a lunch with his Premier League counterparts, which took place after July’s shareholder meeting. The gesture is said to have been well received, as he attempts to ingratiate himself with senior figures in English football. Sources say he also spoke to Brighton chairman Tony Bloom about a possible transfer for left-back Marc Cucurella.
Cucurella signs from Brighton for £62m on Aug. 5. Bloom later describes Boehly as a “tough but respectful” negotiator, although sources have told ESPN that Manchester City were quoted £50m earlier in the window to bring in the defender.
U.S. youth international goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina (£8m) and Carney Chukwuemeka (£15m), both 18, are acquired from Chicago Fire and Aston Villa respectively, with the club’s plan to offer long-term contracts beginning to emerge. Handing out six-year contracts is an unusual move, but the cost of the transfer fee can be spread over a longer period, meaning the annual outlay in year one is lower, therefore aiding the club’s compliance with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules.
By this point, Tuchel is barely concealing his frustration, admitting his team are not ready for the new season. Sources close to Tuchel tell ESPN he is expecting the sack before the campaign started, such is the animosity behind the scenes. However, he remains in place and the club suffer a mixed start, beating Everton and Leicester while losing at Leeds and Southampton.
A frantic end to the transfer window sees Chelsea make offers to sign several players, leading to criticism that their approach is lacking precision. One example is Chelsea’s interest in AC Milan winger Rafael Leao: sources say the club had not shown much serious interest in Leao all summer and then suddenly made a verbal offer three days before the end of the window. Milan rejected the proposal in part because of how late it came.
The transfer window closes on Sept. 2 with Chelsea loaning midfielder Denis Zakaria from Juventus and signing former Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for £10m from Barcelona. The club’s head of international scouting, Scott McLachlan, resigns 24 hours later. Aubameyang is happy to reunite with Tuchel, with the pair having thrived together at Borussia Dortmund, but Tuchel is sacked six days later.
The decision comes at the end of the club’s 100-day review, and Tuchel’s final game in charge is a 1-0 Champions League group stage defeat to Dinamo Zagreb. Relations between Tuchel and the new owners had deteriorated, as they felt his style was simply incompatible with their approach, so Boehly and Eghbali move quickly to bring in Graham Potter, paying a release clause of around £21m to take him and his support staff from Brighton. Although sources tell ESPN that the pair spoke to multiple candidates, he is always their preferred option.
Potter is appointed within a day of Tuchel’s exit, though his unveiling is delayed out of respect for the death of Queen Elizabeth II. All Premier League matches are cancelled, meaning Potter’s first match is a 1-1 draw against FC Salzburg in the Champions League. Kyle Macaulay also joins Chelsea from Brighton in a recruitment role.
Elsewhere, Boehly continues to push his ideas. Talking at the SALT thought leaders conference in New York, he raises the possibility of a Premier League North vs. South All-Star match, saying: “I hope the Premier League takes a little bit of a lesson from American sports.” Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp quickly pours scorn on the idea: “He doesn’t wait long, eh? Great, when he finds a date for that he can call me. He forgets in the big sports in America they have a four-month break. It is completely different in football. Does he want to bring the Harlem Globetrotters as well and let them play against a football team?”
After the Salzburg game, Potter records five consecutive victories, including wins over AC Milan home and away. With a new head coach in place and the transfer window closed, Boehly and Eghbali step up their search for candidates for their sporting infrastructure.
Chelsea’s operations in the Abramovich era were unusual by modern-day standards, with Granovskaia, Cech and Tuchel working closely to identify targets. With Macaulay on board, Chelsea seek to identify recruitment experts willing to embrace a greater influence of data in talent identification.
Sources tell ESPN that Boehly and Eghbali felt the club’s analytics department should have more of a voice in the club’s recruitment strategy. Joe Shields is acquired from Southampton as co-director of recruitment and talent (starting work in January.) Laurence Stewart is hired from Monaco as “technical director to focus on football globally,” according to the club’s press release, and agrees to join in February.
The month ends with a humbling 4-1 defeat at Potter’s former club Brighton, a result which, domestically at least, precipitates something of a collapse.
Laurens: Boehly should let the people around him lead Chelsea
Julien Laurens believes Chelsea chairman Todd Boehly should let the right people at Chelsea lead the club as they have the experience to do it.
While Boehly and Eghbali continue filling out the new hierarchy — appointing Paul Winstanley from Brighton as director of global talent and transfers — the team’s performances take an alarming dip. Chelsea’s only victory of the month comes against Dinamo Zagreb. Defeats against Arsenal, Man City (EFL Cup) and Newcastle follow as Chelsea break for the 2022 World Cup in eighth place, nine points outside the top four. In losing to Arsenal, Aubameyang touches the ball just eight touches in 64 minutes. He does not start another game until May 2.
Potter is still searching for his best team. Although he is no stranger to tactical variation at Brighton, his use of a number of systems — 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-2-2-2 and 4-3-3 — smacks of a group still trying to find some cohesion after a summer of transition. Sources tell ESPN at the time there was sympathy with Potter given a run of 13 matches in six weeks (eight away from home) had reduced opportunities for extending training blocks.
The vast majority of the squad head off to Qatar to play for their countries at the World Cup, but Potter takes the remaining group to Abu Dhabi for a warm-weather training camp.
Boehly and Eghbali spend time during the World Cup meeting agents ahead of the January transfer window. Christopher Vivell is appointed as the club’s new technical director. He joins from RB Leipzig and begins work immediately. Chelsea advance talks to sign Leipzig forward Christopher Nkunku for £60m ahead of next summer in a bid to steal a march on rivals.
Results continue to slide under Potter. Chelsea exit the FA Cup at the third-round stage with a 4-0 thrashing at Manchester City, while a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace is their only victory of the month. Off the pitch, Chelsea get busy in the transfer market.
Defender Benoit Badiashile (£34m) signs from Monaco, Brazilian teenager Andrey Santos (£18m) arrives from Vasco de Gama. Multiple Premier League clubs are offered the chance to sign Atletico Madrid forward Joao Felix on loan but only Chelsea are willing to pay the £8m loan fee. He is sent off on his debut at Fulham and banned for three games.
The Blues then beat Arsenal to the £88.5m signing of Mykhailo Mudryk from Shakhtar Donetsk. The Gunners had spent weeks negotiating an agreement but sources say that Chelsea offered a more generous and attainable bonus payment structure to secure the deal. Less than a week later, Chelsea sign another winger — Noni Madueke from PSV Eindhoven for £30m — before securing French defender Malo Gusto on a seven-year contract for £34m from Lyon, before sending him back on loan.
The Blues save the most explosive deal for last, smashing the British transfer record for 22-year-old midfielder Enzo Fernandez in £106.8m move from Benfica. Fernandez is one of the stars of Argentina’s World Cup-winning team, and sources say that Eghbali played a key role in securing a deal paid in six instalments. Chelsea manage to move Jorginho to Arsenal for £10m but otherwise largely struggle with outgoings and Hakim Ziyech‘s proposed move to Paris Saint-Germain collapses at the last minute due to an administrative error.
Chelsea now have a squad of 31 first-team players. Aubameyang, Badiashile and Madueke are dropped from the Champions League squad, as UEFA rules state only three new players can be registered for the knockout stages, while training sessions become bloated and centre-back Thiago Silva claims the dressing rooms have to be modified to accommodate all the players.
Potter begins to chop and change his selections even more, at least in part to try and keep the majority of players happy. But results do not improve. In fact, Chelsea score just one goal in February — in a 1-1 draw at West Ham.
Reshuffling continues off the field, with Stewart and Winstanley named co-sporting directors and given greater prominence in first-team affairs. Potter begins to open up in news conferences over the pressures he is facing and reveals that senior Chelsea players have told him the club’s preseason was “the worst they’ve had.” He also says he has received emails wishing him and his children dead.
Supporters remain divided over Potter’s ability to turn things around but he faces a furious backlash when Chelsea lose 1-0 at home to Southampton, a team who eventually finish bottom of the Premier League.
Potter starts the month with three consecutive victories, the second of which is an impressive 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg and reach the Champions League quarterfinals. It is a moment when the players and supporters rally behind Potter to produce his finest night as Chelsea manager. Yet it is only a flash of light in a sea of darkness.
A 2-2 draw against relegation-threatened Everton takes Potter’s record to 10 defeats and eight draws from 30 games. It also sets in stone a cyclical pattern of Chelsea failures that he seems unable to answer: The Blues retain possession, miss chances and then concede soft goals. Sources tell ESPN that the club’s internal modelling suggested Potter was underperforming given the resources available and talk over his future is rife.
A 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa on April 1 puts more distance between Chelsea and the top four and, with a Champions League double-header against Real Madrid on the horizon, the owners feel they have to act ahead of the Liverpool game. Potter is sacked on April 3.
Bruno Salter, who only started coaching under Potter at Brighton four years earlier, is placed in temporary charge, despite having no previous management experience. A drab 0-0 draw follows and a dramatic return for Lampard in a caretaker capacity is completed on April 6. It is a move that some believe will appease supporters given his legendary status as a player — and experience as former manager — but others point to the fact Lampard was axed by Everton after a win percentage of 27.3%. A 1-0 defeat away to Wolves in his first game doesn’t help his cause.
But, perhaps emboldened by Lampard’s return, Boehly gives a bullish response when asked for his prediction for the first leg against Real Madrid, claiming Chelsea will win 3-0. Instead, Chelsea are thoroughly outplayed and fortunate to lose 2-0 after defender Ben Chilwell is sent off. Lampard later laments the level of fitness in the squad and Boehly attempts to rally the squad in a clumsy fashion in a long dressing room address which includes telling them the season had been “embarrassing.”
Although they improve in the second leg, Chelsea are beaten by the same score at Stamford Bridge and exit the competition 4-0 on aggregate. While Lampard soldiers on amid home defeats to Brighton and Brentford, Chelsea step up their search for a permanent replacement. Sources said that five-to-seven names were being considered for the role, with Chelsea determined to follow a more methodical process than when hiring Potter. Stewart and Winstanley are tasked with leading the search, and sources say the club met with Luis Enrique and Julian Nagelsmann among others.
Can Mauricio Pochettino turn Chelsea around?
The ESPN FC wonder how Chelsea’s new manager Mauricio Pochettino deals with such a large and expensive squad in west London.
After losing six consecutive games, Lampard records his first win vs. Bournemouth on May 6. Sources tell ESPN that Boehly had not been over to London for several weeks, a deliberate decision to allow Winstanley and Stuart space to lead the managerial search.
Mauricio Pochettino is identified as the club’s preferred choice. Talks edge to a conclusion, with the club announcing his appointment on a two-year contract (with an option for a third year) a day after the Premier League season finishes. Lampard’s record reads: P11 W1 D2 L8. And Chelsea end the season with 16 league defeats in all, scoring just 38 league goals — their lowest return since 1924.
Pochettino’s appointment — along with longtime assistant manager Jesus Perez, plus first-team coach Miguel D’Agostino, goalkeeping coach Toni Jimenez and his sports scientist son, Sebastiano — is not the end of the reshuffling. Chris Jurasek is named chief executive officer, and former Stoke City scout Andy Cousins agrees to join the recruitment team. Plans for a summer clearout of the squad continue while the club also hold a series of meetings with residents over the long-awaited proposals to redevelop Stamford Bridge. There is no clear plan at this stage whether to redevelop the current site or move.
As is outlined above, Chelsea have had enough going on in Year 1.