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Why Chelsea’s transfer model is a template for success that others should follow

Chelsea’s business model is much like many other elite clubs across Europe, particularly in Italy and Spain. 

A small fortune is pumped into their academy with the intention of benefiting from the special few who ultimately shine brightest in the Under 23s, while other homegrown prospects are sold on for pure profit. The loan system is similarly used to raise funds to better comply with Financial Fair Play regulations and to facilitate huge expenditure on the first team via a big summer signing or two.

When viewed through this prism it all seems so straightforward; so standard, and that’s because it is at heart. It is a model designed to engineer a strong first team squad and a healthy balance sheet. Ideally, when all goes to plan, it is the best of both worlds.

Only two key aspects concerning Chelsea’s transfer strategy are omitted from the above, aspects that make the Blues’ approach in recent times quite unique and anything but straightforward. Firstly, there is the sheer scale of their operations; a copious turnover of personnel that is less a policy and more an industry in itself. Secondly, as subjective as this is, they also happen to be better in the transfer market than pretty much anyone else around.

Let’s start with the scale. This summer Chelsea welcomed back 33 players from loan spells, a colossal number that is not unusual for a club that has repeatedly been accused of stockpiling talent in recent years.

In 2016/17 they had a record high of 38 professionals, young and old, spread across the Premier League, Championship, League One and a selected plethora of trusted European outfits. (Chelsea’s long-standing credo is not to furnish clubs lower than League One with their talent, regarding the Premier League 2, otherwise known as the Professional Development League, to be of an equal standard).

This regular diaspora of potential has brought much criticism since the club dramatically changed from its former stance of concentrating only on the top-end of their personnel structure, relying on heavy investment from Roman Abramovich to purchase one made-to-measure superstar after another. Remember those days? When the West London giants were demeaned as ‘Chelski’ and went on extravagant spending splurges each summer? They were criticized then too which in essence means they can’t win.

Still, there is admittedly an ethical ambiguity in treating young footballers as commodities, shunted here, there, and everywhere in a practice that brings to mind horse-trading. Last summer, the Dutch midfielder Marco Van Ginkel finally left the Bridge after eight years predominantly spent on loan to PSV – three times – Stoke, and AC Milan. Throughout his long tenure in London, the once highly rated schemer turned out for his parent club just four times and perhaps he is the best example from several of genuine promise being stymied by so much upheaval. 

By and large however, in the main, it is a blueprint that works for all concerned. The player gets to showcase his ability at a decent level while experiencing a steep learning curve the youth system cannot provide. Chelsea get to properly assess their ‘commodity’ and see his market value soar. By the end of the player’s second loan period – this is typically the case but not always – they then have the luxury of deciding whether to incorporate their emerging star into the first team squad or sell for a bumper profit. The loanee club meanwhile benefits from a brilliant teen and all for a nominal fee. It’s win-win-win.

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It is a process we witnessed in full affect last season many times over and this season too because a good few of those 33 players who returned to Stamford Bridge pre-season were promptly propelled back out via a revolving door. Conor Gallagher is now at Crystal Palace after impressing last term at West Brom. Ethan Ampadu is at Venezia after proving his mettle at Sheffield United.  Armando Broja is regularly finding the net for Southampton after worrying Eredivisie defences for Vitesse. By May, Chelsea will know who to call back and give a shirt number to, and who to sell for a lucrative sum. 

This latter option should not be under-estimated either. Indeed, it is a pivotal plus that drives the blueprint onward. During the last transfer window, the 2021/22 title-contenders harvested a staggering £92M from players who came through their ranks, at minimum cost, talents who included Tammy Abraham, Marc Guehi, and the lively right-back Tino Livramento. Selling peripheral, homegrown fare all-but-paid for Romelu Lukaku, the striker who has comprehensively solved a long-term problem area for Thomas Tuchel’s side. 

Of course, an inherent risk always comes attached to flogging potential and it’s a risk that has come back to bite Chelsea in the past. It will undoubtedly do so again. In 2013 they prematurely sold Kevin De Bruyne for a meagre £18m and who is to say Livramento, for example, doesn’t one day far surpass his £5m sale value. Many would argue he has already precisely done that with a string of superb outings for Southampton. 

The club however view this as a necessary downside, that pales to the greater good. It is collateral regret.

Because the big picture shows, quite conclusively, that Chelsea’s transfer model works for them and when their unerring ability to flip major purchases for a vast profit is factored in too – a recent example being Eden Hazard, sold for a £72m mark-up after gaining from eight years of outstanding service – it can reasonably be argued that the five-time Premier League champions have their transfer business down pat.

It is a model not without warranted criticism or flaw but one still that rival clubs should take note of. Because, like it or not, it is the present and future of top-level football with Chelsea leading the way. 

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2 years ago

Left unstated is the key to Chelsea’s strategy — they pumped truckloads of money into their academy from a multibillionare owner at a time before FFP existed. Saying that other clubs should follow this model should provoke the response of, “Sure — we will do that as soon as you give us billions to invest. “

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