Europe

Is Chelsea Setting the Market, or Breaking It?

LONDON — As the last few hours of the January transfer window ticked by, and as a small group of Chelsea executives were painstakingly trying to piece together the $131 million deal that would make Enzo Fernández, the 21-year-old Argentine midfielder, the most expensive player ever signed by an English team, Todd Boehly, the most high-profile of Chelsea’s new owners, was on the phone, trying to sign someone else.

Since arriving in the Premier League last May, Boehly has taken an unusually hands-on approach to the transfer market, regularly leading negotiations for prospective signings. In the summer, he appointed himself as Chelsea’s interim sporting director. He has since relinquished the title, but his appetite for involvement is undimmed.

So as Behdad Eghbali, the founder of Chelsea’s biggest investor Clearlake Capital now seven months into his tenure as one of Chelsea’s co-owners, was fine-tuning the structure of the Fernández transfer with the Portuguese side Benfica, Boehly decided that he would personally follow up on an email a member of the club’s recruitment staff had sent to the Italian team Fiorentina. In addition to signing Fernández, Boehly told Fiorentina, Chelsea wanted to take Sofyan Amrabat — another midfield player who had starred in the World Cup — on loan.

That, he was informed, would not be possible. The Italian club wanted to keep Amrabat, a Moroccan international, and even if it was interested in selling it would not consider letting its star player leave for anything other than a premium, and permanent, fee.

Boehly declared Fiorentina’s eight-figure asking price unreasonable. An executive at the Italian team responded by asking how he would feel if some other club turned up on the final day of the transfer window and tried to poach one of Chelsea’s most valuable assets on the cheap. The call, and the negotiation, ended abruptly.

Benfica’s Argentine midfielder Enzo Fernández was Chelsea’s prize winter signing.Credit…Carlos Costa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Amrabat would, in the end, be a rare miss in what has been an eye-watering, gasp-inducing month of spending from Eghbali, Boehly and Chelsea. With only a few minutes to spare before the window closed, Chelsea filed the paperwork for Fernández, their eighth signing of the month, and at $131 million the most expensive. The club had agreed to pay Benfica roughly 10 times what the Portuguese side had paid for him only six months ago.

That took Chelsea’s outlay in January alone to more than $370 million, the kind of spending that is criticized when done by oligarchs and nation states. It was the most any club has ever spent in a single window and more than every team in the French, Spanish, German and Italian top flights combined. Since Boehly and Eghbali took charge, Chelsea has now spent somewhere in the region of three quarters of a billion dollars overhauling a squad that won the Champions League less than two years ago.

They have done so with a frequency, extravagance and single-mindedness that has, at times, surprised even some of European soccer’s most seasoned operators. Early last month, for example, Sergei Palkin — the president of the exiled Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk — was sitting in the Cullinan Belek hotel in the Turkish resort of Antalya when he received a phone call from Eghbali.

Chelsea had asked, several weeks earlier, to be kept appraised of any bids for Shakhtar’s explosive winger Mykhailo Mudryk, but now seemed to be lagging behind Arsenal in the pursuit of the player. Arsenal had been discussing the terms of a deal with Shakhtar for some time, and Mudryk had even seemed to welcome his imminent transfer on Instagram.

Then Eghbali called. “He said, ‘I’m here,’” Palkin told The New York Times. “I said, ‘What do you mean “here”?’ He told me he’s in the hotel.” Eghbali had landed by private jet that morning. After swift talks, he boarded his plane again the same day, this time with Mudryk in tow and $108 million on its way to Shakhtar. Chelsea’s offer, Palkin said, had been more “concrete” than Arsenal’s: It had offered to pay the nine-figure fee for Mudryk over two years instead of the four Arsenal had proposed.

Palkin left those talks with the distinct impression that Chelsea’s principal owners — while perhaps a little keener on taking their share of the limelight afforded by soccer’s frenzied player trading business than many of their peers — had serious, coherent plans for the club they had bought at auction from Roman Abramovich.

Eghbali, he said, had outlined their vision for what Chelsea would become. “They want to invest in players, new infrastructure; they have plans to build a new stadium,” Palkin said. “At a minimum there will be an increase in the income at Chelsea. In three or four years, Chelsea will look very professional.”

Credit…Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Credit…Jason Cairnduff/Action Images, via Reuters
Now vying for playing time at Chelsea: defender Benoit Badiashile ($42 million); David Datro Fofana ($13.1 million); and wing Mykhailo Mudryk ($108 million).Credit…Peter Powell/EPA, via Shutterstock

That view, it is fair to say, is not universally held. Under Abramovich, Chelsea had been losing a million dollars a week, losses covered only by regular capital injections from the Russian billionaire’s personal fortune. How Boehly, Eghbali and their group plan to balance the books — given the enormous scale of their investment on players so far — is not clear.

Their preferred mechanism, it seems, has been to defer the official cost of the deals. Though clubs pay the vast majority of a transfer fee upfront — or in a handful of installments over a couple of years — the price of the acquisition is often spread out over the duration of the player’s contract, a process known as amortization. Doing so allows a team to spread out of the cost of an expensive purchase — or, in Chelsea’s case, half a dozen or so — over multiple years, and allow it to stay within the cost controls required by the Premier League and UEFA, European soccer’s governing body.

In several of their most expensive deals, Chelsea have sought to use that accounting to their advantage. Wesley Fofana, a defender signed from Leicester City last summer, signed a seven-year deal. Mudryk’s runs for eight seasons. Fernández, the costliest of them all, is contracted to Stamford Bridge until 2031.

That approach has not gone unnoticed. The issue was raised at a meeting of UEFA’s executive board last month, and several teams have since contacted Andrea Traverso, the organization’s head of licensing, to ask European soccer’s governing body what action it plans to take to close the loophole. (Starting this summer, UEFA will only allow teams to amortize contracts over a maximum of five years when it analyzes whether teams are in compliance of its fiscal rules.)

Long contracts, though, are not the only concern. Among Chelsea’s peers and rivals, the reaction to the club’s spending spree on players has been one of puzzlement. In interviews with a dozen executives at teams both in the Premier League and across Europe, all of whom spoke with The New York Times anonymously because they did not wish to be seen commenting on another team’s business strategy, few could immediately discern the logic of Chelsea’s approach.

Some suggested the sheer number of players Chelsea has acquired — more than a dozen since the summer — made it hard to discern any clear sporting plan beyond a simplistic desire to stockpile the world’s best young talent, regardless of the cost. Others wondered if it made sense for a team with one of the most prolific academies in Europe to render its work so obviously futile. Chelsea’s owners have done little, publicly, to explain the frenzy of acquisitions or the thinking behind them.

In England, most believe the fees Chelsea has paid in the last few months will have an inflationary effect, though nobody was quite sure if that was deliberate or merely an inevitable side effect.

In the rest of Europe, the fear is a little more material. Chelsea, one executive at a major continental club said, has “destroyed the market,” a sentiment supported by Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, Spain’s top division. “The British market is doped,” he said. “It is a competition that loses billions of pounds in the last few years, financed with contributions from patrons, in this case American investors who finance at a loss.”

While all of the executives immediately understood the purpose of Chelsea’s prolonged contracts, the majority were baffled as to whether the club was bravely exploiting an inefficiency in the market or mortgaging its future. After all, lengthening contracts might reduce the immediate financial impact on Chelsea’s accounts — and therefore help the club meet European soccer’s largely theoretical cost control mechanisms — but it does not represent the team’s actual cash flow.

Chelsea still has to pay the transfer fees in the short term. It still has to commit to pay the players several million dollars more than it might have if they were on more standard-length contracts. It still has to rely on each of them fulfilling their undoubted potential. It still faces the risk of being encumbered with expensive, immovable assets in years to come if they do not.

Selling players, certainly, has been a little more of a challenge for Chelsea. As Eghbali was negotiating for Fernández and Boehly was making his last-ditch bid for Amrabat, one of Chelsea’s current players, Hakim Ziyech, was sitting in the offices of Paris St.-Germain, waiting for confirmation of his departure.

The deal had been in the works for a week or so. At one point, talks had been sufficiently relaxed that Boehly had suggested P.S.G.’s owner — the Qatar Investment Authority — might like to help Chelsea with its stadium project. As the minutes ticked down to the transfer deadline, though, P.S.G. officials became concerned at Chelsea’s lack of communication.

Five minutes before the deadline — at 10:55 p.m. local time — Chelsea finally sent over a document. It was the wrong one. When that was pointed out, a second soon followed. It was not signed. By the time the new error was fixed, it was too late. The deadline had passed. P.S.G. could not register the signing.

Ziyech, distraught, had to return to west London, where a raft of new teammates await him, including at least two who play his position. Chelsea has little need for him now. It has to pay his salary, though, for another six months.

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