While sport’s spring shutdown has altered the financial outlook for many teams to a potentially irreversible extent, the certainty of Chelsea’s spending carries serenely on.
At a time of instability, the Blues know they can seize the opportunity to beat their rivals to signings they might not otherwise have been favorites to make, buying wisely for the future at reduced prices and reasserting themselves as genuine challengers in the English Premier League and European competition along the way.
The surprise developments in Timo Werner’s inevitable departure from Bundesliga upstarts RB Leipzig highlighted the approach being taken at Stamford Bridge this week.
Liverpool had long been considered as far ahead in the race for the Germany striker’s signature, only for Reds coach Jurgen Klopp to face the frustration of having to ring his compatriot to explain that he had been forced to drop his interest because of the balance sheet damage done by Covid-19.
That in itself tells a significant story. In normal times, Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group, whose $6.6 billion empire makes them the third-richest sports conglomerate in the world, would see the activation of Werner’s reputed $66 million release clause as a considerable but comfortable investment for a 24-year-old established international.
Their enforced reluctance to splash out opens the door for clubs such as Chelsea. Frank Lampard, who has led the club to fourth in his first season in charge, may not have the magnetism of Klopp or the pull of imminent title glory for Werner, but the rookie coach is now on the brink of capturing his signing simply by being in the right place at the right time with rock-solid financial backing.
It’s a move that could change the complexion of the Premier League next season.
England youngster Tammy Abraham has performed admirably in leading the line and contributing 15 goals for Chelsea since August, but his tally is eight ahead of the next highest scorer at the club – winger Willian – and puts him behind rivals Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane at Liverpool, who have been directly involved in a remarkable 43 goals for the runaway leaders.
You can see why Liverpool would be keen on Werner, whose 25 goals and seven assists put him second only to Bayern Munich’s unstoppable Robert Lewandowski in Germany this season. Even if they were to sign him partly for the sake of preventing him from providing a threat at other clubs, the switch would make sense.
That tactic of stockpiling star players, as Manchester City have done in recent years and Chelsea were prone to do during the early days of Abramovich’s reign, could become increasingly unfeasible at a time when even the likes of Barcelona have agreed pay cuts with players in order to continue paying staff.
Not so at Chelsea. Reports have quoted sources within the squad as saying that they would be somewhat understandably “p*ssed off” were a mooted 10 percent pay cut to go ahead following the layout for Werner, who is expected to earn up to around $210,000 a week.
Captain Cesar Azpilicueta was believed to have been open to future talks with the Chelsea hierarchy about temporarily reducing the wage bill, but the thought of executives going cap in hand to the squad never rang true, serving more as another piece of positive press with the announcement that players had been encouraged to contribute time and money to charities instead.
It is also difficult to imagine where negotiations over paycuts might have started given that Chelsea had already announced the signing of Ajax playmaker Hakim Ziyech for around $43 million in February.
Ziyech and Werner represent two key players in Chelsea’s bid to solve the greatest concern for Abramovich during Lampard’s tenure so far.
Some critics had suggested that the routinely ruthless owner was dismayed and even considering Lampard’s future because of the club’s struggles in the Champions League this season, where they narrowly progressed from a group containing an Ajax side for whom Ziyech played a starring role as the Amsterdammers went 4-1 up at the Bridge in November before Chelsea salvaged a point with a remarkable comeback.
Chelsea were subsequently hammered 3-0 at home by Bayern Munich in the round of 16 while Werner was helping Leipzig to ease past Tottenham, scoring the only goal of the game in London as his side won the first leg before completing the job in Germany.
Lampard’s respectable start in the league, negotiating ability and status as a club legend appears to have safeguarded his position for the long-term, helping Abramovich to secure promising talent through more than just wealth.
While predecessors Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte were said to have been occasionally less than responsive when it came to working with the board and persuading targets, Lampard engaged himself in an effective charm offensive with Ziyech, talking and sending texts as part of a persistent dialogue with the man who was an integral part of the Dutch champions’ heroic run to the semi-finals of Europe’s most prestigious competition last season.
There can be little doubt that more judicious arrivals are being lined up under the watch of Abramovich, who has gone about his business in typically quiet fashion and enjoyed praise for opening up club facilities to the NHS while investing in public health and charitable causes.
He will see the signing of Werner as good value and a message that Chelsea are ready to capitalize and strengthen during perhaps the most unusual period that the transfer market will ever experience.
Whenever the 2020/21 season begins, the moment of opportunity that Chelsea are currently working in is likely to position them as authentic contenders on all fronts.