DOES ABRAMOVICH STILL CARE?
The most significant event in Chelsea’s recent history may not be a cup final, nor the latest managerial unveiling. It could end up being something that happened on a nondescript March morning in Wiltshire. When Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned in Salisbury with military-grade nerve agent Novichok, it increased diplomatic tensions between the United Kingdom and Russia to such an extent that Roman Abramovich’s investor visa may have been delayed.
The Blues’ owner became so fed up with waiting for a decision that he withdrew his own application on June 1, one day after the club announced that plans for their long-awaited $1.8 billion rebuild of Stamford Bridge were shelved indefinitely because of “the current unfavourable investment climate”.
The Russian oligarch (above) has now got Israeli citizenship, which allows him unrestricted travel to the UK, but not officially for work purposes. Few could argue if the 51-year-old did decide to scale back his interests in a country that shows few signs of actually wanting him as even a semi-permanent resident.
In fact, the numbers would suggest that he began paring back his investment some time ago anyway. Sure, the Londoners may have splurged $400 million on transfer fees last season – more than ever before, and $100m on striker Alvaro Morata alone – but that’s indicative more of an inflated post-Neymar market than Abramovich’s desire to purchase only the best. Danny Drinkwater for $60m, anyone?
Even allowing for the cost of living at football’s top table these days, the last four seasons from 2014-15 brought a net spend from Chelsea of $120m. In the four previous campaigns, it was $490m. Go back to Abramovich’s first two years in town, from 2003, and they spent $535m, recouping a little over £5m.
True, Chelsea are now excellent sellers, or rather traders – the club received $210m for Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic and Nathan Ake last term – but they have to be. If the Blues are to go big in this summer’s transfer market, they must sell as well as buy.
Antonio Conte’s visible frustration at this situation infected 2017-18’s ultimately insipid title defence. Former Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri eventually replaced his compatriot on July 14 – he must accept that the five-time Premier League winners’ financial muscle isn’t as attractively bulging as it once was.
Chelsea now occupy a curious hinterland between the Manchester clubs. City are what Chelsea were in Abramovich’s early years, while United have got the worldwide business model to which the club aspire. For all the questions last season raised, the biggest remains: what happens if Roman pulls the plug?