Preseason doesn’t matter – except when it does. Friendlies are always an unreliable guide to the season ahead because no one ever knows how committed the players are or what stage they are in physically. But Thomas Tuchel’s concern afterwards ChelseaThe 4–0 defeat by Arsenal in Orlando on the penultimate weekend of July was real enough.
“I look at last season and parts of the game where we struggled, parts of the season where we struggled, and then we got sanctioned and players left us and some players try to leave us, and here it is.” he said. “So we have an urgent call for quality players, a huge number of quality players. We have two quality players, but we are not competitive like that.”
Small problems merged to create larger ones. Chelsea, surprisingly, were left vulnerable by allowing the contracts of centre-backs Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen to expire – and then being unable to offer them new deals when owner Roman Abramovich was sanctioned in March. Rudiger has joined Real Madrid, while Christensen has technically joined Barcelona, although he is yet to register. Cesar Azpilicueta, meanwhile, is essentially waiting to see if Barcelona can afford him despite extending his contract with Chelsea last spring, while Marcos Alonso is in a similar boat.
A similar problem looms in midfield, with Jorginho and N’Golo Kanté both over 30 and entering the final year of their respective contracts. Meanwhile, the issue was that none of Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner or Hakim Ziyech really clicked. Lukaku has been loaned out to Inter, while Chelsea have made it clear they are happy to sell Werner and Ziegler, as well as Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has struggled to regain form after rupturing his Achilles. Werner, in particular, is reportedly close to a return to RB Leipzig, as is Lukaku hoping his pre-Chelsea form can be recaptured in a familiar home.
All of this would have resulted in a major rebuild for whoever was responsible, and as it turns out, nobody really is. Key figures Marina Granovskaia, Bruce Buck and Petr Cech left the club following the post-Abramovich takeover, leaving new owner and official sporting director Todd Boehly to handle negotiations despite his lack of experience in the sport and in that role. Winning both Rafinha and Jules Coute from Barcelona, a club more than $1 billion in debt and so battered that it still needs financial creativity to sign the players it picked on its trolley, was a harsh lesson in the intricacies . economics of modern football.
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Chelsea managed to bring in two players this summer, Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly, for around $100 million. Sterling, a key part of a Manchester City side that has won four of the last five Premier League titles, could have been expected to add to the excitement given his pace, pressing and goalscoring record, but the feeling is that a forward whose decision-making can go awry under pressure. That City were prepared to let him go may be telling. He should, however, be a good fit for Tuchel’s vision, and has been linked with both Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, now thankfully back from injury, for England.
Koulibaly is clearly a high quality player and it helps that he and Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy play together at international level for Senegal. But he is 31—begging the question of why he stayed at Napoli so long—and with departures there is a clear need for at least one more central defender. Kute, it seems, was never Tuchel’s first choice and there has recently been interest in both Leicester’s Wesley Fofana and Arsenal’s William Saliba.
As the new regime looks to replicate something of Liverpool’s transfer strategy by empowering Tuchel, much will depend on his relationship with Boelli and that could be strained if there are no more signings next month. It is telling that after Boehly had seemingly come close to agreeing a deal to sign Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United, the move was vetoed by Tuchel. For now, the plan to give him control seems to be on point, but it’s not hard to imagine him becoming a point of friction if Chelsea prove to lack attacking attacks like last season.
Assessing a realistic goal this season is difficult. Chelsea looked to be in a treble title race until December last year, but have seemingly slipped while Tottenham, in particular, have clearly improved since then. There likely remains a very large gap between Chelsea and the top two, Manchester City and Liverpool, meaning Champions League qualification will be the aim, but developments elsewhere mean that while third place is still very close, this is probably tougher than that. it was last season – a point underlined by Tuchel’s reaction to a result that, on the surface, shouldn’t mean much but carries with it some greater concern.
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