The same question is posed every time a player joins: how on earth are Chelsea making this work? The spending is so dizzying it is no wonder that heads are spinning.
Surely, the sceptics say, there will come a point when enough is enough; when Chelsea’s owners, who have spent more than €564 million on 16 signings, feel the squeeze of financial fair play rules and are forced to exercise some restraint in the transfer market.
And yet, in the wake of Chelsea breaking the British transfer record by signing Enzo Fernández from Benfica for €120 million late on deadline day, there is no sign the fun is about to stop.
Speak to people who know the club and they will say that Roman Abramovich’s successors are hardly reaching down the back of the sofa for loose change. The money is there and, judging by how many eight-year deals Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital are handing out, so is the will to break from convention.
Boehly and Clearlake are embracing their role as unashamed disrupters. They have studied the FFP regulations and seen a chance to satisfy them by using the accounting practice of amortisation to spread the cost of transfer fees over long contracts.
It allowed them to succeed with their pursuit of Fernández and suggestions that the project is destined to end in financial ruin is not a feeling transmitted from within the club.
That sense of confidence was underlined by the mood after Chelsea stole Mykhailo Mudryk away from Arsenal. There had barely been time to digest the decision to pay €9.9 million for Atlético Madrid’s João Félix on a six-month loan.
Chelsea also wanted Mudryk, who had seemed destined to join Arsenal from Shakhtar Donetsk, and the atmosphere was triumphant after the electrifying Ukraine winger joined in a deal worth €99.7 million.
“We’re just getting started,” was the message from one figure close to the owners, who would soon part with €39.4 million to buy the England Under-21 winger Noni Madueke from PSV Eindhoven and €34.9 million for the 19-year-old French right back Malo Gusto from Lyon.
The natural response is to ask where this ends. In administration? In world domination? Some wonder whether Chelsea’s hyperactive approach off the pitch will bring success.
The owners spent more than €281 million on signings of questionable quality last summer, then promptly sacked Thomas Tuchel. Now the club are 10th in the Premier League, out of both cups and in danger of failing to qualify for the Champions League, which would raise doubts over Graham Potter’s future.
This poses problems for Chelsea’s head coach. It is nice to talk about trusting the process. Chelsea have a lot of injuries and have not seen Félix in action since the forward’s debut ended in a rash red card during last month’s 2-1 defeat at Fulham.
Yet any sympathy for Chelsea’s ill fortune is limited by the statistic showing that they spent more during January than all the clubs in the Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A combined. This is not, as Potter recently claimed, the hardest job in football.
Where Potter does have a case is that he inherited an unbalanced squad. Rebuilding is part of the challenge for the ownership and there has been a noticeable shift since the summer. Boehly has stepped back from his role as interim sporting director and Chelsea spent much of the autumn building a recruitment team, who focused on the future during January.
The youth policy could leave them in a better financial position. The business has been frenetic but taken in isolation the deals are not flashy. There are high hopes for David Datro Fofana. The Brazilian teenager Andrey Santos is one for the future and Gusto, who has been loaned back to Lyon, is regarded as one of the best young full-backs in his position.
It could all prove smart business. Benoît Badiashile, a 21-year-old French centre-back, has caught the eye since joining from Monaco for €36.8 million. Mudryk sparkled during his cameo against Liverpool. No wonder Arsenal were so annoyed to miss out on the Ukrainian. Yet they were not willing to compete with Chelsea, who were always quietly confident they would get their man. It was clear that money was no object for Chelsea.
There is pressure on the hierarchy from the stands. The fans were not happy about Tuchel’s sacking and are yet to be convinced by Potter. There was a frenzy around Fernández, whose release clause stood at €120 million. The owners felt that was “silly money” but eventually hammered out a deal with Benfica. Chelsea believe Fernández will help them finish in the top four.
A new identity is taking shape. Chelsea sold Jorginho to Arsenal for €13.5 million – as his book value was €5.6 million this will go down in the accounts as profit – and will focus on shifting players in the summer.
The squad remains ridiculous. As it stands Chelsea’s options at left wing include Raheem Sterling, Christian Pulisic, Mudryk and Callum Hudson-Odoi, who is on loan at Bayer Leverkusen.
Their forwards include Aubameyang, the injured Armando Broja, Kai Havertz, with Christopher Nkunku poised to join in the summer and Romelu Lukaku potentially set to return from his loan at Internazionale.
Their reserve left-back cost €69 million. Jorginho’s departure leaves them with a mere seven central midfielders. Dodgy paperwork cost Hakim Ziyech a move to Paris Saint-Germain.
It is why Potter has cautioned against signing too many players. In private he knows this is a rebuild. Under Abramovich, Chelsea had a lot duds sitting on expensive deals. These owners want to be ruthless. Signings are on more realistic wages.
That fits with the new strategy of putting young players on long contracts. The idea is that giving Mudryk, who earns about €120,000 a week, an eight-year deal will allow them to amortise his transfer fee. Chelsea want to keep spending. Another way to make the numbers work is through the sale of academy players, which would go down as pure profit, helping the accounts.
Chelsea, who have been placed on an FFP watchlist by Uefa, are trying to be creative. Under Premier League rules, clubs can lose £118 million over a rolling three-year period. Uefa’s regulations state that clubs can only lose €59 million over the same period.
The club think they have found a loophole. Uefa has responded: from this summer clubs will still be able to put players on longer deals but they will not be able to stretch the transfer fee beyond a five-year period.
Will that change Chelsea’s plans? There is a reason why clubs tend not to hand out seven-year deals. It may help the accounts, but what if the player disappoints?
“It’s either genius or idiocy,” one figure says.
But Chelsea’s owners reject the idea they have no vision. People who have got to know them since last summer are quietly impressed. A caricature of Boehly as obsessed by celebrity and glamour has built up but Chelsea did not target Cristiano Ronaldo after his departure from Manchester United. Chelsea wanted youth. Ronaldo was the past, Mudryk the future.
Nonetheless Chelsea still have much to prove. Their critics will say that the drive for signings is a distraction from poor results. Chelsea have got the clicks, the social media engagement and people rushing to award them the greatest prize of all – winners of the transfer market – but do they have a team?
On Friday they play Fulham at Stamford Bridge. They could do with a win.