By all accounts Arsenal was very much in the running to sign Ukrainian superstar Mykhailo Mudryk during the January transfer window. As the current Premier League leader, the 22-year-old forward had the potential to be a pivotal addition in the title race.
Instead, Mudryk signed for Arsenal’s crosstown rival, Chelsea.
Now run by American businessman Todd Boehly, Chelsea swooped in to sign Mudryk for a transfer fee of $75 million with an additional $35 million expected as a bonus payment, according to Mudryk’s former club, Shakhtar Donetsk.
Mudryk’s acquisition – as well as the deadline day, British-record $132 million deal for Enzo Fernández – demonstrated what a manic January transfer window it’s been Chelsea, one in which the club’s spending has topped $350 million, according to Transfermarkt, and which has seen eight players arrive, including a raft of attackers.
Back in May, the UK government approved the sale of Chelsea to an ownership group led by Boehly in a deal worth more than $5 billion.
Chelsea was previously owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who put the club up for sale in early March following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying at the time it was “in the best interest of the Club.”
In May, UK government added Abramovich to its list of sanctioned individuals as part of its efforts to “isolate” Russian President Vlamidir Putin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Boehly’s reign has already seen him get rid of coach Thomas Tuchel, who guided Chelsea to its second Champions League title in 2020/21, replacing the German with Graham Potter.
As well as Chelsea, Boehly has invested in a number of sporting franchises, including stakes in the MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers, the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks.
Since arriving at Chelsea, it’s estimated that Boehly has spent close to $750 million on transfers. Barely a day has gone by in January without Chelsea being linked with a host of players.
“I think at least the past month has been pretty exciting as someone who’s been covering it,” Dan Dormer of the ‘London Is Blue Podcast’ told CNN Sport.
“It also has been a little draining because it feels like every day we’re waking up to a new link or a new story.”
While players have arrived, Chelsea’s results have been inconsistent – for the time being – as evidenced by the club’s fans pining for days gone by and singing, “We’ve got Super Tommy Tuchel,” during their team’s 4-0 hammering by Manchester City in the FA Cup in early January.
But Boehly’s splurge on new talent has never wavered.
“We’re all in – 100% – every minute of every match. Our vision as owners is clear: we want to make the fans proud,” said Boehly in a statement, released when his purchase of Chelsea was completed.
“Along with our commitment to developing the youth squad and acquiring the best talent, our plan of action is to invest in the Club for the long-term and build on Chelsea’s remarkable history of success.”
In his first full transfer window last summer as the club’s interim sporting director, Boehly and Chelsea spent a reported $302.08 million on new signings, according to Transfermarkt. Chelsea never reports how much the club spend on transfers and chose not to comment when offered the chance by CNN on the club’s recent outlay on new players.
Boehly has gone out of his way to attempt to make the transition to life under Potter as smooth as possible, bringing in many of the former Brighton manager’s coaching and backroom staff to assist him.
Meanwhile Christopher Vivell joined as Chelsea’s technical director from RB Leipzig in Germany in December.
“He [Boehly] will provide important support to Graham and the ownership group and play a vital part in advancing our overall vision for the club,” Boehly told the club’s website when Vivell was appointed.
According to Dormer, Chelsea has never adequately replaced technical director Michael Emenalo, who left the club in 2017.
“If you think about it, over different managers, it’s like they were each a different kid and they requested a different Lego set, and they’re trying to build one unified project. And that means at times, not all the pieces are fit together,” said Dormer.
The January transfer window is often viewed as the worst time to buy players, given clubs don’t want to lose valuable assets and arguably hold the upper hand in negotiations. Not that that has deterred the Blues.
As well as Mudryk, Benoît Badiashile, Noni Madueke, Malo Gusto, Andrey Santos, David Datro Fofana and Fernández were all signed on permanent deals while Portuguese superstar João Félix arrived on loan from Atlético Madrid.
Prior to Fernández’s transfer, Chelsea has bought 15 players this season, spending over $600 million, according to the CIES Football Observatory. The deal for Fernández brings the club’s recent transfer outlay to over $600 million.
That’s quite an outlay, but there is also a long-term strategy at play, with Chelsea targeting young players – 11 of the players signed for transfer fees are aged 22 or under.
Dormer says with older players running out of contract and some looking past their prime, there was a definite need to “replenish” the squad. On the final day of January’s transfer window, veteran midfielder Jorginho was sold to table-topping Arsenal.
“It’s almost like you went for your eye exam and the optometrist is asking: ‘Better one or better two?’ and helping you hone in to what the 20/20 vision is for your glasses,” said Dormer. T”his is something where it has been an evolutionary process of trying to figure out who are those best players.”
Dormer believes Chelsea’s squad now has the required strength in depth.
“If Reece James is injured, Chelsea’s right-hand side dramatically dips in terms of total performance,” he explained.
“And so having similar levels of player to raise the floor on the individual behind your selected starter and then also to have the ability to rotate to keep the entirety of the team healthy, particularly as teams play 40 games, 50 games, 60 games plus a season – plus internationals, plus the lack of time off.”
However, this influx of talent potentially brings problems for Chelsea.
According to UEFA regulations, a club can only register three new players to its playing squad for the Champions League’s knockout stages, meaning that four of Mudryk, Félix, Badiashile, Madueke, Fofana and Fernández will not be able to play in the tournament for Chelsea.
Big spending on transfers has almost rebounded to pre-pandemic levels this year, with Chelsea leading the pack.
According to the 2022 Global Transfer Market report published by FIFA, a total of $6.5 billion was spent by clubs in 2022, up 33.5% from $4.86 billion in 2021, but still below the levels of $6.94 billion in 2018 and $7.35 billion in 2019.
With over $600 million spent on new players by Chelsea alone, there have been questions about football’s financial regulations.
Chelsea is navigating the financial fair play regulations of both the Premier League and European football’s governing body, UEFA, by the process of amortization – giving players longer contracts so the cost of a transfer is spread across a number of years.
In Mudryk’s case, the Ukrainian signed an eight-and-a-half-year deal with the Blues, meaning his almost $110 million transfer fee will cost the club roughly $13 million a year. Fernandez also signed on an eight-and-a-half year contract at Stamford Bridge, according to the BBC.
Financial football expert Kieran Maguire – who says that he’s found Chelsea’s sudden transfer spending “strange” given the usual cautiousness of Clearlake Capital, the investment fund involved in the takeover – explained that amortization can be positive in the immediate future but has long-term consequences.
“It’s a very high risk strategy because what happens if those players turn out to be duds?” Maguire told CNN Sport.
“You are then committed to paying the players’ wages over that six, seven, eight-year period.
“Chelsea are normally in the top three, certainly in the top four, wage commitments of Premier League clubs.
“So finding another club who’s willing to take the player off of Chelsea’s hands and pay them a level of remuneration to which the player is happy is going to be quite challenging.”
In January, UEFA announced it was altering its Financial Fair Play rules, setting a five-year limit over which a transfer fee can be spread in order to clamp down on the practice of excessive amortization.
However, the change will come into force during the summer of 2023 and will not apply retrospectively, meaning it will not affect Chelsea’s current spending spree.
Chelsea’s productive youth academy is also helping its bottom line – in recent years, Billy Gilmour, Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guéhi and Tammy Abraham have all brought in hefty fees.
However, does such a huge influx of players at Chelsea have implications for the club’s emerging prospects.
“It makes no sense having an academy system where the kids aren’t getting a chance to play at that level,” former Stoke City manager Tony Pulis told Sky Sports.
The growing disparity between the wealth of top clubs while others struggle financially is also raising concerns..
Fair Game, an organization “committed to the same principles and determined to improve the governance of our national game for the wider interests of football,” reiterated its calls for a transfer levy to put in place for Premier League clubs, saying it could raise almost $200 million which “could help provide a vital life line to clubs below the top flight that continue to struggle with the fall out of the pandemic and the day-to-day challenges of the cost-of-living crisis.”
According to Maguire, there’s an “arms race in terms of wages as a result of aggressive trading,” though he says the Premier League is more competitive than other European leagues, as evidenced by Chelsea and Liverpool’s 10th vs. ninth-placed clash last month.
“Football is a talent industry and the talent follows the money and the big clubs have the money,” said Maguire.
“I think it’s just really a case of trying to get a degree of competitive balance so that you don’t end up as we see in La Liga and some of the other European leagues where it is effectively a procession and that’s not good. The Premier League is successful because it’s got things right.”