Romelu Lukaku is not the first target Chelsea have missed out on in recent summers. Kalidou Koulibaly and John Stones immediately spring to mind, and the disastrous window after their 2014/15 title victory haunts Chelsea fans to this day.
The days of flamboyant spending on Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo are long gone for the Blues. Enabled by the incomings from sales of their loan army and unwanted squad players, they have had a net spend under £20 million in the last three years.
Net spend is thrown around all too frequently, but it reflects a change in approach at Stamford Bridge. Selling high and spending within their means has brought two Premier League titles in three seasons, yet it threatens to leave the club behind in the most extravagant summer of English spending yet.
They are no longer the team who will pay whatever it takes to get their man – that mantle has been taken by the two Manchester clubs – and it has led to different aims in the market. Their reported refusal to stump up Mino Raiola’s fees is symbolic of the change.
The announcement of Antonio Rudiger on Sunday afternoon – which was accompanied by a torturously cringeworthy video – was a welcome tonic at Stamford Bridge after the grave disappointment of the Lukaku news. The concern remains, though, that even Rudiger was a cut-price alternative to their other central defensive target, Virgil van Dijk.
Rudiger has all the makings of an excellent signing, mind. A desire to balance the books after years of extravagant spending is far from unsurprising. In fact, the success that Chelsea have had since is testament to the club management, Michael Emenalo and Marina Granovskaia in particular.
It’s not that Chelsea are no longer spending – their fees for Marcos Alonso, David Luiz and N’golo Kante last summer show that – it’s that they are clearly not prepared to spend to quite the levels of Manchester City and Manchester United, who could both splash upwards of £250 million this summer with far lower transfer revenue than Chelsea.
Going toe-to- toe with their Premier League rivals is no longer an option it seems. Chelsea will back down first and – perhaps rightly – will be the first to wince, whether at transfer or agent fees.
This leaves Chelsea with a choice. They can fall into a trap of pursuing names, or they can change their tact further. Last summer was a prime example of a different approach from the Blues. Alonso, Luiz and Kante were far from Europe’s most desirable commodities 12 months ago, yet those acquisitions now look a smidgen short of genius.
Antonio Conte was given the right players and he made perfect use of them. Rather than being lured into the arms race for marquee signing after marquee signing, Chelsea must take a pragmatic attitude into the remainder of this window. Signing Rudiger rather than van Dijk may have underwhelmed for some, but Rudiger’s versatility and price make him a suitable, sensible addition.
Another hero in Chelsea’s improbable title win was perennial loanee and apparent outcast, Victor Moses. With Charly Musonda, Andreas Christensen and Lewis Baker set to join the team on pre- season tour, Chelsea’s illustrious farm could be about to fill further gaps in the squad.
Moses’ successes last season must act as reminder of the talent on Chelsea’s books and gives an alternative to the heavy spending required to bring players in this summer.
Life After Lukaku
With Bertrand Traore sold and Tammy Abraham loaned, the in-house alternatives to Lukaku, however, are limited. Michy Batshuayi – who is not a player Conte has shown much interest in – is likely to remain a Blue in the light of Diego Costa’s impending departure.
The striker market is barren this summer. Chelsea’s apparent complacency over the arrival of Lukaku has left them in a panic for a new option. Andrea Belotti and Alvaro Morata are the main names, but those price tags are equally ugly. Elsewhere, Fernando Llorente and Javier Hernandez are two cut-price possibilities.
The risk on Belotti and Morata is high, which may force Chelsea to look elsewhere. Given their recent approach to signings, a Llorente, Hernandez, Batshuayi strike force next season would be notonly unsurprising, but a satisfactory outcome. It would give tactical flexibility and avoid the reliance on a young, risk-carrying forward.
It could be a different combination of strikers, of course, but the Lukaku setback should see Chelsea turn their attention to lower price forwards in the same way the Koulibaly failings led to Luiz.
Cheaper does not mean worse and Chelsea will do well to remember that in light of a frustrating beginning to their window.