At 9.40pm, having been given the go ahead to conclude a simple loan until June, PSG sent Chelsea a mark-up of their loan agreement.
The document needed to be signed and returned to be lodged with the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP). Instead, they were greeted by radio silence. According to a PSG source, granted anonymity to protect relationships, a succession of attempts were made to contact Chelsea by telephone with the deadline minutes away, but the Premier League club could not be raised.
Just before 11pm, an email was received but the attachment was not the correct document. It was also unsigned.
PSG re-sent the loan agreement, signed by the club and Ziyech and, once again, received an erroneous document by return – again unsigned. The right form was sent at the third attempt, at 11.03pm, and the contract was downloaded on the French league’s system a minute later. But the deadline had been missed. The source described Chelsea as “a circus”.
“Actually,” he added, “make that a Class A circus.”
Chelsea’s version of events differs slightly – they claim they pushed the button on two signed forms, though the first failed to send for technical reasons and the second was dispatched at 11pm. They were mystified by suggestions no one had responded to a phone call. Regardless, their player had effectively been left stranded in Paris looking for somewhere to stay for the night.
PSG did appeal to the LFP on Wednesday to have the move ratified. Chelsea even sent an account of the events of the previous night in support of their bid, but all to no avail.
Ziyech, who had sought an explanation from the club, was livid.
To have one loan deal collapse late on is maybe unfortunate; two, however, smacks of carelessness.
Omari Hutchinson, who made his senior debut last month, happens to be good friends with Ziyech and also sees the right wing as his preferred position. To get more first-team football though, he was ready to play elsewhere for the rest of the season. A number of clubs in the Championship and across Europe expressed an interest, but in the end West Bromwich Albion emerged as the strong favourites.
Their head coach Carlos Corberan spoke to Hutchinson about what he had planned for the 19-year-old. The player was reassured by the fact West Brom had compiled an in-depth report into his game, which laid out where they saw him fitting in.
A formal medical was not required because Chelsea had already sent West Brom relevant medical documents and they were happy to proceed. Just after 7pm on deadline day, papers to formalise the switch were sent. And yet it all came to nothing.
At first glance it appears to be a repeat of the Ziyech situation. It was actually far more complicated.
To bring Hutchinson in, West Brom had to shift out their forward, Karlan Grant. Swansea had spent all month pursuing Grant, but left it to the final stages of the window before making their move, which merely served to confuse matters further.
West Brom also wanted Leicester’s Marc Albrighton, whom they did eventually sign on loan. Corberan was still keen to secure Hutchinson only to find progressing that deal was complicated by Chelsea also working on the Fernandez and Ziyech moves, as well as the reality that clubs in the EFL cannot apply for a deal sheet to give them more time. The deadline was 11pm, and it was not met.
Unlike PSG, West Brom bear no ill will toward Chelsea or Swansea for how things went awry. Yet Hutchinson, who will knuckle down and seek to impress at Under-21 and senior level, was joined in his deadline day frustration by another academy player, Xavier Simons, who also saw his bid to join Hull City on a permanent basis flounder on the deadline. He will remain at the KC Stadium on the pre-existing season-long loan agreement.
Theirs were tales of frustration. Ultimately, though, Fernandez is the story that will be remembered from a deadline day like no other — a suitably jaw-dropping finale to what has been the most lavish winter spending spree in the history of the sport, ultimately worth around £290million.
Even so, the fates of Ziyech, Hutchinson and Simons confirm that the cost to Chelsea was not just measured in pounds.
Chelsea have had the fortune to call upon a number of highly potent partnerships since the turn of the century: Gianfranco Zola and Tore Andre Flo, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, Diego Costa and that fire extinguisher at The Hawthorns in 2017.
Many in football can testify that Chelsea’s co-owner Behdad Eghbali and recently-appointed director of global talent and transfers Paul Winstanley have themselves become quite the double act in discussions and formal negotiations with agents and rival executives over the last two months.
Both were heavily involved in the many transfer meetings that took place in Qatar during the World Cup, as Eghbali and Todd Boehly frequently flew between Doha and Chelsea’s warm weather training camp in neighbouring Abu Dhabi. When it was decided that Chelsea would go all out to hijack Arsenal’s move for Mykhailo Mudryk, it was Eghbali and Winstanley who flew to Turkey and persuaded the winger and the Shakhtar Donetsk hierarchy over eight to 10 hours of presentations and talks to deal with them instead.
That experience prepared them well for more than 12 hours of rollercoaster negotiations with Benfica on deadline day.
Fernandez and Mudryk headline an exciting and youthful list of acquisitions that include defender Benoit Badiashile, winger Noni Madueke, midfielder Andrey Santos and forward David Datro Fofana. Joao Felix was also secured on a lucrative five-month loan from Atletico Madrid, and full-back Malo Gusto has been loaned back to Lyon until the summer.
It was clear as early as those December meetings in Doha that the Chelsea ownership intended to jump into this January transfer market with both feet. The winter World Cup afforded them a luxury they never enjoyed on acquiring Chelsea from Roman Abramovich in June: real time to discuss and form a coherent recruitment plan, with the help of Winstanley and incoming technical director Christopher Vivell.
Unfavourable circumstances had led to a spectacularly erratic transfer policy in the summer of 2022, with predictably underwhelming results. Boehly and Eghbali were determined that Chelsea’s signings in January would all fit their broader vision to build a squad of young, hungry footballers with elite talent.
Fernandez ticked those boxes. When prising the Argentinean out of Benfica had felt unlikely over the course of the month, they explored alternative midfield options, both abroad and in England. Brighton swiftly rebuffed a £55million offer for Moises Caicedo, insisting the Ecuador international would not be sold mid-season. Having already negotiated with Brighton owner Tony Bloom and CEO Paul Barber for defender Marc Cucurella, their former head coach Graham Potter and his backroom team at Chelsea, as well as Winstanley, Boehly and Eghbali, had built up enough familiarity to recognise when their unwillingness to countenance a deal was genuine.
In the end, Chelsea’s ownership decided that making a historic financial commitment to secure Fernandez, the man at the top of their midfield wish list, was more worthwhile than settling for anything less now or in the summer.
A similar calculation was made with Gusto, acquired at the high end of his market value and loaned back for the remainder of the season at Lyon’s insistence; the belief that he was the right player ultimately overcame the desire to supply Potter with more immediate cover and competition for Reece James.
Along the way, Chelsea’s recruitment drive generated a lot of noise. This was partly a result of the head-spinning money at play and partly due to the way Winstanley likes to operate.
One source familiar with his work at Brighton, who was granted anonymity in order to protect their position, detailed how Winstanley would often speak to a large number of transfer targets in significant depth — even to the point of discussing contracts and potential fee schedules — before presenting the options to those above him to make a final decision on which deals to proceed.
As a system, it generally worked until the pursuit of Fernandez ensured Chelsea were significantly less adept at plate spinning on deadline day.
Jorginho was at least sold to Arsenal, another move that further underlined Boehly and Clearlake’s desire to continue the transformation of Chelsea’s squad at lightning speed, even at the risk of strengthening a London rival chasing a Premier League title. But if you are prepared to spend more than £600m on new players in just two transfer windows, such sweeping change is possible.
Now, though, the eyes of the football world are firmly focused on Chelsea.
The question is simple: how are Chelsea making this unprecedented — and surely unsustainable — level of transfer spending work within UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations?
The answer, as you might expect, is complicated.
Chelsea supporters have been given a crash course in amortisation over the past month, as Boehly and Clearlake have pushed the boundaries of what is possible with player contract lengths. By signing Fernandez to a deal that runs until June 2031, for example, they enable his €121million transfer fee to be spread across eight-and-a-half years on the books rather than a more conventional four or five, thereby greatly reducing his yearly cost on the accounts.
Mudryk, Badiashile, Madueke, Gusto and summer signing Wesley Fofana are on similarly long deals. This amortisation trick — which could end up backfiring if the players on these super-sized contracts fall short of expectations on the pitch — is one of the conditions Boehly and Clearlake have exploited in order to maximise their opportunity to front-load the level of spending that most elite clubs would stretch over three or four summer windows. But it is not the only one.
Another springs from the other half of how football clubs report transfers in their accounts. Transfer fees for purchased players might be amortised over the length of their contracts, but transfer fees for players sold are booked immediately in one lump sum (minus their remaining amortised cost on the books).
These differing accounting practices can make it surprisingly easy for clubs to significantly offset or even completely balance several high-profile signings with as few as one reasonably-sized sale in their annual results — particularly if the player or players sold are already fully amortised or academy graduates, who represent pure profit in the books.
An important example from recent Chelsea history: for the financial year ending June 2022, despite signing Romelu Lukaku in a disastrous £97.5million deal from Inter Milan, the club actually made a huge profit from player sales in the accounts — estimated by respected football finance analyst Swiss Ramble to be £160million — due to the departures, among others, of Tammy Abraham to Roma, Kurt Zouma to West Ham, Fikayo Tomori to AC Milan and Marc Guehi to Crystal Palace.
Chelsea’s overall financial results for 2021-22 are not yet public; the club has until March 31 to file their accounts with Companies House. But in past years big profits from player sales have been enough to lift the club into the black overall, despite match day and commercial revenue that consistently lags behind their Premier League rivals — most recently in 2019-20, when a £143million profit from player sales contributed to an overall pre-tax profit of £36million.
Swiss Ramble estimates that Chelsea’s pre-tax profit for 2021-22 will be £19million. Between those two years in the black is a huge £156million loss in 2020-21 partly resulting from the mammoth spending spree of summer 2020 that brought Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Ben Chilwell, Ziyech and Edouard Mendy to Stamford Bridge. FFP has traditionally only allowed clubs to lose up to €30million (£26.3million) over a three-year monitoring period, though a number of accommodations were made in recognition of the impact of COVID on club revenues.
Back in September, UEFA listed Chelsea as one of 18 clubs who “were able to technically fulfil the break-even requirement thanks to the application of the COVID-19 emergency measures and/or because they benefited from historical positive break-even results,” adding that further financial information had been requested and the relevant clubs “will be monitored closely in the upcoming period”.
UEFA also reminded Chelsea that those particular COVID accommodations no longer apply, but FFP is changing in ways that make Boehly and Clearlake’s current spending more viable. From 2023-24 the allowable loss limit is being doubled from €30million (£26.5million; $32.6million) to €60million, which would include the 2022-23 season as the third year of the monitoring period.
Clubs judged to be in good financial health will also be granted a further €30million in allowable losses over a three-year monitoring period, meaning that Chelsea could be permitted to lose as much as €90m over three years — triple the old limit.
Before the massive Fernandez signing and sale of Jorginho to Arsenal on deadline day, Swiss Ramble estimated a €96million loss for Chelsea over the three years up to 2022-23, only slightly over the €90m allowable loss limit. He also estimated the club’s squad cost at 92 per cent of revenue and profit from player sales; UEFA has ruled that all clubs must bring this ratio down to 90 per cent for 2023-24, then 80 per cent in 2024-25 and 70 per cent in 2025-26.
Recent history suggests Chelsea have relatively little to fear even from being found in breach of FFP. UEFA’s latest round of punishments, announced in September, amounted to a list of fines — of which only a small percentage was to be paid immediately, with the rest conditional on future compliance. You could argue that is the equivalent of a speeding ticket for an ambitious club determined to spend big.
Boehly has publicly insisted on numerous occasions that Chelsea have FFP in mind, but it’s clear that he and Clearlake are pushing as close to the limits as possible in order to try to build a squad capable of consistently competing for the biggest domestic and European trophies, perhaps mindful that financial and regulatory conditions in the coming years may not be so favourable for this scale of investment.
UEFA have already moved to close the amortisation loophole for future transfer windows; even if a player is signed on a seven or eight-year contract from the summer onwards, their transfer fee will be spread over no more than five years in any FFP calculation. The steadily tightening squad cost control rule will also put pressure on Chelsea and their rivals to be more disciplined when handing out lucrative salaries to players and coaches.
Then there is also the £60million in annual commercial income that Chelsea at present stand to lose from next season, as a result of the end of a £40million-a-year deal with main shirt sponsor Three and the early termination of a £20million-a-year deal with sleeve sponsor Whalefin. Neither have yet been replaced, even though the club is confident they will be.
Most significantly of all, Chelsea are currently facing the real prospect of playing the 2023-24 season without Champions League football, and perhaps without European participation of any kind. They languish 10th in the table, 10 points off the top four. Life in mid-table was absolutely not in the initial Boehly-Clearlake business plan, and would have a significant impact on the club’s transfer ambitions over the next two windows.
This is where it is important to note the very defined profile of player that Chelsea have targeted in this January window: players aged 23 or under who have, to varying degrees, flashed elite ability and can either blossom into key components of the next great team at Stamford Bridge or grow their resale value in the coming years. If enough of them prove to be positive assets on or off the pitch, nine-figure transfer splurges will not be required in future windows.
Even if those winter signings fail to impress at Stamford Bridge, the majority of them are on considerably lower salaries than many of their team-mates acquired under Abramovich. Mudryk, for example, earns a basic wage of £97,000 a week. Their contracts also contain provisions that reduce wages if the club does not qualify for the Champions League — a safeguard that Manchester City and Liverpool have incorporated for several years, but the previous regime at Stamford Bridge did not.
The thinking is that, taken together, these two shifts in policy will make under-performers far easier to sell on.
In any case, no one should expect this level of transfer spending to continue indefinitely. Boehly is not an oligarch and Clearlake Capital are not a sovereign wealth fund. The money being invested is drawn from private equity, and with it comes an expectation of an eventual positive return — either in the form of yearly profits or, more likely, a significant increase in Chelsea’s value that can be realised if the club is sold on.
Five months on from Boehly and Clearlake’s initial transfer outlay of more than £250million, it is fair to say that none of last summer’s five major permanent first-team arrivals — Wesley Fofana, Cucurella, Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — have so far improved Chelsea on the pitch. Loan signing Denis Zakaria has arguably made the best impression on supporters with several positive displays before suffering a thigh injury.
There are already signs that Chelsea’s winter spending will be a different story.
Badiashile has made a quietly solid start to life alongside Thiago Silva, while Joao Felix and Mudryk both thrilled in limited debut appearances against Fulham and Liverpool respectively. All of the permanent January arrivals are young enough to become foundational pillars of Potter’s squad over the next few years.
And what a squad it is — if not the deepest nor the most rounded in the Premier League, then certainly one of the most interesting:
The question of whether Chelsea addressed all of their most urgent needs during this January will linger, however.
Healthy central striking options are particularly underwhelming, limited to false No 9s like Havertz and Joao Felix or natural wide forwards like Aubameyang or Datro Fofana who are either not trusted or simply not ready to make consistent contributions.
On the flanks, inverted wingers Mudryk and Madueke give Chelsea a badly-needed infusion of line-breaking speed and one vs one dribbling, as well as complementary skill sets for overlapping full-backs Chilwell and James. Less ideal is the fact Ziyech and Christian Pulisic have ended another transfer window at Stamford Bridge despite both plainly seeing their futures elsewhere — particularly Ziyech, given the circumstances in which his loan move to PSG fell through. Quite how he refocuses between now and May remains to be seen.
At the other end of the pitch, Gusto’s delayed arrival from Lyon means James remains the only credible two-way option on the right of defence for the remainder of 2022-23, though Chelsea will hope his body proves equal to the task of a sparser match schedule. Potter does at least have plenty of youthful alternatives to the disappointing Koulibaly, all ready to partner with the evergreen Silva in a back two or three.
In the middle of the pitch there is finally a clear vision for a new era. Jorginho, the man who defined Chelsea’s midfield for better and worse from the day he arrived in the summer of 2018, is gone.
Jorginho departed Chelsea after four and a half years, a stint that yielded a European Cup and a Europa League (Photo: Robin Jones / Getty Images)
In his place arrives a 22-year-old World Cup winner riding the momentum of a rapid rise to international renown and, now, the most expensive Premier League import ever. Fernandez is the biggest symbol of Boehly and Clearlake’s vast investment project, and whether or not he lives up to the billing will go a significant way towards determining its success or failure.
But he is not alone. Kante and Kovacic remain to offer some level of continuity, as do Mason Mount and Ruben Loftus-Cheek — though it is important to note that none are contracted beyond June 2024.
Conor Gallagher is in a bracket of his own, simultaneously a valued part of Boehly and Clearlake’s youth movement and the most obviously saleable asset in the squad. Filling out the midfield rotation are Carney Chukwuemeka and Andrey Santos, two high-upside development projects who could be ready to help in a real way sooner than many might think.
Boehly and Clearlake have achieved one of their key goals in significantly reducing the average age of the squad. Overall this group of players has the look of a massive transition carried out at dizzying speed, and that process will not end with this window; asking those on Abramovich era wages to renew within a new salary structure could lead to more turnover in the next year or so.
The summer will also bring new personnel problems — chief among them what to do with Lukaku if Inter decide not to renew his loan for another season. Even with Christopher Nkunku incoming from RB Leipzig, a new striker is likely to remain a significant need. A goalkeeper, too, considering neither Kepa nor Mendy has entirely convinced over the past two years. Despite such vast investment, Chelsea’s squad is not yet particularly close to being complete.
What cannot be denied after this remarkable January transfer window, however, is the scale of Boehly and Clearlake’s ambition for Chelsea — or the money they are willing to put behind it.
(Additional contributors: David Ornstein, Adam Crafton, Elias Burke, Steve Madeley)
(Top image: Valter Gouveia/NurPhoto via Getty Images; Clive Mason/Getty Images; Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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