The moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars. Birds are flying backwards and the sun has risen in the west. A strange light pulses in the sky over Stamford Bridge. Most startlingly of all, eight years after signing from Augsburg for £14m, the Ghana left-back Baba Rahman has finally left Chelsea. Truly, a new age is upon us.
After the waves of signings last season, this summer of Todd Boehly’s Great Disruption was always going to be about consolidation and retrenchment. Quite aside from financial fair play issues, a first-team squad of 33, some of them forced to change in the corridor because the dressing room couldn’t accommodate them, was never viable.
And so, since the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino, the tale has largely been of departures: Kai Havertz, Mason Mount, Mateo Kovacic, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Kalidou Koulibaly, Christian Pulisic, Édouard Mendy, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ethan Ampadu, N’Golo Kanté, César Azpilicueta, Tiemoué Bakayoko and Rahman all gone, with David Datro Fofana loaned to Union Berlin while the loans of João Félix and Denis Zakaria have come to an end.
There are stories in that list of promise unfulfilled, of injuries undermining potential, of the relentless advance of age and of players who never quite seemed to find a role, but fundamentally space had to be created and the wage bill reduced. That has happened, thanks in no small part to the largesse of the Saudi Pro League, which has come to function as a sort of eBay for the Premier League, a way to raise cash by disposing of property they no longer need.
But there have also been acquisitions. The £51m deal for Christopher Nkunku was agreed last season and he brings obvious quality – albeit to an area in which Chelsea are already well stocked, forwards who don’t really play as a striker. Nicolas Jackson, signed from Villarreal for £32m, is a centre‑forward but he is only 22 and has started only 16 first-team league games. The wingers Diego Moreira and Ângelo, picked up on a free and for £12m from Benfica and Santos respectively, are 18. Then there are seven players who have returned from loan deals without being moved on. Even though 16 players have left Chelsea, they still have a notional first-team squad of 28.
More players, clearly, will leave. Hakim Ziyech would have joined the exodus to Saudi Arabia but for problems with his medical. Romelu Lukaku is almost certain to go. There will be further players loaned out – although no more than seven in total as the regulations change. Which, when the dust settles, leaves, what?
It’s a very young squad. After Thiago Silva, Ben Chilwell is the oldest defender at 26. The oldest midfielder will be Conor Gallagher at 23. That might turn out to be very exciting. Chelsea may be a thrillingly dynamic side, unburdened by the caution of experience, but it’s an enormous risk.
Take for example the case of Mykhailo Mudryk, signed from Shakhtar Donetsk in January for a potential £89m. Quick and skilful, he scored a stunning goal in the Champions League for Shakhtar against Celtic and produced a devastating performance against RB Leipzig. The potential is obvious. He showed it on his Chelsea debut, as a substitute at Anfield, although even then there was a caveat: he had tremendous pace and quick feet, but twice when presented with goalscoring opportunities, he snatched at the chance. But perhaps that was natural: he had, after all, scored only nine league goals in a career which at that point comprised 33 league starts in Ukraine.
Youth development is a complex process. You cannot simply take a talented 20-year-old and assume that by 25 he will be a consistent high-class performer. The circumstances have to be right. There have to be the right coaches who understand how best to use a player, how to maximise his strengths and improve his weaknesses. Mudryk thrives with space to run into, but can he also threaten against a team that sit deep? There need to be more experienced players to learn from, an environment that balances support with challenge.
At the moment, Mudryk is one of half a dozen wide forwards at Chelsea competing for, at most, two places. The danger is a couple of disappointing performances will mean any of those players is cast aside, having to fight their way back into the team – which is good neither for confidence nor general squad morale. With a couple of younger players the situation is more easily managed; the problem is half Chelsea’s squad are there on potential rather than proven ability.
What makes it even harder is how many of these players have been brought in from outside; they are not academy products familiar with Chelsea and their ways: Mount joins Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham and probably Callum Hudson-Odoi as home-produced talent leaving the club. It may help the budget and FFP calculations, but it makes forging an identity far harder. Pochettino demonstrated his capacity at Southampton and Tottenham to bring young players into the side but this is less integrating youth than constructing using only youth.
Even after 20 senior acquisitions in the Boehly era, obvious gaps remain in the squad – at least a couple of signings are probably still necessary. The 21-year-old Armando Broja, who has started only two league games for the club and was left out of the squad for the pre-season tour of the US, is the only true centre‑forward other than Jackson. At the back of midfield there’s very little cover for Enzo Fernández. The heart of the defence, meanwhile, with Wesley Fofana injured, is a mix of the very experienced in Thiago Silva and the inexperienced in everybody else – assured as Levi Colwill looked at Brighton last season.
Chelsea will not be as bad as last season. With no European football, Pochettino has time to instil a method. Boehly’s £650m spree has accumulated an array of sparkling new parts. The problem is nobody’s quite sure what they’re supposed to be building with them. Rahman may have gone, but this new era feels as confused as ever.