Chelsea has managed to do something few thought could be possible: Spend $1 billion on players and not get any better.
In fact, there’s a case to be made that the team which still held the status of European champion as recently as 18 months ago has deteriorated after an unprecedented spending spree that stunned the soccer world.
Approaching the halfway stage of the Premier League campaign, Chelsea is languishing in 12th place — sandwiched between Wolverhampton and Brentford — having finished last season in the exact same position.
That despite spending $280 million in the summer of 2022, $350 million in January this year and more than $400 million in the most recent offseason.
Turns out Chelsea might need to spend some more.
“Our reality now is midtable,” Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino said after the team’s 2-0 loss at Everton on Sunday that exposed many of its underlying problems. “And if we want to go up, we have to push ourselves.
“When the transfer window opens, (we will) see what we can do.”
The alarming thing is that Chelsea's heavily transformed squad still looks short in key areas despite the huge outlay on 29 players since May 2022, mostly on long contracts to spread “amortization” costs of transfer fees.
Pochettino has only had one fit senior striker to call on for most of this season — and that is Nicolas Jackson, a raw, 22-year-old Senegal international signed on the back of a strong second half of last season at Villarreal. Jackson’s finishing has been erratic and he has struggled to cope with the demands of leading the attack of a much-scrutinized team at such an early stage of his career.
Plenty was expected of France striker Christopher Nkunku but he hasn’t been seen since sustaining a serious knee problem in preseason, while Armando Broja has been in and out because of injuries.
Chelsea managed 16 shots against Everton but only four were on target.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, the defense is being held together by a 39-year-old, Thiago Silva, who had to be rested against Everton because it was Chelsea’s third game in a week.
Center backs Axel Disasi and Benoit Badiashile were both plucked from French club Monaco this year but have yet to establish themselves. Reece James, the newly appointed captain, was forced off against Everton with the latest in a long line of injuries — it was a hamstring issue this time — and left back Ben Chilwell is also currently sidelined through injury.
In goal, Robert Sanchez is somehow Chelsea’s first-choice goalkeeper having ended last season as Brighton’s No. 2 goalie.
The only area where Chelsea has enviable quality is central midfield, yet the axis of Enzo Fernandez and Moises Caicedo — who cost around $275 million, combined — behind Conor Gallagher as the attacking midfielder has yet to fully gel. Caicedo, in particular, has not reproduced the performances he had for Brighton last season.
Pochettino said the Chelsea project funded by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital required patience. Shrewder purchases in the transfer market are surely needed, too.
“It is a new project, a new team with too many circumstances against us,” Pochettino said. “That’s the reality — too many problems and circumstances from the beginning of the season.
“It’s not as easy to build something new. That is why it is about being strong in what we assess and be clever and take decisions to try to improve in the second part of the season, to be more competitive and get the results a club like Chelsea deserves.”
The big-spending new owners cannot have foreseen having back-to-back seasons outside the lucrative Champions League, though, and that looks increasingly likely even if there’s a chance England has five teams in Europe’s top competition that expands to 36 clubs next year.
Unlike Tottenham, for example, Chelsea isn’t making the most of not being in any European competitions this season. Pochettino typically has a full week to prepare for matches but it hardly shows — the team has won just five of its 16 matches in the league.
The upcoming schedule for Chelsea during the packed festive calendar in English soccer looks benign, on paper anyway, and should offer a chance to climb up the standings. Sheffield United, Wolverhampton, Crystal Palace and Luton are the opponents before the turn of the year, all of whom are below Chelsea in the table.
If Chelsea is still in the bottom half of the standings heading into 2024, serious questions will be asked of Pochettino — and panic will surely be spreading through the boardroom at Stamford Bridge about a bold transfer strategy that, as it stands, has gone wrong.