The most worthless trophy in soccer, even less valuable than Arsène Wenger’s beloved Fourth Place Trophy, is the one annually awarded to the “winner” of the transfer window. Busy, expensive, buzzy transfer seasons only rarely lead to any real-life silverware, so it’s generally wise to treat a club’s much-lauded summer business, and the instant title-contending status said business usually confers, with a healthy touch of skepticism.
Nevertheless, every now and then a team’s window does live up to expectations and brings in a handful of new pieces that form the foundation of a new, title-laden cycle. They might not come around often, but sometimes a Real Madrid-in-2009 does happen. And this busy, expensive, buzzy Chelsea offseason just might be one of them.
Chelsea spent more than €200 million in transfer fees during what the club hopes will be an era-defining transfer window. The bulk of that money, and the basis of their future hopes, went toward signing three new attacking players: Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, and Kai Havertz.
The oldest of those three is former Ajax winger Hakim Ziyech, coming over for a reasonable €40 million. The 27-year-old Moroccan is a torment on the right wing, both in terms of scoring and playmaking. The Netherlands called off the Eredivisie season entirely during their 26th game week due to the coronavirus pandemic, but in 21 appearances before that, Ziyech scored six times and assisted 12 more in league play. The year before, when Ajax made the Champions League semifinals, Ziyech notched 16 goals and 13 assists domestically, adding three of each during the continental tournament. He should slot right in nicely, with his through balls setting up the most goal-minded of Chelsea’s big new signings.
Despite mutual interest from Liverpool, former RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner instead moved to the blue side of London for €53 million. Werner is nominally a striker, though he’s less a big hold-up target like current Chelsea forward Olivier Giroud and more of a modern pressing forward who runs around a lot, with or without the ball, be it from a central position or from the left wing. The German’s primary value is in his scoring ability, and he proved especially adept on that with the whopping 28 goals he racked up in the Bundesliga last season. Werner’s speed, versatility, intensity, and scoring give Chelsea a hell of a weapon that should be lethal in any number of tactical set-ups.
The crown jewel of Chelsea’s summer, however, was Werner’s compatriot, Kai Havertz, now officially a former Bayer Leverkusen do-it-all attacker. The Blues bought the 21-year-old for €80 million after a protracted transfer saga, and if they can figure out how to best deploy him, Havertz should be worth every penny. Like Werner, Havertz is remarkably versatile; he can play behind a striker, out on the right wing, and even alone up top as a false 9. Also like Werner, Havertz knows how to score, nabbing 12 goals last season and 17 the season prior. He is big and strong and fast, but also surprisingly agile for a man who stands 6-foot-2. That he’s so young, so highly valued, and so good already, means that he’s a great foundational piece around which a club can build a team that can contend for years to come.
Elsewhere, the Blues attempted to fix their defensive shortcomings, grabbing Thiago Silva for free from Paris Saint-Germain, Malang Sarr also on a free transfer from Nice (though he’s reported to be sent out on loan), and then spending €50.2 million on Leicester City left back Ben Chilwell. This is, at the very least, a good thing because it shows that the Chelsea brain trust knows that they can’t just win by outscoring everyone with their shiny new toys.
However, Chilwell is a bit of a headscratcher, if only for the price. He’s definitely better than Marcos Alonso and a wrong-footed César Azpilicueta, but €50 million for a defender who is, at best, only pretty good right now is a bit of a risk. Or it would be if Chelsea wasn’t a very rich club. The club must see something to like in Chilwell’s game beyond the fact that he’s English, but there might have been better deals for a left back out there. That being said, Chilwell will improve what has been one of Chelsea’s weakest links for a few years now, so perhaps the price is only something to side-eye, rather than scoff at.
If there are potential issues in how Chelsea conducted this window, they have to do with the players already on the roster. The influx of young, talented attackers could set back the development of some of the Blues’ current crop of promising youngsters. Prime among those is American wonderteenman Christian Pulisic, who looked like Chelsea’s best player by far during the coronavirus restart, but Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, and Callum Hudson-Odoi will all now also face a much tougher fight to get minutes. Are there enough minutes to go around, even if Chelsea moves to a 4-2-3-1 (likely starting Pulisic on the left wing opposite Ziyech, with Werner in front of Havertz in the middle)? Finding a way to form a balanced team from a squad long on gifted, direct attackers and short on patient passers and great defenders looks to be manager Frank Lampard’s biggest challenge this season.
Another headache for Lampard will be figuring out what to do with the goalie situation. The world’s most expensive keeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, was a veritable disaster for Chelsea last year. His backup, Willy Caballero, has never been an elite keeper, either. Absent finding someone to pawn Kepa off to and some funds to buy a less meme-worthy replacement, Chelsea is probably stuck with what it has in goal, so perhaps the club’s only recourse is to hope that a better defense in front of their goalie will ease the pressure and allow him to play as well as he did at Athletic.
Those are not minor problems, but even if they keep Chelsea out of true title contention this season—the Pool Boys are still the Pool Boys, and Manchester City won’t play as poorly as last season, so it’s hard to envision Chelsea coming out on top—the Blues are now set up to be a legitimately dominant team for the foreseeable future. Even if one or two of their big signings flop, all of them have the potential to be the best players in the league at their respective positions. Title glory might not be in the cards this year, but barring a major catastrophe, Chelsea should be contending for titles sooner than later, and for years to come. If that proves the case, we will all point to this transfer window as the birth of something special.