clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Chelsea’s New Era Needs a Method to Todd Boehly’s Madness

As the West London club prepares to play its first game under Graham Potter, the man who hired him is in the spotlight for his expensive—and unconventional—gambles

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For nearly two decades now, it has felt perpetually inevitable that Chelsea would soon fire its head coach. Experienced or green, foreign or English, no manager seemed safe from the ax that former owner Roman Abramovich swung over and over again. When the Blues parted ways with Thomas Tuchel last Wednesday, replacing him with Brighton’s Graham Potter, a sense of familiarity circled the club—a feeling that had appeared to be diminishing since the start of Todd Boehly’s extraordinary reign.

After Abramovich, a Russian oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin, was forced to sell the club in the wake of the ongoing war in Ukraine, a group composed of Boehly, fellow Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter, and private equity firm Clearlake Capital bought Chelsea for more than $3 billion. With this transition, it seemed like the West London club was finally in steady hands. Under Abramovich, Chelsea won five Premier League championships, triumphed in the FA Cup five times, and claimed four European titles—including two Champions League crowns, one of which was won under Tuchel last year. But the Russian’s 19-year tenure saw 16 different coaches come and go, none lasting longer than three and a half years. Chelsea’s spending and operations hinged on the flow of Abramovich’s rubles, and so the gloomy prospect that the billionaire would turn off the money tap and push the Blues into financial peril always loomed over Stamford Bridge.

But even by Abramovich’s standards, Tuchel’s firing feels plain ruthless. True, his Chelsea won just four of its final 10 Premier League games last season, suddenly conceding a concerning number of goals—and the slump carried over to the 2022-23 campaign. But the 49-year-old manager still won 60 percent of his games while in charge, one of just four coaches in the club’s history to do so. There was, of course, the Champions League victory just months after he took the helm midseason, and his teams reached the final of every competition Chelsea entered after he arrived in January 2021. On a personal level, Tuchel did an admirable job representing the club during its messy breakup with Abramovich, showing empathy while batting away uncomfortable questions about Ukraine and the Russian’s ownership.

Still, Tuchel lost his job earlier in the season than any coach of the Roman era. Even José Mourinho lasted two weeks longer when his first stint at Stamford Bridge ended abruptly on September 20, 2007.

The dismissal reportedly took Tuchel by surprise, with the manager heading to Chelsea’s training ground as usual that morning only to find himself out of the job after a 10-minute conversation. It also happened to take place right after his 100th game in charge of the team—and 100 days since Boehly’s takeover, which the club’s leadership made sure to point out in a dry statement. With the Blues sandwiched in sixth between Manchester United and Liverpool, just five points off Arsenal at the top, Tuchel could hardly imagine a harsher farewell—which he later said left him “devastated”—indicating a rapid fallout between the manager and the new owners as the likely cause of the breakup.

Over the summer, The Athletic reports, Tuchel clashed with Boehly and co-owner Behdad Eghbali over a slate of things, from transfer strategy to the coach’s candid demeanor. Certain players, Christian Pulisic among them, reportedly felt unhappy with their role and a lack of guidance on how they could return to good graces. Tuchel has developed a reputation for being combustible, leading to conflicts with players and club hierarchy at both Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain in the past.

However, from the early days of their reign, Boehly and Eghbali’s actions seemed to be setting Chelsea on a collision course that no captain could have successfully veered away from. In hindsight, some signals should have alerted the Blues faithful that, perhaps, tumultuous days were far from over even though Abramovich no longer owned the club.

Boehly reportedly failed to acquire basic understanding of the soccer market’s operations and rules of the game during his three-year pursuit of the Chelsea takeover, beginning in 2020. The American first showed interest in the Premier League side back in 2019. Yet, by various accounts, the Dodgers and Los Angeles Lakers minority owner’s knowledge of the sport was still poor at the time of the takeover in May. His unwillingness to take a closer look beyond stats and financials strikes as an odd and bold move, and raises questions about Boehly and his partners’ judgment and motivations.

That bravado accompanied the new leadership’s actions up to the moment they fired Tuchel—just days after taking their summer transfer window spending to a staggering $300 million. Boehly seems to have misjudged how his business acumen and knowledge of American sports would translate to the soccer market after parting ways with Petr Cech and Marina Granovskaia—the executive duo who ran Chelsea’s operations during Abramovich’s tenure—and appointing himself interim director of sports operations.

Then, Boehly and Eghbali placed some of the player recruitment responsibilities on Tuchel’s shoulders, a role the German openly said he wasn’t comfortable with. The short-sightedness of that decision was on full display when Tuchel opposed Boehly’s hopes of making a splash by signing Cristiano Ronaldo. The coach believed Ronaldo’s arrival would cause more harm than good—several European clubs rejected the 37-year-old’s attempts to leave Manchester United for a reason—and shared his opinion with Boehly. It reportedly played a role in the fallout between the two men, showing exactly why a manager should talk transfer business with a sporting director, not the man who signs his paychecks.

No one can deny that Boehly and Eghbali toiled away in the transfer market. The pair was widely reported to have spent the majority of the summer window meeting with agents and calling clubs to inquire about their players’ availability. And, unlike the Kroenkes at Arsenal, Boehly and Dodgers co-owner Walter pumped money into their new European venture right away—and with the same zeal with which they have invested in American sports. After the Dodgers opened the 2022 MLB season with the all-time highest payroll of $310.6 million, Chelsea followed up with a spending spree to bring in nine new players. It’s the most money the club has ever splashed in a single transfer window.

But, money aside, the owners’ first transfer window hardly portrays them as level-headed club owners —even if that’s not something you’ll hear from Brighton CEO Paul Barber. Boehly paid him a world-record £22 million in compensation to lure Potter away after already giving Barber £60 million to outbid Manchester City for left wing back Marc Cucurella.

Boehly and Eghbali made some high-risk, high-reward deals but also managed to deliver one of Tuchel’s reported transfer targets in Raheem Sterling. They missed out on a slew of others because they wasted time pursuing player swaps—errors they might have avoided with a quick Google search on whether soccer teams can trade stars without their consent.

Their dealings also left some of Chelsea’s signings with little time to settle in before the season kicked off. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Blues’ only experienced nominal striker, signed in the very last moments of the transfer window, three and a half weeks after the Premier League campaign started. Fittingly, Chelsea got Aubameyang, a former Borussia Dortmund player, to hype up his reunion with Tuchel in his first interview for the club, only to sack the coach a few days later and take away the one thing that would have aided the 33-year-old striker’s acclimatization.

The last few weeks at Stamford Bridge have been a mess—with the latest reports painting an even uglier picture of how the coaching change came about. Boehly is said to have showcased a detailed knowledge of Potter’s career and style during the Cucurella negotiations—a month before Tuchel was shown the door—and, according to The Athletic, further inquired about “his ability to manage a dressing room, and whether he is regarded as ready to step up to a ‘Big Six’ club.” This suggests Boehly was plotting to appoint Potter as Tuchel’s replacement even while continuing to spend hundreds of million dollars on the latter’s transfer agenda.

Speaking of his vision for Chelsea’s future on Tuesday during a SALT conference in New York City, Boehly called the club “no different” from running “any human capital business”—which explains some of the new ownership’s actions. But his comment also suggests a worrying lack of understanding around the culture of soccer, even in the billionaire-owner era that has sucked romanticism out of the sport in the eyes of some fans. If the new bosses want to treat Chelsea purely as a business venture, the least they could do is offer evidence that their vision will yield stability and prosperity—particularly as the turmoil at Stamford Bridge hasn’t gone unnoticed. Mistaking purchased players like Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne as products of the club’s academy certainly won’t do that. Especially when those players received little game time at Chelsea and developed into world-class talents elsewhere.

Less Premier League all-star game talk, more study of the dynamics within the league and sport itself sounds like a mindset that Boehly and his crew should embrace moving forward. They seem like an ambitious group of investors—albeit one with a we-know-better attitude clouding their judgment. And they picked a bad time for experiments. Mistakes already cost plenty in the Premier League; a finish outside of Champions-League-qualifying spots—coupled with frivolous personnel decisions—can result in revenue swings worth tens of millions of dollars. And they’ll only cost more since both top and bottom teams are starting to spend exorbitant sums on talent. Nottingham Forest splashed more money than Liverpool, City, or Arsenal after their promotion to the Prem this summer. And considering the rapidly growing income streams like the record revenue from international broadcasting deals, this trend is bound to continue.

Luckily for Chelsea, Boehly and his business partners picked the right man to step in and steady the ship amid the storm they created. Potter deserves a chance to prove himself on the grandest of stages after three impressive years in Brighton, which he leaves in the top four after a brilliant start to the season. And the 47-year-old’s style shouldn’t be a tactical shock for Blues stars with his fondness for back-three lineups and reliance on wing backs—including his old friend Cucurella. If they indeed needed a brilliant soccer mind with a more approachable personality to move forward, Potter could be their man.

As Potter takes charge of his first game as Chelsea gaffer in the Champions League on Wednesday, it’s clear that, all in all, Blues fans are in for a ride. As Abramovich’s presence at the club faded away, many begged the Russian owner to reengage in Chelsea’s life and operations—or, at least, to show up at games more often when he still could.

So far, on both counts, it appears the Blues faithful won’t have to worry with Boehly and his group pulling the strings.