Editor’s note: This article has been updated after Chelsea announced on September 7 that Thomas Tuchel was sacked as Chelsea manager after their Champions League defeat to Dinamo Zagreb.
In mid-July, an agent seeking a way out of a transfer deal that didn’t include Chelsea had an unusual idea: “Let’s call Todd Buehle”.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS and more (US)
The player in question was in advanced talks to move to another Premier League team, but negotiations stalled for some time due to his assessment. Chelsea have not previously shown any interest although several major European clubs are closely monitoring the situation, but the Blues were so attached to so many players at the time that the agent believed Boley, who had expanded his role as new co-owner and chairman of the board of directors to the business. As interim sporting director after the club’s takeover, he was worth a try. Less than a week after it was all over, Tuchel was fired.
Boehle didn’t even negotiate. After being informed of the asking price – a large sum north of £15m left obscure here to keep the player’s identity confidential – Boehly almost immediately agreed in principle to both the assessment and the proposed personal terms. This was followed by a series of internal meetings headed by Bohli, coach Thomas Tuchel and co-owner Bahhad Ighbali, during which the player’s final evaluation was conducted. In the end, Tuchel wasn’t fully convinced and didn’t pursue Chelsea.
The player is now at a rival English club, but this example is a snapshot from Chelsea’s last transfer period, the first under Boehly and Clearlake Capital’s ownership. It was a summer in which the team had been playing catch-up from the start, enduring a string of frustrations amid accusations of naivety, but ended up with nine signings totaling more than £250m.
According to Deloitte’s sports business group, Chelsea spent more than any other Premier League club in the division’s record-breaking summer – totaling £1.9 billion in expenditures. The staggering sums evoked memories of Roman Abramovich’s first summer in 2003, when Chelsea paid £121.5m on 14 players as the club made a strong statement of intent. The methodology may have been different, but in many ways the goal this year was something similar.
Abramovich’s ownership ended abruptly and sharply as UK government sanctions over alleged ties to Vladimir Putin led to the sale of Chelsea FC earlier this year. Despite these shameful ends, there are still large sections of Blues fans who are willing to venerate Abramovich by separating his athletic contribution from his political influence.
He built a relentless and merciless winning machine: no English club has won more than 21 trophies collected during his nearly 19-year tenure. A culture in which second place was rarely tolerated has its roots in Abramović’s coinage. Money was not an obstacle to firing a poorly performing manager or promoting a struggling player. There was no tomorrow.
Consequently, the acquisition drove Chelsea into the unknown, and the sense of uncertainty was exacerbated by the departures of chief transfer negotiator and director Marina Granovskaya, Chairman Bruce Buck, CEO Guy Lawrence, and technical and performance advisor Petr Cech. Buhli chose to step into the void, becoming interim sporting director partly out of necessity, but also reflecting a decision to change Tuchel’s level of influence.
Head coaches have usually had some degree of input into Chelsea’s transfer strategy, but the final decisions on hiring have always been made above them. However, sources told ESPN that Boehly wanted to uphold Tuchel’s rule as one of the best coaches in the world in a bid to help make up for the ground loss. The club’s summer plans were severely delayed because British government sanctions prevented Chelsea from talking to new deals before the sale and from renegotiating contracts, prompting Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger to leave as free agents for Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively.
The decision to loan Romelu Lukaku was seen as a vital moment in the club’s reset. Lukaku has been a problem for months, considered a misfit in Tuchel’s regime and a nuisance figure since giving an unauthorized interview with Sky Italia last December when he talked about returning to Inter Milan one day.
Sources told ESPN that Cech was one of the many main voices who wanted to continue with Lukaku this season. Tuchel, however, wanted to get rid of Lukaku and Boehly decided to support that view, accepting a modest offer from Inter to bring him back to Serie A club, even paying a percentage of his £300,000-a-week salary to provide a quick fix for it. A situation that could have continued all summer.
Tuchel’s backing appears to have been effectively booked into this window by dropping one striker initially and acquiring another at the end as Chelsea eventually signed 33-year-old Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on deadline day, a deal that paid off only as much. Modest of the economy. The meaning – £12m plus defender Marcos Alonso headed to Camp Nou in return – but the coach reunited with a highly respected player after two years together at Borussia Dortmund in mid-2010.
However, what happened at the time between Lukaku and Aubameyang’s deals was a bit of a mess and contributed to a gradual erosion of the relations between Boehly and Tuchel. It was due to a number of factors: a little naivety in the negotiations, opportunism from clients looking forward to payday, and a multifaceted approach that wasn’t conveyed clearly enough. Several agents involved in speaking to Boehly and Eghbali this summer described the pair to ESPN as being kind, polite and professional during negotiations. Both showed a healthy knowledge of the game and sought to devote themselves with the main characters in a relatively small world at the highest level. But Granovskaia was reputed to be a tough negotiator who only moved toward a goal when he was confident the player was ready to join.
This is a morally ambiguous area given that clubs are supposed to agree terms first, yet it is a secret that a player’s intentions are among the first aspects to be determined in modern day negotiations. Sources have suggested to ESPN that the new system has let itself down in this regard with Leeds United’s Ravenha, who has made it clear for some time that he wants to join Barcelona despite Chelsea accepting the winger’s offer.
Likewise, Jules Kounde favored a move to Barcelona despite the Blues’ protracted pursuit of a central defender, and given the exits of both Rudiger and Christensen, it took a few public failures like this to exacerbate fears that Chelsea were outnumbered and floundering in the market. To offset rising defensive concerns, Cesar Azpilicueta was denied the opportunity to join Barcelona himself and instead was awarded a lucrative contract extension worth more than £150,000 a week, according to a source.
With money to be spent and the club looking as if it was scrambling, some agents sensed an opportunity – not least the one mentioned at the top of the piece. This example was not the only time Buhli explored a potential deal only for Tuchel to decide against it, hinting at a difference of opinion that would later form the basis of the discontent that led to Tuchel’s departure. Sources told ESPN that Buhli met with senior agent Jorge Mendes in July to discuss the market in general and establish relationships, but the idea of signing his biggest client, Cristiano Ronaldo, also surfaced.
It is believed that Boehly was seduced by the idea of bringing such a famous player to Stamford Bridge, even at the age of 37. Ronaldo was a historic New Age signature and also a commercial goldmine. However, Ronaldo’s lack of pressing from the front was a concern for Manchester United and was a prominent reason why Tuchel wanted Lukaku out of the squad. Although Ronaldo’s talent continued, he was not tactically fit. Sources told ESPN that Bohle had raised the possibility of signing Ronaldo on more than one occasion, but Tuchel has repeatedly rejected the idea and was frustrated at having to explain his position, which has not changed much.
This wasn’t the only time Bohle and Tuchel have taken different views: sources told ESPN that Boehle was primarily responsible for blocking Christian Pulisic’s loan exit as the player expressed concerns about the lack of match time ahead of the World Cup that begins in November. . There were various reasons for this decision, but losing someone from Pulisic’s standing in the United States – much bigger than England – would not have been better off being so close to the US men’s national team playing at the World Cup. Doubts began to grow on both sides about Buhle and Tuchel’s ability to work together effectively.
Tuchel’s tangible and public frustrations with the incomplete transfer work once the season has partially started has led the club to pay what can be generously described as a bonus on Marc Cucurella at Brighton.
The defender wanted to join Manchester City but the club refused to pay the asking price, which was suggested to be around £50m. Chelsea ended up paying £62m, in part because Brighton wanted to sign Levi Colwell on a permanent basis as part of the deal, but eventually took him on loan in exchange for a higher fee.
Brighton chief executive Paul Barber said of Buhle on TalkSPORT: “Although this was a new field for him, dealing with footballers in the Premier League is quite new, but obviously it was very difficult. It makes it easy. It was agreed and I respect him for that.”
One agent told ESPN in response: “Of course you’d have all the respect in the world for Boehle if you made him pay £62m for Cucurella!” However, the blues extracted better value elsewhere. Raheem Sterling has only a year left on his City contract, but the £45m fee represents an excellent price for a player of that pedigree in his prime.
Kalidou Koulibaly adds valuable experience in defence, compensating for the departures of Christensen and Rudiger, while Chelsea pursued a concurrent policy of acquiring young talents for the future; Karne Chukwuemica, Cesare Casadey and Gabriel Slonina are promising talents, but as they struggle to get other players into areas of the squad that require more urgency, the overall picture may have looked more muddled than it actually was.
It should also be noted that the timing of many transfers is often dictated by the selling club. Barcelona’s complicated finances affected several transfers this summer, while Leicester waited until the final week of the window before allowing 21-year-old defender Wesley Fofana to join Chelsea in a deal worth around £70m.
Wanting to be as diligent as possible, Boehly arranged for Los Angeles Lakers medical staff to have Fofana’s medical procedure – which lasted a full day – to protect against any complications from a broken leg that had caused Fofana to miss 41 games in Leicester’s last. season. It also helped Tuchel respond quickly to worrisome defeats against Leeds and Southampton, bringing on loan to Denis Zakaria to help Chelsea “boost their toughness” as their coach demanded.
The club is also seeking stability in other ways, trying to secure players with long contracts – six years in some cases, such as Reece James – while former Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards is understood to have turned down a similar role at Stamford Bridge. It is a sign of recognition of the need for more football experience.
That search has now extended to the head coach’s role as a breakdown in relations between Buhle and Tuchel eventually led to the latter’s sacking on Wednesday morning. Frustrations over the club’s transfer strategy were compounded by the team’s poor performance early in the season and rumors of many players’ displeasure and disappointment with Tuchel’s approach contributed to his departure.
It’s been a stormy start but one thing is clear: Boehly and Clearlake Capital aren’t afraid to echo Abramovich in their pursuit of excellence.