Todd Boehly’s first Chelsea transfer window: Hotel meets, agitated Tuchel and Aubameyang
Todd Boehly’s first Chelsea transfer window: Hotel meets, agitated Tuchel and Aubameyang

“Can you meet me at The Connaught?”

Agents and executives from clubs across Europe have lived in hope of receiving a message along these lines over the past two and a half months.

The Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, famously home to French leader Charles de Gaulle during the Second World War, is the luxurious base from which Todd Boehly has led a window of historic transfer spending that Chelsea’s new owners hope will help re-establish the club as perennial Premier League and Champions League contenders.

Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly, Marc Cucurella, Gabriel Slonina, Carney Chukwuemeka, Cesare Casadei, Wesley Fofana, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Denis Zakaria: nine new signings acquired with spending in excess of £250million ($288m), and primed to rise further with performance-related add-ons. It is a recruitment drive of staggering scale, comparable to the one bankrolled by Roman Abramovich in the weeks following his £140million takeover of Chelsea in 2003.


Many more players were approached, with some spurning interest from Stamford Bridge in public and humiliating fashion. Boehly has had to move fast and learn faster, adapting to an unforgiving transfer market and trying to make up ground on Chelsea’s rivals while rebuilding Thomas Tuchel’s squad, in near-constant talks to buy and sell footballers from mid-June to September 1.

It has been nothing short of a rollercoaster, the tremors of which have been felt throughout English and European football. The Athletic spoke to people inside and outside Chelsea to tell the full story, which includes:

  • Disagreements with Marina Granovskaia and Petr Cech about Romelu Lukaku’s proposed loan return to Inter
  • Tuchel’s heightened agitation in July over lack of transfer progress
  • Strong resistance to Gary Neville’s claim that Boehly has been playing Football Manager and accusations of reckless spending
  • The strategy behind not selling academy youngsters and giving new signings unusually long contracts
  • How the Leeds United and Southampton defeats influenced thinking on signing Aubameyang and a new midfielder

Chelsea’s new era has started with a bang, and one of the most eventful transfer windows that any club has ever experienced.

The confirmation that this would be a very different transfer window at Chelsea came on June 22, with the announcement that long-serving director Granovskaia was leaving and Boehly would assume the role of “interim sporting director” until the club named a full-time replacement. Five days later, technical and performance advisor Cech also departed Stamford Bridge.

Eyebrows were raised throughout European football at the swift dismantling of Chelsea’s well-regarded Abramovich-era football structure, but Boehly and joint-governors Clearlake Capital had quickly concluded that a more hands-on approach would be required in order to enact the new direction they wished to take.

Key to their thinking was the Lukaku mess. Granovskaia and Cech were understood to be opposed to granting the Belgian his desired return to Inter on loan only one year after becoming Chelsea’s most expensive-ever signing in a £97.5million deal, but the new owners viewed ridding Tuchel of a player who had proven a nightmare fit with his system to be a necessary statement of faith.

The eventual terms — a loan fee of €8million plus add-ons, as well as a commitment to cover Lukaku’s wages at a reduced level — were highly favourable to Inter, and some at Chelsea have since wondered if waiting might have yielded a more rewarding market for a striker who has been one of Europe’s most reliable goalscorers for much of the past decade. Boehly and Clearlake, however, are understood to be comfortable with a decision they regard as in the club’s best sporting interests.

Boehly wasted no time in establishing himself within football circles alongside Clearlake co-founder Behdad Eghbali, who has been highly visible and active in all Chelsea transfer discussions. One individual working in English football who met the two men this summer told The Athletic that Eghbali came across as extremely involved and knowledgeable about specific players and the transfer market as a whole.

The two men gave notice of their intent to build direct relationships by representing Chelsea at the Premier League’s annual meeting in early June, and later the same month, Boehly travelled to Portugal for a meeting with powerful agent Jorge Mendes at which Cristiano Ronaldo’s name was raised (more on that later).

Raheem Sterling, Todd Boehly, Chelsea
Todd Boehly (left) and Behdad Eghbali (right) have led a £250m transfer spree this summer, including the signing of Raheem Sterling (Photo: Getty Images)

On July 7, as Barcelona and Chelsea acrimoniously tussled over Leeds United winger Raphinha, Boehly sat down for a meal with Joan Laporta at the exclusive Via Veneto restaurant in the Catalan capital; the main purpose of the dinner date, according to a source, was simply to meet and build familiarity rather than to advance any particular transfer negotiations.

That was also the idea behind Boehly’s decision to host an informal dinner for owners and executives of all the Premier League clubs on July 26. The evening consisted of a drinks reception in a private room before the meal at a luxurious London restaurant, with no formal dress code and a relaxed vibe for those present to get to know one another.

Speaking anonymously as they were commenting on a private event, one executive who attended told The Athletic: “The one thing I took away from it is (Boehly) absolutely loves sport and has got a long-term love affair with football. He didn’t claim to know everything about the game, but he certainly talked passionately about his interest in it.”

That evening constituted rare respite for Boehly from the barrage of transfer-related WhatsApp and email messages as well as frequent Zoom calls that have dominated this summer. Still, there was no escaping the fact that Chelsea must command more of his attention than his other business interests in these early weeks and months following the takeover.

Boehly and Eghbali have thrown themselves into this new world with total commitment, real enthusiasm and plenty of advice — but the learning curve has been steep and far from seamless.

Speaking after Chelsea’s 4-0 pre-season defeat by Arsenal in Orlando on July 23, Tuchel could no longer hide his frustration. “I am far from relaxed,” he said.

“I look at the last season and parts of the game where we struggled, parts of the season where we struggled, and then we got sanctioned and players left us and some players are trying to leave us, and this is where it is.

“So we had an urgent appeal for quality players, a huge amount of quality players. We got two quality players but we are not competitive like this. Unfortunately, you could see it today.”

Tuchel had spent much of July in a heightened state of agitation at Chelsea’s lack of transfer progress — a mood only temporarily eased by the arrivals of  Sterling from Manchester City and Koulibaly from Napoli while the squad were on US soil.

The initial wish list he had given to the ownership included Sterling, Raphinha and Juventus centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, and the nature of Chelsea’s failed pursuits for the latter two players raised worrying questions about Boehly and Clearlake’s ability to navigate the transfer market. In both cases, cash fees were agreed with the selling club before it was clear whether or not the players themselves actually wanted to come to Stamford Bridge, and that aspect of the process was not prioritised.

In mitigation, the timing of their acquisition of the club from Abramovich had deprived Chelsea’s new owners of any opportunity to establish dialogue and put in vital transfer groundwork with transfer targets and their representatives; Barcelona and Bayern Munich had done exactly that with Raphinha and De Ligt respectively, helping cement the players’ preference to join them. Tuchel also later admitted that his initial transfer wish list had been “pretty unrealistic”.

Then there was the broader strategic error of committing time and energy to pursuing players emphatically not on Tuchel’s list. In the wake of the Mendes meeting, Boehly thoroughly explored the framework of a deal that would bring Ronaldo to Chelsea, backing away when his head coach voiced strong opposition in several conversations over the course of two weeks.

Boehly and Clearlake are also understood to regret spending so long chasing Jules Kounde, a player Tuchel was less than sold on when he was presented as a target by the old Chelsea regime. The France international, having been left at the altar in the summer of 2021 and then again while talks were held over De Ligt, Nathan Ake, Presnel Kimpembe and Denzel Dumfries, understandably concluded that he was not Chelsea’s first choice — and in truth neither were they for him once Barcelona came calling.

The negotiating style of Boehly was also a talking point among clubs who dealt with Chelsea. His inclination to pitch cash-plus player swap deals involving those peripheral to Tuchel’s plans — Timo Werner was offered to Juventus in the De Ligt talks, while Christian Pulisic formed part of the initial packages offered to AC Milan for Rafael Leao — led one source familiar with the Lukaku negotiations to describe Chelsea’s interim sporting director as bringing a “baseball mentality” to transfers.

Chelsea insisted that the label was erroneous, arguing that his priority is simply to get the very best deal in every scenario and that, in some situations, enquiring about potential player exchanges is part of that process. Deadline day provided late evidence of that with Marcos Alonso leveraged to significantly lower Barcelona’s initial asking price for Aubameyang, even if the two players ultimately changed teams in separate transactions.

You don’t need to go far in European transfer circles to find someone who heard Chelsea’s new owners criticising the old regime’s failure to retain Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen this summer. The loss of two Champions League-winning centre-backs on free transfers placed Boehly and Clearlake in a deeply unenviable negotiating position from day one of their ownership, further complicating a summer window in which significant squad investment was already required.

That defensive landscape was the primary reason Chelsea’s new owners ultimately vetoed club captain Cesar Azpilicueta’s desired move to Barcelona. At the very least, the Spaniard could not be allowed to leave until two new senior defenders had been acquired, but Boehly also recognised how valuable Azpilicueta’s experience and leadership qualities could be to a squad in transition. He offered a new two-year contract and made a compelling case to the player, changing his mind.

Despite their inherited problems, Chelsea’s new owners still managed to make nine signings for a combined initial outlay in excess of £250 million — testament primarily to the formidable financial firepower and startling ambition of Chelsea’s new ownership group. But there is also strategy within the spending spree.

Koulibaly and Aubameyang are both elite veterans who were available for reasonable prices. Sterling’s fee was fair for a Premier League and England star in his prime years and while Cucurella was acquired at a premium, he is a proven performer in England’s top flight across multiple positions. Elsewhere the aim has been to target youth with world-class potential; Fofana’s giant fee recognises that he is considerably further along that path than Chukwuemeka, Casadei and Slonina.

Wesley Fofana was finally signed for a fee of £69.5m, a price the Chelsea ownership believe represents good value (Photo: Getty Images)

It has been aggressive and, from the outside, looked chaotic at times. That has in part been due to circumstances outside Chelsea’s control — namely, Barcelona assuming the role of transfer-market disruptors this summer — and in part due to Boehly and Eghbali finding their way, but any suggestion that the spending has been wild or reckless is met with strong resistance. The new owners are business-minded with long track records as disciplined, calculating investors; it has not, they insist, been a case of Boehly playing Football Manager, as Gary Neville claimed.

Brighton CEO Paul Barber also pushed back on this cavalier characterisation of Boehly. “This wasn’t an easy negotiation,” he said of the Cucurella transfer on talkSPORT. “It went on over quite a long period of time. I certainly didn’t get any impression that this was something they would do at any cost, it was something they were prepared to do but Todd negotiated very hard.

“Todd is a very successful individual who clearly has done very well in other businesses and has clearly done very well in other businesses through lots of negotiations. This was a new area for him and dealing with football players in the Premier League is completely new, obviously. But he was very tough and certainly did not make it easy for us to get the deal done and I respect him for that.”

Chelsea’s choice of transfer targets also necessarily moved well beyond Tuchel’s initial wish list. To do so, Boehly and Clearlake leaned heavily on the club’s extensive scouting infrastructure and highly-regarded data operation; sources told The Athletic that a detailed statistical analysis of dozens of right-sided defenders led them to withdraw from the Kounde chase and turn to Fofana, who is regarded internally as much more physically suited to the demands of the Premier League.

One of the under-reported details of the Mendes meeting is that Boehly was accompanied by academy director Neil Bath; his expertise, and that of assistant Jim Fraser, has been utilised with Chelsea’s new owners sanctioning big bets on Chukwuemeka and Casadei in part on their recommendations. Emma Hayes and assistant Paul Green have been empowered to maintain their hugely successful Brian Clough-Peter Taylor recruitment dynamic in charge of the women’s team and the steady flow of high-profile signings has continued, with Kadeisha Buchanan, Eve Perisset and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd headlining this summer’s reinforcements.

Boehly and Clearlake’s strategy for increasing Chelsea’s value can only work if the club continues to be synonymous with winning on the pitch at every level, in every department — and this summer has underlined that they are prepared to spend whatever it takes to ensure that happens.

Billy Gilmour’s deadline day transfer to Brighton for a fee of around £9million took the total Chelsea raised through player sales in this summer window to a relatively paltry £50million. Like many of their Premier League rivals, they struggled to generate any real value for players considered surplus to requirements, particularly from European clubs operating in a very different financial realm.

Werner was sold back to RB Leipzig for a heavily discounted fee, but only after accepting a big salary cut. Pulisic and Ziyech also wanted out of Stamford Bridge, but found their desires frustrated by the fact that no real markets to buy them ever developed. Again, gargantuan wages were most often cited by interested clubs as the insurmountable obstacle to any deal, but Boehly and Clearlake were also unwilling to sanction their departures without adequate replacements.

Chelsea’s new owners could have raised far more money through player sales relatively easily by cashing in on coveted Cobham academy graduates, as the old regime had done; Conor Gallagher, Armando Broja and Levi Colwill were all subject to serious interest from Premier League clubs prepared to put significant bids on the table, but Boehly and Clearlake refused to countenance losing them permanently. Instead, Tuchel is being encouraged to assimilate Gallagher and Broja into his first-team plans, while Colwill is on loan at Brighton with no option to buy.

In fact, the only academy graduate sold in this window was Gilmour. Chelsea’s owners do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, and their approach can even be seen as part of a broader attempt to future-proof the talent level of the squad almost irrespective of how the head coach at the time regards individual players.

That is the kind of strategy that can result in an eye-watering £200million net spend, but Boehly and Clearlake are confident the investment in this window will not see them fall foul of the Premier League or UEFA’s financial regulations. Underpinning this assurance is the fact that transfer fees are amortised across the length of a player’s contract in club accounts, and Chelsea’s new owners have tied many of their new signings to particularly long deals: seven years for Fofana, six for Cucurella, Chukwuemeka, Casadei and Slonina and five for Sterling.

The risk is that Chelsea could be stuck with extended commitments to overvalued or underperforming players, but the benefit is that the annual cost of each individual transfer in the books is lower. At the same time, money raised from player sales is registered in the accounts immediately, meaning the £50million brought in this summer will go further towards offsetting the expenditure than is initially apparent.

In some of his first comments as a Chelsea player, Fofana detailed his 10-hour medical in New York, underlining the degree of due diligence that Chelsea’s new owners are committing to before signing off these deals. ″It was an express visit, but I spent a long time at the clinic,″ he told L’Equipe. ″It was the (Los Angeles) Lakers doctor who supervised all the tests, he looked at everything. They examined my ankle; everything was analysed, even parts of the body that I can’t talk about (laughs) in order to see how I had recovered from my injury (a broken leg suffered during a preseason match for Leicester City in August 2021).″

At the other end of the asset spectrum, Boehly and Clearlake have shown a greater willingness than the old regime to jettison players with negative transfer value. Ross Barkley’s contract was terminated by mutual consent once it became clear no club was prepared to pay Chelsea to take him off their hands, and Real Valladolid were effectively allowed to sign Kenedy for free. Michy Batshuayi’s deadline-day move to Nottingham Forest fell through, but the player and club pivoted quickly to set up a transfer to Fenerbahce.

The days of top-up contracts and endless loans are over — as are the days of selling the future to fund the present.

Temptation always grows in the final weeks of the transfer window. Panic can also feed into the equation if results go awry early in the season, and such forces often exert a stronger pull on the biggest clubs with the deepest pockets and the loftiest expectations.

Boehly was not at Elland Road to see Chelsea dismantled 3-0 by Leeds United, but Jorginho’s inability to function without N’Golo Kante in the midst of a fierce press  did not go unnoticed by the ownership. Neither, more broadly, did the struggles of Tuchel’s attack to convert opportunities despite Sterling’s best efforts.

Aubameyang had been a topic of conversation with Barcelona for several weeks, but not everyone at Chelsea was as convinced as Tuchel that he represented a smart investment on big wages at 33, trailed by a litany of questions about his professionalism at previous clubs. Only after the Southampton defeat did the ownership align on the need to add Aubameyang’s clinical finishing ability to an underperforming squad.

The urgency for midfield reinforcement was also signalled at St Mary’s after Chelsea, lining up without the suspended Gallagher, lost Ruben Loftus-Cheek to injury and Tuchel insisted he had “no one left” to play in central midfield after ignoring Gilmour and Chukwuemeka on his bench.

Their interest in Frenkie de Jong was cut off by the Dutchman’s unwillingness to leave Barcelona, Chelsea’s €40million deadline day offer for Ajax midfielder Edson Alvarez was a surprise, and was always likely to fail in light of the fact that the Eredivisie’s transfer deadline fell 24 hours earlier than that of the Premier League, meaning their clubs could still sell on September 1 but no longer buy. Sources have told The Athletic that the club plan to revisit the deal in January, however, indicating that he was not simply targeted on a passing whim.

PSV midfielder Ibrahim Sangare was among several other names discussed, but Tuchel was not believed to be keen. Denis Zakaria, available and unsettled only a few months into his Juventus career, was a pragmatic deadline-day alternative that required no long-term commitment.

Boehly and Clearlake avoided descending into a late-window trolley dash. Chelsea insist the final price for Fofana was £69.5million, well short of the world record for a defender, and that they only ever valued Everton’s prized asset Anthony Gordon at £40million, not £60million. The ownership also backed away from a potential deal to sign RB Leipzig defender Josko Gvardiol in the summer of 2023 when the Bundesliga club raised the Croatian’s asking price from €70million (£60.5million) to €80million (£69.2million) and finally to €90million (£77.8million), before giving him a new contract.

Nevertheless, some of Chelsea’s other actions in the final days of the window — indicating to Milan that they were prepared to offer £80million for Leao, oscillating on Aubameyang, bidding for Alvarez too late for Ajax to find a replacement — suggest there is significant room for the decision-making process to be improved. The Athletic revealed that Michael Edwards turned down an offer to become the club’s new sporting director earlier this summer but the sooner an elite operator is found to lead recruitment, the better equipped Boehly and Clearlake will be to navigate January and beyond.

Boehly and Clearlake have spent these first few months doing more than simply trying to buy and sell players for Chelsea; they have been conducting a review of every department of the club. A new sporting director will not be the only hire within the sporting, business or commercial operations in the coming days and weeks as they seek to build an industry-leading organisation.

But the transfers are what this first summer of their ownership will be primarily remembered for, setting out the scale of their ambition and raising the expectations for Tuchel. His job is to deliver much-improved performances and results with the squad that has been assembled, and he will be judged more exactingly on how he fares than with the group he inherited at Stamford Bridge.

It is far too soon to say with any certainty whether Chelsea have spent wisely, disastrously or anywhere in between; transfer windows can only be truly judged with proper time and distance. What is clear, however, is that Boehly and Clearlake’s ambitions for the future at Stamford Bridge are every bit as grand as those of Abramovich were in 2003.

(Other contributors: David Ornstein, Adam Crafton, Raphael Honigstein, James Horncastle, Matt Slater, Dan Sheldon) 

(Top image: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic, pictures: Getty Images)

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