Transfer Priorities: Chelsea Going All In After Riding Out Its Ban With Success

While others may be pulling back on the spending, Chelsea has maneuvered for a big splash after riding out the wave of its transfer ban and witnessing the growth of some young, in-house talents.
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This is the third in a series assessing Premier League teams and their transfer priorities for the summer. Read more on Arsenal and its progression under Mikel Arteta and how Tottenham must rebuild on a budget under Jose Mourinho.

None of the Premier League's "Big Six" has had a season that’s been so hard to assess as Chelsea. Frank Lampard took over in difficult circumstances, with Eden Hazard finally departed to Real Madrid and a transfer ban in place. There were very few expectations and, in that context, to qualify for the Champions League and reach the FA Cup final, all while blooding a number of young players, represents success.

But it’s also true that there has been a widespread sympathy for Lampard from press and fans that was not afforded to Maurizio Sarri, his predecessor. Popular former England players, particularly those who can point to their inexperience as a manager, will always be treated more favorably than grumpy Italians. And that has perhaps covered up repeated failings. Chelsea this season conceded only one goal fewer than it did in its worst Premier League season, defensively speaking. Only relegated Norwich City and barely-safe Aston Villa conceded more goals from crossed set plays. No team conceded more from fast counters.

To an extent that may be an issue of personnel. Since Gary Cahill left, Chelsea has been without a truly commanding central defender. Antonio Rudiger, Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen and Fikayo Tomori all have their attributes, but none is an aggressive leader who can be relied upon to win a header. At least one and possibly two may be offloaded to try to strengthen in that area.

Lampard has made it fairly clear that he is not impressed by either of the first-choice left backs in the squad, so Marcos Alonso and Emerson Palmeri are both likely to be on their way out. Davide Zappacosta, similarly, on loan at Roma, is unlikely to be retained.

Space will probably have to be cleared in midfield. Jorginho is the most likely to be offloaded, a neat and gifted player who never quite looked at home in English football. There are question marks, too, over N’Golo Kante, which would have seemed unthinkable even a year ago. Kante, though, has been plagued by injuries and has had by far his worst season in English football, seemingly unsettled off the pitch by an ongoing legal battle in France and on it by having to change roles to accommodate Jorginho. 

Then, there’s perhaps the biggest personnel issue of all: Kepa Arrizabalaga, the world's most expensive goalkeeper. This season, he registered a lower save percentage for shots on target in the Premier League than any other goalkeeper since Opta began keeping such records in 2003.

After the transfer ban and several seasons of relative austerity before that, it looks as though Chelsea is prepared this summer to buck the orthodoxy, assume football’s economy will soon recover after the COVID-19 downturn and spend big–which perhaps also indicates it believes that FFP regulations are now essentially unenforceable. Hakim Ziyech (Ajax) and Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) have already been signed, which, with Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, means a formidable young forward line is already in place. It's augmented by Olivier Giroud, whose contract has one more year to run.

Timo Werner joins Chelsea from RB Leipzig

PRIORITY AREAS

Goalkeeper

Kepa is the biggest personnel issue for Lampard to resolve. The manager's lack of faith in his high-priced keeper was seen on the final day of the season, as he left Kepa out for Willy Caballero, but it’s hard to see how the 25-year-old Spaniard could be offloaded at anything other than an enormous loss. 

Chelsea’s interest in Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak is clear, although whether it can afford his $150 million release clause is not. There must also be a slight doubt, as fine a keeper as he is, as to how adept he is at sweeping behind the high line Lampard apparently wants to play. Andre Onana of Ajax and Nick Pope of Burnley are cheaper options, although only the former has much experience of playing behind a high line.

Right-sided attacking midfield

It’s hard to see why he's a priority given the riches already available to Chelsea, but it remains the strong favorite to land Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen. Space is being opened up by the departure of Pedro, and although Willian has been offered a two-year deal, he looks likely to leave as his contract expires this summer. Quite how everything fits together is unclear, and it seems inevitable that one or two players may find themselves under-utilized (if the plan is a shift to more of a 4-2-3-1, what does that mean for Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic?), but it’s undeniably exciting.

Left back

Chelsea could also do with new faces in the center, but it’s left back that appears to be the most pressing issue for Lampard. It’s understood Leicester City is prepared to let one big name leave this summer, and after James Maddison signed a new contract, that probably means Ben Chilwell–although a price tag of around $105 million may be prohibitive. Chelsea has reportedly asked him to make a formal transfer request.