Chelsea’s Graham Potter Paid Price for Owners’ Spending Spree

LONDON — Every week, it seemed, Chelsea officials worked their phones to quiet the whispers that Graham Potter was about to be fired. And every week the news media quickly relayed those reassurances to Chelsea’s fans, even as the defeats mounted, the grumbling grew louder and the team’s plunge down the Premier League table showed little sign of slowing.

This Chelsea, its new American owners said in their own private briefings to reporters, was going to be different from the one previously controlled by Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch famous for his habit of churning through managers. Now, fans were told, the changes and the investments were for the long term.

That was until Sunday. This time, the whispers were true: Potter was out.

His exit, after only six months in charge and after the club spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new players for him to coach, was jarring. But it was also just the latest head-spinning announcement from Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali, the two American financiers who have thrust themselves forward as the frontmen for a soccer project that shows little sign of any overarching plan.

And the cost just keeps rising.

First, Boehly, Eghbali and their American-led consortium paid a record 2.5 billion pounds (roughly $3.1 billion) to acquire Chelsea, a club that lost about $1 million a week during the nearly two decades it was owned by Abramovich, and committed to spending another $2 billion on the team over the next decade. That shook up the soccer industry overnight, changing the valuations teams set for themselves. Within months, the owners of Manchester United and Liverpool had put their clubs on the market.

Then came the new players, first in an initial group of acquisitions last summer and then in another big-ticket wave in January. They arrived in London at a cost of more than 600 million pounds (about $750 million), an extreme outlay that had no previous precedent, and which puzzled — and frustrated — even Chelsea’s most free-spending rivals, since it drove up the asking price for talent around the world and simultaneously made it harder for Premier League clubs to offload players they no longer wanted.

But players weren’t the only costs. In between the shopping sprees, and within their first 100 days, the new owners had also dispensed with Thomas Tuchel, the German coach they had inherited, and who brought the club the Champions League title just over a year earlier. To replace him, Chelsea lured not only Potter but also half a dozen members of the coaching staff at his former team Brighton. The cost? About $25 million in buyouts, plus long-term contracts for all involved.

It seemed, in the moment, a shrewd (if pricey) bit of business. At Brighton, Potter, 47, had slowly and deliberately turned a provincial club, a relative newcomer to the Premier League, into a team that now has realistic aspirations to regularly finish in the top half of the table.

Yet at Chelsea, the environment has appeared to be anything but deliberate. Now, with Potter gone, no one seems to know the plan for a collection of players — team feels too strong a word — cobbled together with what appears to be little coherence.

There’s Marc Cucurella, the wing back brought in from Brighton at great expense but deployed, curiously, as a center back on Saturday; and forward Mykhailo Mudryk, whose experience did not seem to match his nine-figure price; and the 21-year-old Argentine midfielder Enzo Fernández. There are so many new faces at Chelsea, in fact, that at times the strategy has appeared to be nothing more than a simplistic desire to gather as much of the world’s best young talent as possible, whatever the cost, and find places for them to play later.

Even as Chelsea was firing Potter, for example, multiple news media outlets reported that Chelsea was working to sign a 15-year-old prospect from Ecuador, reports the club did not deny.

Maybe Potter knows what to do with all the disparate parts? That would at least explain the curious line in the statement about his firing that noted he had “agreed to collaborate with the club” on the transition to whatever comes after him.

Bruno Saltor, one of the coaches who arrived with Potter from Brighton, will get the unenviable task of holding things together temporarily, starting with Tuesday’s visit by Liverpool. It is unclear how long his tenure will be, though, with Chelsea now starting a search for its third coach since the American takeover in May.

News media reports have already linked the club with high-profile out-of-work coaches like Julian Nagelsmann, recently fired by Bayern Munich, and Mauricio Pochettino, an Argentine who coached both Southampton and Tottenham. That Boehly and Eghbali will make the right decision, though, is questionable.

Chelsea, despite its deep pockets, looks to be a monumental repair job. It was beaten at home by Aston Villa on Saturday in Potter’s last game in charge, a performance that highlighted the effects of the curious squad-building undertaken in the last months. While it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring forwards, none of that cash was dispensed on a recognized scorer. Saturday’s 2-0 defeat — a game in which Chelsea took more than 30 shots yet rarely looked like it could recover from its early deficit — was the fifth goal-less performance by the club since the start of February.

Chelsea stands 11th in the Premier League table. A date with Real Madrid looms in the quarterfinals of the Champions League next week. Winning the competition is now Chelsea’s its only realistic chance of playing in it again next season, but that remote possibility suddenly seems vital.

Chelsea’s finances, already in disarray because of the cost of the takeover, the new coaches and the new players, could soon come under more serious strain. Failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League would mean the loss of tens of millions of dollars of revenue. That could put the club in violation of the Premier League’s cost control rules, raising the possibility of sanctions — or hurried player sales in a market that will know the team needs to sell quickly to balance its books.

Sunday was a dark day for Chelsea’s owners. What’s ahead could be much, much worse.