LONDON — Todd Boehly was supposed to be the smartest man in the room. That was the pitch, anyway, when he first descended on Chelsea, on the Premier League and on European soccer almost a year ago. He was the guy who spoke to a hushed audience at the Milken Institute Global Conference. He was onstage at the SALT forum. Other people described him as a “thought leader.”
His ideas, he knew, might be received by traditionalists as a little provocative. He suggested a Premier League all-star game — and a relegation playoff. He told soccer it could learn something from American sports, a longstanding euphemism for finding new ways to extricate more cash from fans. He evangelized the idea of buying a whole network of teams. It was 2022, so at some point he talked — rather more than hindsight would suggest was wise — about NFTs, or nonfungible tokens.
Boehly did not seem to mind the criticism, the resistance. He was likely expecting it, the price to be paid for daring to disrupt an industry as fearful and staid and conservative as, um, English soccer. He had a “modern, data-driven approach.” He sought “structural advantages.” He had worked out that paying players for longer somehow made them cheaper. He was the cutting edge. And it would not be the cutting edge if it was comfortable.
A quick status update on where Chelsea stands now, a year into the ownership tenure of Boehly and his less visible colleagues: 11th in the Premier League, having won only two of its last 12 games; employing its third manager of the campaign, and simultaneously searching for his replacement; $600 million poorer after embarking on the largest single-season transfer spending spree in history; and, as of Tuesday night, out of the Champions League, its last, distant shot at glory gone.
There is, at least, no particular shame in that. In the end, this was as straightforward a quarterfinal as Real Madrid could have hoped for: a 2-0 win at home last week, and another 2-0 victory on Tuesday in London, a low bar confidently cleared. But Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s interim manager, was not clutching at straws when he suggested his team had “caused Real a lot of problems” for the first hour or so at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.
Chelsea had chivied and harried and unnerved Real Madrid, the reigning European champion. In patches, anyway. With better finishing, as Lampard observed, things might have been different. A portion of the credit for that should go to him: It was his deployment of N’Golo Kanté in a more advanced role that caused Real Madrid to “suffer” so much, as Carlo Ancelotti, Real’s coach, admitted. Chelsea went down, as it was always going to, but it did so with pride intact.
That has not always been the case in the first year of what is probably best described as the Boehly experience. Chelsea has long nursed something of a soap opera streak, one that has provided a curiously accurate reflection of the shifting nature of the part of London it calls home.
In the 1960s, the club was home to the Kings of the King’s Road, chic, hip and cool. In the 1970s, the freewheeling mavericks arrived, the club nursing a sort of alternative, pre-punk energy. By the 1990s, it was home to a set of impossibly stylish European imports. And then, from 2003 onward, Roman Abramovich turned it into a sort of gaudy monument to the power of the vast wells of new money pouring into the capital from across the globe, Russia in particular.
There have been various points, in all of those incarnations, when Chelsea has veered perilously close to lapsing into self-parody. Abramovich, in particular, appeared to have absolutely no interest in running a sensible, steady sort of a soccer team. He may or may not have been a Kremlin apparatchik, but he was most certainly thirsty for drama.
He fired coaches for not winning titles. He fired coaches for not winning the right titles. He fired coaches when they had won titles. He appointed at least one manager whom the fans hated. He appointed another because he was his friend. There was one season when the players effectively ran the show. There was infighting and politicking and dark talk of plots, and all of that was just a quiet Tuesday for José Mourinho.
Chelsea, in other words, has a relatively high tolerance for the unusual and even, at times, the absurd. But even by those standards, Boehly and his consortium have pushed it to the limit.
Signing so many players that the locker room at the club’s training facility is not quite big enough to accommodate them all is not indicative of judicious planning. Likewise spending so much money that the club, in the absence of Champions League soccer and the income it brings, will not only have to indulge in a fire sale of players this summer but quite possibly breach the Premier League’s financial rules next season.
Abramovich was not averse to dropping in on the players — sometimes literally: His helicopter regularly used to land at the Cobham training ground if the fancy took him — in order to inspire or encourage or perhaps just glare menacingly at them. But there are no known instances of him, as Boehly reportedly did, telling one of his expensively acquired stars that his performances had been “embarrassing.”
There is a chance, of course, that all of these are just teething problems, a form of culture shock, the inevitable growing pains that come with some very rich, very clever — though it is worth noting that those two things are not as synonymous as is often assumed — people dipping their toes into an industry to which they are not native.
It may well be, as Lampard loyally and hopefully suggested, that Chelsea is “back” sooner rather than later: guided by one of the half-dozen managerial candidates being considered by the four sporting directors, or equivalent, it employs, boasting a trimmed-down squad full of bright young things, the fat excised to make way for the lean.
As Boehly himself said last year, the Premier League is designed in such a way as to give the “big brands” — oh, Todd — a number of his beloved structural advantages. One of those is the privilege of having money to solve problems. Another is a limit to how much it is possible to fail.
From this vantage point, though, the ultimate vindication of Boehly and his group seems almost impossibly distant. Chelsea is out of the Champions League. It will not be back next season. Still, there is hope. It is up to Boehly to plot its way back, and he is, by all accounts, the smartest man in the room.