Todd Boehly has finally been right about something. Chelsea’s season has been an embarrassment, as he told their players after defeat to Brighton. Losing to Real Madrid was not: in the context of their season, it was one of the more respectable results. Next season, with a fixture list shorn of the glamour of such games, they may dream of such matches. But the identity of the victors gave a curiously dignified end to it all.
Because Chelsea’s season is over. It has been a hubristic humiliation, an expensive embarrassment. Now, 10 points off seventh, they cannot even eye a Conference League spot. Never before has a club spent so much to achieve so little. For Boehly and Clearlake Capital, attempts to reinvent the wheel instead finished with them finding the reverse gear. Chelsea are on course for their lowest finish since 1996, on their longest winless run since 1993, out of both domestic cups without scoring for the first time since 1974, on course for their lowest goal tally in the league since the 1920s. Exiting the Champions League to Real Madrid on a night of wholehearted effort feels a high point in comparison.
Even in inflationary times, £600m should buy more than this. More than a chronic inability to score, a mismatched assortment of individuals who rarely resemble a team, a Champions League campaign of three managers that brought arguably Chelsea’s only three genuinely good results of the season: the twin wins over AC Milan and the victory over Borussia Dortmund. Ignore those and their domestic campaign has no real highlights.
“People will make a lot of this season for Chelsea because we have had so much success,” argued Frank Lampard. “The reality is this club will be back.” The first is only partly true: Chelsea’s recent history of Premier and Champions League glory forms part of the backdrop, but it is how they have fallen, how far, how fast and how needlessly that renders it so remarkable. They may be back: they have many a gifted player though without a strategy of how and where to use them, it is not guaranteed. And, indeed, Lampard warned: “The way the Premier League is moving, the landscape changes so to say any team has a divine right to be in the top four, it’s tough.”
If the defeat to Real proves a long-term boon, it is by eliminating Lampard from the reckoning to take permanent charge. Had he done a Roberto Di Matteo and won the Champions League, he could have become a candidate. Instead, Lampard, in his second coming, is the first manager to begin a spell at Chelsea with four straight defeats. He has one win from his last 18 games in management. The figures suggest James Corden’s spell as a quasi-director of football will also be short-lived. Chelsea, meanwhile, have spent £50m creating a vacancy for a manager, paying off Thomas Tuchel, paying Brighton £21m for Graham Potter and then paying him to go away.
Lampard was a throwback choice, a byword for a better era. He was a scorer in one Champions League final. Didier Drogba found the net in another. The more diplomatic Lampard said: “This is a year where we’re not quite at where we want to be.” The more outspoken Drogba took aim at Boehly and Clearlake Capital. “They should go back to the principles and values they had,” he said. “I no longer recognise my club.”
Drogba deemed them classless. He could have added clueless. The bench offered evidence of terrible recruitment. There was Joao Felix, whose loan will cost £16m and will produce nothing, and Mykhailo Mudryk, wildly overpriced at £88m, each omitted for the last meaningful match of the campaign. Lampard’s chosen 11 only featured three of Boehly’s 16 signings, in Wesley Fofana, Enzo Fernandez and Marc Cucurella, and the Spaniard may have owed his place to Ben Chilwell’s suspension.
The rest of this season could be used to lay a platform for next, to pick those who will play pivotal parts in the future. But even that is easier said than done, without a successor yet, without a strategy of how to play. “The motivation is playing for Chelsea,” said Lampard and it was for him. It wasn’t motivation Chelsea lacked against Real as much as “the final third stuff”, as Lampard described their lack of goals, of the cohesion of a team, of the quiet calm of Carlo Ancelotti, which is infinitely preferable to the noisy chaos of Boehly.
And those who share the values of the older generation of Chelsea players had the air of admirable figures who had become collateral damage from a calamitous campaign. As Real celebrated, Thiago Silva did a one-man lap of honour. He has spent much of the last decade defying the ageing process but, at 38, he may have played his last Champions League game.
Meanwhile, Mason Mount was applauding the Chelsea fans; a late and irrelevant cameo may be an anticlimactic last appearance for them in this competition. There will have to be a clearout, a fire sale, and Mount could be sacrificed because of a year of incompetence. He was the man who set up the winner in the 2021 final. It has been a swift, sorry decline since then: Chelsea will not be in Europe next season. If time is a luxury, £600m has bought Boehly and co some free midweeks.