What If Chelsea Decided to Tank for a Year or Two?

The case for a hyper-speed rebuild

As you, a subscriber to this newsletter, are hopefully well aware by now, I’m obsessed with this question: Why don’t soccer teams try something different? Wages correlate petty tightly with success because almost everyone is doing the same thing, just at varying levels of revenue. Despite Liverpool’s data-driven success, they’re still one of the richest teams in the richest league in the world. They hired one of the best managers of the 21st century when he hit the open market, most of the signings they’ve brought in were known and respected quantities. The club has done almost everything right, but their financial position means that they don’t have to take huge risks; in fact, almost nothing they do can, by definition, even be all that risky. It’s not quite as tricky to carve out success when you can sign the most expensive goalkeeper and defender of all time in the same calendar year.

In Europe’s Big Five leagues, there hasn’t been a Moneyball A’s, a Process Sixers, or a, uh, Astroball Astros -- teams that didn’t just zig while everyone else was zagging, but wondered why everyone else felt like they had to move in a straight line. I’ve talked to lots of people who work for clubs, worked for clubs, work in other professional sports about this, and they all say that the big reason why no smaller Big Five club has jumped headfirst into some search for inefficiencies is actually two things tied together:  1) there’s no draft, and 2) so rather than being rewarded for being bad, European soccer clubs are punished with relegation. Try something different and fail in the NBA; you might get the next LeBron James. Do the same in soccer, and you might lose millions.

Now, these aren’t good reasons, but with the potential to lose all of that sweet, sweet TV revenue hanging over your head, it’s way, way easier to just do things the way they’ve always been done than it is to take a risk with something you’ve never seen succeed before. Plus, taking an unorthodox approach immediately turns you into a target: Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was the least-qualified coach in NFL history right up until he won the Super Bowl with a team that went for it on fourth down, again and again.

But what if you really weren’t at risk of relegation and what if you were in a position where you would get a reward for purposefully being bad? If Chelsea really wanted to, they could certainly find out.

Last month, Chelsea the Europa League. They finished third in the Premier League. And according to FiveThirtyEight’s underlying rating system, they’re ... the fifth-best team in the world. Given that context, a rebuild is madness. Of course, there’s more to it. Chelsea were a one-man team last year, and that one man just went off to Real Madrid for €100 million. Here’s how I summed it up for ESPN:

In 2018-19, [Eden] Hazard basically did the job of four different players at once. He led the team with 16 goals; no-one else had more than eight. He led the team with 15 assists; no-one else had more than six. He completed 138 dribbles; no-one else had more than 45. And he took 240 touches in the opposition penalty area; no-one else had more than 113.It's not just that Hazard was the team's leading scorer, creator, ball-mover and target man. No, it's that he was at least 100 percent more productive in all of those areas than any of his teammates.

On top of that, the manager Hazard did it all for? He’s off to Juventus. Oh, and with the constraints of a transfer ban still to be defined, the club might not be able to sign anyone until the next decade. Plus, the standings and rankings are an illusion. Chelsea finished 26 points back of first, and based on FiveThirtyEight’s granular ratings, they’re as close to Benfica in 30th as they are to Manchester City at no. 1.

Given the prime-age makeup of Liverpool and City’s squads, it seems highly unlikely that Chelsea win the Premier League in either of the next two seasons. They just lost their best player and their manager. And there’s a good chance they won’t be able to bring in any reinforcements for at least a year.

I was planning on writing about the wisdom (or lack of it) behind hiring Frank Lampard, whose managerial experience is one season spent at a team that finished ... in sixth place ... in the English second division. But then my buddy Brett suggested to me that Chelsea should just blow it all up. (If you like this newsletter at all -- and if you’re subscribed, I assume you either do or you’re one a kind-hearted aunt -- then go check out Brett’s basketball ‘letter, The Basketball Nihilist.) And well, why shouldn’t Chelsea try a light-speed rebuild?

Let’s assume that the goal of running a team with Chelsea’s resources is to increase your championship probability. And for the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that Chelsea’s transfer ban gets upheld and is not delayed. So, if they can’t add players, then how do Chelsea increase their odds of winning a championship in the short term? By adding a manager who’s shown the ability to make his teams greater than the sums of their parts. Three problems with that: 1) most of those managers already have good jobs (in the Premier League), 2) the ones who don’t will be hard to attract because they know can’t add any new players, and 3) even the best managers likely only add a few points per season, controlling for talent.

Chelsea seem like they’re aware of all that. Here’s the meat of the Guardian’s first report on Chelsea’s interest in their former midfielder as manager:

Even if there had been understandable reservations over Lampard’s lack of managerial experience – he guided Derby to the Championship play-offs in his first season as a coach – there has always been support from key members of the hierarchy to restore him to a club which, as it operates under a Fifa-imposed transfer ban, could be more reliant on younger personnel for the foreseeable future.

Players such as Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Callum Hudson-Odoi are expected to play significant roles in the senior set-up next season, when the team will return to the Champions League after a year’s absence. Lampard, who has been assisted by the former Chelsea midfielder and under‑18s’ coach Jody Morris, is seen as a figure who could coax the best from the academy graduates and returning loanees of whom two, Mount and Tomori, excelled under his management at Derby.

Chelsea enjoy a fine relationship with the Championship club whose chief executive, Stephen Pearce, left his role as a finance director at Stamford Bridge in 2013. Lampard has been preparing Derby’s pre-season, and discussions have taken place over contract extensions and transfer plans.

The board at Stamford Bridge are aware Lampard’s appointment would constitute a risk given the basic demand of every Chelsea head coach – Champions League qualification – cannot be relaxed with the need to comply with Uefa’s financial fair play regulations. However, the hope is that his arrival would galvanise a young squad and be restorative in terms of a support horribly divided and disillusioned at times over Sarri’s brief tenure.

Despite the last graf, it does seem like the club is generally willing to accept some short-term muted expectations. At least, the way the report is written seems to suggest that they’re under no illusions that Lampard comes in and replicates what Zinedine Zidane or Pep Guardiola did in their first jobs -- i.e. immediately preside over generation-defining teams. And while they are worried about losing Champions League revenue by dropping out of the top four, there is another way to make that money back: SELL ALL OF YOUR GOOD PLAYERS.

Among the 10 outfield players (non-keepers) who racked up the most minutes for Chelsea in the Premier League last year, seven of them were 27 or older when the season began. If Chelsea’s championship window won’t even start to creak open for another two seasons, then most of those guys will be aging beyond their peaks at that point, declining right when the team needs them to go in the other direction.

So, what if Chelsea just sold most of those guys, sat on the money, played the kids for a year or two, and then invested in a ton of young talent as soon as the ban was lifted?

Most clubs couldn’t pull this off because they simply just wouldn’t have enough players. The key thing with this plan is to, you know, make sure you don’t get relegated. And if you deflate your team’s talent level down into midtable-quality, then there’s a chance you get unlucky and get sent down. For example -- using Understat’s expected-points metric, which determines how many points a team would be expected to get based on the shots they take and concede in a given season -- Southampton were the ninth-best team in the EPL in 2017-18 ... and they finished 17th, one spot out of relegation. West Bromwich Albion, meanwhile, were 13th ... and they finished dead last. These numbers aren’t super-precise, but you get the idea

If Chelsea sold too many players and played too many unqualified youngsters, then there’s a chance they’d get bitten in the ass for being too cute. However, Chelsea own more qualified players than just about any other big club. Per Transfermarkt’s player valuations, they have the fourth-most valuable team in the world. However, among the top 100 most valuable clubs, their top 18 players (the size of a gameday squad) make up the fourth-smallest percentage of their total market value. Thanks to the Loan Army, they have an outsize number of Premier League-quality players to call on.

These were the top 11 minutes-getters across all competitions for Chelsea last season:

They’ve already sold Hazard -- and if you add, say, David Luiz, N’Golo Kante, Willian, Marcos Alonso, and Antonio Rudiger to that, you could probably bring in something in the ballpark of an extra €200 million, to add to the €100 million you’re already getting from Hazard. Plus, doing so would clear a ton of wages off of Chelsea’s books. If we just go by Transfermarkt’s valuations, those five guys would fetch €285 million. Imagine if Chelsea went into the summer of 2020 with nearly €400 million to spend? That could end terribly, and it would require a sort of large-scale personnel-management savvy that I’m not sure any club has ever shown, but that kind of long term-planning seems way more likely to lead to a title than incrementally adding to an already aging team. While there’s no draft to tank toward, Chelsea would get a lot in return for purposefully making the leam worse in the short-term

There are other guys they could sell -- Pedro, Jorginho, Olivier Giroud -- but there’s probably some logistical limit to the number of sales you can make as a club, and this is one of the few areas where I’d recommend playing it on the safe side; relegation can’t happen, so you have to keep a couple vets. There are plenty of options out on loan to fill out the squad. Kurt Zouma (24 years old) was great for Everton this past season, while Tammy Abraham (21) was fourth in the Championship in non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. Michy Batshuayi (25) could provide some league-average production at striker off the bench, while Mario Pasalic and Tiemoue Bakayoko (both 24) played a bunch of midfield minutes this past season for two of the better teams in Serie A. (Pasalic, who does not exist in this alternate reality I’ve created, seems like he’s going to extend his loan with Atalanta for another season.) Plus, Captain America is coming to the rescue.

There’s also a case to be made that flipping the focus to the kids isn’t as wild of a dice-roll as it seems. According to research from the consultancy 21st Club, an increase or decrease in playing time given to under-22 players has barely any relation to a team’s ability to win games:

Risk is one of the many excuses for failing to grant opportunities to young players in the first team. With ever increasing stakes, coaches often prefer the perceived reliability of experience at the expense of blocking the talent pathway. With average tenure hovering a little over 12 months, coaches are naturally inclined to focus on the short term often at the expense of granting opportunities to young prospects.

There are two things here. The first is the misconception that playing youth players is a material risk. The data suggests that when teams have given greater opportunities to youth players, the impact on results has been negligible on average. In other words, giving youth a chance is not correlated – positively or negatively – with success. Reducing the perception of risk is one way to unblock the pathway to the first team.

So, say they bring in Lampard, and they make some or most of those sales I suggested. As long as he’s not a terrible manager who’s actively making the team worse -- and most managers do seem to exist in that replacement-level no man’s land -- then they probably still get projected to finish somewhere in the top 10. A bunch of younger players receive some valuable PT for their development, and maybe you unearth a gem or two who might never have gotten a chance to play before the clear-out.

But if there’s one main reason for Chelsea to stick rather than twist, it’s this: the Champions League exists -- not as a revenue stream, but a competition to win.

Championship windows in domestic soccer are harder to break open because in a 38-game, play-everyone-twice league season without playoffs the teams that are significantly better tend to win. By winning the NBA title, the Toronto Raptors became an example of why basketball teams shouldn’t rebuild; they were stuck in the hinterland of “pretty good’ for a long time, and then they suddenly landed a superstar for a season. They had some bounces and some injuries go their way, and now they’re champs. But I’m not totally sure that team-building approach works without the volatility of a postseason.

Soccer’s version of the NBA Playoffs is the Champions League, and Chelsea know this better than anyone; they won the whole damn thing in 2012, the same year they finished in sixth place in the Premier League. Tottenham didn’t win it all this year, but they still made the final despite not being anything like a consensus top-four team on the continent and barely a top-four team in their own country. With Chelsea’s current squad -- ever sans Hazard -- there’s a slim chance they get the right draw and the right randomness and they ride it to another unthinkable title.

So, it’s more likely that Chelsea batten down the hatches and hope they get lucky, rather than do something wildly unconventional to increase their long-term chances of winning a title. After all, everyone’s gotten lucky before; no one’s ever sold all of their stars when they didn’t have to.