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The Billion Pound Bottle Jobs

On Sunday 25, February, Liverpool defeated Chelsea 1-0 in the Carabao Cup final. This was not a surprising result, taken in a vacuum. Liverpool have been the second most dominant team in English football for almost a decade, behind only Manchester City. Their form has been far superior to Chelsea’s in the 2023/24 Premier League season, with the Reds top of the Premier League and the Blues in tenth, catastrophically low for a Big Six club. Chelsea’s poor league form and lack of any major domestic trophies since 2018 suggested an on-paper Liverpool victory. That prospective victory was realised, with Virgil Van Dijk scoring the only goal of the game from a corner in the 118th minute. It was Liverpool’s tenth triumph in the competition, and it kept them in the hunt for a quadruple in Klopp’s ceremonious final season in charge.

But everyone knows Liverpool shouldn’t have won the match. Everyone saw the team sheet. Everyone watched, in mocking glee or horrified disbelief, as Chelsea’s “billion-pound bottle jobs” were defeated by what can generously be described as Liverpool’s second team.

That lovely turn of phrase, “billion-pound bottle jobs,” was whipped out by pundit Gary Neville (he would later admit was a pre-planned line). It was criticised as harsh by Chelsea’s manager, the beleaguered Mauricio Pochettino, but he was only echoing the thoughts of all English football fans. The way in which Chelsea lost the match, playing passively in extra time despite dominating the regular 90 minutes, invited the criticism. So did Chelsea’s entire playing squad- and indeed, the entire state of the club. Their failure this season has been enacted on the most visible football stage of all: the Premier League. Losing to “Klopp’s kids,” to quote Gary Neville once more, was the latest and greatest humiliation so far.

Chelsea’s squad isn’t actually valued at one billion — Transfer Markt prefer the marginally less embarrassing figure of £947.30 million. This makes their squad 100 million more valuable than Liverpool, who they lost to in the final, and 300 million more valuable than Aston Villa, who are currently in the Champions League spots. Their squad’s value is horrendously inflated because of the most excessive spending spree in the history of European football. Since American investor Todd Boehly took over ownership of Chelsea from Roman Abramovich, the club has spent an eye-watering £1.036 billion. In the summer transfer window alone they spent £434.5 million on recruits, which is by far the most ever spent by a single football club in a single transfer window and double what any other club in the Premier League spent.

Boehly’s bottomless pockets have not translated into success on the pitch. Does this mean the importance of money in football is overstated? Absolutely not. Money buys success in football this is a simple fact of the sport and of most sports. The team with the most expensively assembled team will usually win, as demonstrated by Manchester City’s near unheard of dominance in the ultra-competitive Premier League landscape. The Citizens also have access to a well of money that will never run dry; yet they are in the title race, and Chelsea are the “billion pound bottle jobs.” Chelsea’s case, like Paris Saint Germain before them, has shown us that just setting money on fire isn’t enough. There needs to be at least a modicum of thought behind the process. Billions can still lose out to organisation.

Boehly’s aimless financial punches have not been the knock-out blows he intended- rather, they have sailed aimlessly over his opponent’s heads. Chelsea’s predicament has been so bad this season that, in a match against Aston Villa, the club’s away contingent openly chanted for the return of Roman Abramovich. Yes, Roman Abramovich — a Russian oligarch and one of the most profligate spenders in European football history. Their argument is simple — if you’re going to throw money around, at least do it properly. Roman Abramovich is hardly a man of moral character, but his ownership brought, or rather bought, the most successful period in Chelsea’s history. The days of Abramovich managing the money and Mourinho managing the football will be fondly remembered by most Chelsea fans. Boehly has it all to prove. He can buy a hundred overvalued youth prospects, but he can’t buy the hearts of the fanbase. Only trophies will do.

Chelsea are, however, a club that can be won over. They are not, as many English fans like to pretend, a club without history outside the modern era. Manchester City may have been yo-yoing between the top two divisions before the riches of Sheikh Mansour, but Chelsea was already a well-established top ten club before Abramovich. The fanbase has been taught to demand success by Abramovich, but a relative culture of winning was arguably already in place. The era of Russian millions only intensified it.

What can Boehly’s regime take from this season’s underperformance? When assessing any defeat in football, it is crucial to acknowledge what you did wrong. It is equally important to acknowledge what your opponents did right. Liverpool should be the model Chelsea seek to follow. No one is pretending Liverpool’s aren’t fabulously wealthy, but Fenway Sports Group are not on the level of the Abu Dhabi Group. In spite of that, Liverpool currently sit atop the Premier League, ahead of their richer rivals.

The League Cup final was an example of common sense winning out over untold millions. Liverpool have refused to indulge in the sacking culture of modern football. Neither have their own title rivals, Manchester City and Arsenal. Chelsea need to resist the urge to sack Pochettino and give him time to turn things around. Or, at the very least, do the same for his replacement — but Pochettino is as good a manager to invest in as any. His time at Tottenham suggests as much.

Money buys success in football — but common sense and money guarantees it. Luckily for Chelsea, they have one piece of the puzzle in place, but the other is harder to find.

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