How Chelsea's Transfer Strategy Has Transformed Over 15 Years Under Roman Abramovich

When Roman Abramovich was announced as the new owner of Chelsea Football Club on July 2, 2003, the Russian billionaire made his intentions clear. He had the money to turn the West London club into a European superpower and he was going to use it.

"We have the resources and ambition to achieve even more given the huge potential of this great club," Abramovich said in a statement—and he stuck to his word.

Over the past 15 years, Chelsea have paid out almost £1.5 billion in transfer fees. Summer and winter splurges became as synonymous with the club as winning trophies and managerial hirings and firings.

The 10 coaches Abramovich has appointed in that period have helped deliver five Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups and seen Chelsea become only the fourth English club to win the European Cup.

Little has changed at Stamford Bridge over the years, but there has been a transformation in the boardroom and on financial spreadsheets. Figures from Chelsea's submission to Companies House this week show the club to have decreased their wage bills while recording a record profit on player trading. Since 2010, their overall profit in the transfer market is £285 million; Manchester City, in contrast, have a loss of more than £750 million in the same period.

Roman Abramovich
Roman Abramovich at Stamford Bridge, London, August 23, 2003. Abramovich is in the 15th year of his ownership at Chelsea. Ben Radford/Getty

But it hasn't always been this way. In the first two years after Abramovich bought Chelsea, he allowed Claudio Ranieri and his successor Jose Mourinho to spend £300 million on new signings, while sales amounted to just under £4 million.

Many of the additions were a success as the likes of Claude Makelele, Didier Drogba, Paulo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho left Stamford Bridge with legendary status—but they also left for a combined total of £7 million.

Forward-thinking in the transfer market, it seems, is a new strategy at Chelsea. Over the past few years, the majority of signings are assessed for their potential on the pitch as well as future value, considering the profit margins. This strategy has been an issue at Stamford Bridge over the past 18 months, as current manager Antonio Conte has asked for players either in the peak or autumn of their career.

Last summer, the Italian asked for 32-year-old Fernando Llorente, as well as Antonio Candreva and Leonardo Bonucci, both 30. Chelsea didn't sign any of them. Instead, the five players they have brought in for £200 million—Alvaro Morata, Danny Drinkwater, Antonio Rudiger, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Ross Barkley—have potential for profit. At the point of purchase, they had an average age of 24, young enough to gain rather than lose in value over the next few years.

Chelsea Signings
Alvaro Morata, left, Marcos Alonso, center, and Danny Drinkwater at the Emirates Stadium, London, January 3. Chelsea's recent signings tend to be players in their early 20s. Shaun Botterill/Getty

This has been a growing trend at the club. Brazilian midfielder Oscar was signed from Internacional for £28 million in 2012 at the age of 20 and sold four years later for a £32 million profit. Similarly, Chelsea paid Atletico Madrid £34 million for Diego Costa in 2014 when he was 24 years old, and then sold him back to the Spanish club last summer for £55 million. Proven potential is bought at a young age, delivers success, and then can still be sold on for profit.

Chelsea's masterstrokes haven't always paid off, though. Many around the club lauded the business around Kevin De Bruyne, who was bought for £7.2 million and sold for £19.2 million when Mourinho, in his second period at the club, considered him surplus to requirement. Now, just three years on, De Bruyne is regarded as one of the best footballers in the world at Manchester City and would demand a fee well north of £100 million.

This week, Chelsea also announced the arrival of a new chief executive, Guy Laurence, formerly of Vodafone UK. Planning at Stamford Bridge is not just for the present anymore. Abramovich's team are building an empire to thrive on and off the field.