Chelsea will need to change their transfer policy to compete again
At the end of a surprisingly tepid summer 2015 transfer window for Chelsea there were a lot of questions about how the champions could buy a mid-level 26-year-old centre-back like Papy Djilobodji when they needed proper reinforcements.
Many of those questions came from the players at Stamford Bridge and sources have told ESPN FC that a number were not exactly impressed with the Senegal international, with one even calling it a "lack-of-ambition signing."
So you have to wonder what the current squad will make of Alexandre Pato. The Brazilian striker has a lot of talent but given how his career has trailed off since leaving AC Milan for Corinthians in early 2013, it represents a gamble for what is likely to be the club's sole piece of first-team business this January.
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The 26-year-old could make his mark in the Premier League and finally show that he can fulfil his potential, but the low-level nature of the loan deal is a long way from the sharpness of Chelsea's business in the summer of 2014 when they landed Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas -- transfers that played a major part in their title success last season.
That about-turn is rather remarkable. The Blues have gone from a club universally praised for the way they upgraded their squad 17 months ago, to one that now looks in need of extensive work.
Many board members at other clubs privately enthuse about the market slickness of Stamford Bridge officials -- especially director Marina Granovskaia -- but we've seen only slackness in the past two windows. There has not been the same proactivity or stealth. Djilobodji represented another gamble rather than a shrewdly scouted purchase and has already gone on loan to Werder Bremen after only playing a minute of football for Chelsea since his arrival.
Jose Mourinho may have had many self-inflicted problems during his last season at Stamford Bridge, but he was justified in complaining privately that the squad could have done with more replenishment than it got.
Chelsea's restrained approach in the summer -- bringing in Pedro, Baba Rahman and Asmir Begovic; as well Falcao on loan -- means they are left to take another gamble on Pato. Sources have told ESPN FC that Mourinho was trying to decide between Christian Benteke and Radamel Falcao, but the club hierarchy felt that signing the Colombian striker made more financial sense given he was available on loan. Instead, Benteke went to Liverpool for £32m and has failed to hit the heights expected of him under Jurgen Klopp.
Chelsea's decision not to sign the Belgian could be one of the great "what-ifs" of the season. Given how much more he suited Mourinho's style than Klopp's -- and how much more effective he would have been than Falcao -- it could have panned out rather differently.
The question is why Chelsea have been so frugal. The £32m that Benteke cost isn't exactly much in this market and they've been more than willing to spend that kind of money at transitional periods in the past, such as on Juan Mata (£23.5m) and David Luiz (€25m) in the difficulties of 2011, or Eden Hazard (£32m) in 2012. Evidently, that policy has now changed.
Yet for all the differences between the summer of 2014 and the business they've done since, pundit and former Chelsea player Pat Nevin believes it is part of the same trend. The club have just struggled to strike the balance they did in 2014.
"They were very keen, as far as I understand, to get the books more closely balanced," Nevin tells ESPN FC. "They did so by their sales, where they got a lot of money for Mata, got a lot of money for Luiz and then buying on top of that. So, in the midst of doing one thing and X, Y and Z, remember it's not just X, Y and Z you need to do, it's every other letter of the alphabet as well, and do it in a manageable form.
"But on other side, personally I thought they should have strengthened more in the summer, it didn't happen to a great degree to be honest, other than Pedro and I don't know how much he strengthened. But certainly I understood the reasons why they were going down that direction."
Nevin also believes there is something deeper that needs to be understood, too: the difficulty of managing an ageing key core of players.
"If you're lucky, you get a core of three, four, five players through the centre of the team -- that's fabulous," he adds. "When they go on, you have to keep paying them shedloads of money. By the time they get to their mid-30s, they're not worth that money, in comparison to the young guys, who are getting paid much less but probably worth as much."
When trying to maintain a financial balance, updating your core to the required level is a rather delicate and difficult process. And that raises another possible reason as to why they've been quiet this January: the appointment of a new manager.
As everyone knows, this summer is going to be another transitional moment in Chelsea's recent history and as yet, the club don't know who will lead them forward into next season or what the details of his approach will be.
As such, when trying to balance books, they will not want to waste money on players who might help Chelsea now, but may not fit with the next manager's approach. That better explains why they've gone for a relatively underwhelming deal like that for Pato as it shows initiative and potentially helps with a problem area of the team but comes at no real cost.
Chelsea will have to spend properly in the summer, though, if they are to right the wrongs of this season. Sources have told ESPN FC that some key players have sought assurances the club will buy big at the end of the season. And when that time comes, they will have to show more ambition than purchases like Djilobodji or Pato.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.