Chelsea transfers: No correlation between early signings and success
LONDON -- Anxiety among Chelsea supporters about the club's lack of tangible progress in this summer's transfer market was approaching fever pitch on social media long before Thursday, when reports in Italy and England claimed that a frustrated Antonio Conte was on the verge of quitting Stamford Bridge.
Sources at the club have told ESPN FC that Conte has not expressed any concerns with Chelsea's transfer strategy or decision-making structure, but the reports resonated in part because they imbued the Blues' beloved head coach with the same exasperation felt by many fans.
Manchester City's lightning-quick approach to this summer has certainly made Chelsea -- along with the rest of the Premier League's elite -- appear ponderous by comparison. As early as June 8, Pep Guardiola's squad was bolstered by the arrivals of Monaco playmaker Bernardo Silva and Benfica goalkeeper Ederson for a combined outlay of more than £80 million.
Memories of Chelsea's largely fruitless 2015 summer window, which helped lay the foundations for Jose Mourinho's second sacking and the most shambolic title defence of the Premier League era, are also feeding supporter concerns.
But is the criticism of Chelsea's lack of signings by mid-June justified, or are fan expectations unreasonable? ESPN FC took a look back at the timing of the Blues' signings in every summer window since Roman Abramovich's arrival in June 2003, and the results were interesting.
In 14 full summer windows under the Russian's ownership, Chelsea have announced a total of 17 deals earlier than June 17. Of those, nine were agreed in the first four years of the Abramovich era (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006), when the Blues were at their most active and aggressive in the transfer market as they transformed from Premier League also-rans into perennial contenders.
Since 2007, the list of players announced as Chelsea signings by this point in June reads as follows: Tal Ben Haim, Jose Bosingwa, Matej Delac, Eden Hazard, Marko Marin, Wallace, Cesc Fabregas and Nathan.
Conventional wisdom contends that the smartest clubs get their key summer business done early, but this mixed bag of names suggests no such correlation. Only three were signed for a fee in double figures (Bosingwa, Hazard and Fabregas), three have never played for Chelsea (Delac, Wallace and Nathan) and only two (Hazard and Fabregas) can be considered unqualified successes.
Extending the deadline to July 1 paints a similar picture. Chelsea have confirmed a total of 19 deals by the end of June across 14 summer windows, and just nine since 2007. (Deco is the name added to the above list, having been announced as an £8m arrival from Barcelona on June 30, 2008.)
There are many reasons why the confirmation of deals can drag on well into July and August, among them haggling over price, selling clubs attempting to drum up interest from rival suitors, agent fees, player contract negotiations and commercial considerations.
As a general rule, the more money and parties involved, the longer a transfer takes to be completed. It doesn't help that in the modern market there are more clubs capable of paying eye-watering fees for players, meaning that selling clubs have less incentive to part with a prized asset early in the window.
With the exception of the home run summer of 2014, when Chelsea managed to secure Fabregas and Diego Costa (who had a helpfully defined buyout clause of £32m) by July 1, as well as recalling Thibaut Courtois from loan, many of the Blues' more substantial deals have been struck in July or even well into August.
Last summer, Michy Batshuayi became the first signing of the Conte era on July 3, with N'Golo Kante following on July 16. David Luiz and Marcos Alonso, two players who became key contributors to a Premier League title-winning team, were not secured until deadline day.
August signings in the Abramovich era include Michael Essien, Ashley Cole, Ramires, Juan Mata, Cesar Azpilicueta, Victor Moses, Willian and Pedro Rodriguez.
Of course, there have been some misses, too -- most notably Juan Sebastian Veron, Adrian Mutu and Khalid Boulahrouz, and Papy Djilobodji and Michael Hector were infamous September deadline-day signings in 2015 -- but recruitment is never an exact science, regardless of when you buy.
What we should be seeing right now is evidence that Chelsea have identified and are actively pursuing targets, and there is plenty.
Everton striker Romelu Lukaku and Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko are widely known to be top of the Premier League champions' wish list, while Willy Caballero, Alex Sandro, Riyad Mahrez and Leonardo Bonucci have all been heavily linked with moves to Stamford Bridge in recent weeks.
There is no question that Chelsea's start to this summer's transfer window has been underwhelming, but history suggests that deriding Marina Granovskaia and Michael Emenalo as failures this early would be more than a little premature.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.