Barkley signing illustrates potential, pitfalls in Chelsea transfer strategy
LONDON -- Chelsea don't embarrass easily. Ross Barkley's 11th-hour change of heart on a £30 million move to Stamford Bridge provided the best story of a largely unfulfilling summer transfer deadline day. It was also a very bad look for the Premier League champions, coming hot on the heels of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's decision to turn them down in favour of Liverpool.
Less than six months later, though, Barkley is finally a Chelsea player -- and, thanks to his expiring contract, for half the price. The message at the time was that the bizarre episode would not end the Blues' interest, and the enforced delay has actually ended up benefiting them while costing Everton significantly.
The news has been met with the same lukewarm response from Chelsea supporters that greeted the arrivals of Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta on transfer deadline day, but in terms of price and profile, Barkley perfectly fits a recruitment strategy that has prioritised value over headlines in recent years.
"I'm not making any major demands [about transfers], also because my history says that I've never been satisfied with my demands," Conte told Sky Italia when it was put to him, after Chelsea's 2-2 draw with Arsenal, that he has been used to getting his No. 1 targets as a coach. "In fact, I've always arrived at times when there have been economic sacrifices being made."
Chelsea insist that Conte was referring to his time in Italy with the "economic sacrifices" remark, but his assessment applies just as easily to to the Premier League champions. Below the headline boast of a £15.3m profit in the club's latest annual financial results was a £69.2m profit on player trading for the year ending June 30, 2017, underpinned by the club-record £60m sale of Oscar to Shanghai SIPG.
Driven by Roman Abramovich's desire for sustainability and a will to comply with financial fair play, Chelsea have been looking to offset signings with sales for at least five years. It is no coincidence that the club-record £58m fee paid to Real Madrid for Alvaro Morata last summer exactly matches the price Atletico Madrid are obligated to pay for Diego Costa.
It is an approach that has been formidably successful -- thanks in large part to director and chief dealmaker Marina Granovskaia's skill in extracting maximum value for unwanted players -- but there are signs that it is beginning to impose limitations in a transfer market that has spiralled out of control.
Conte was denied the signing of Alex Sandro last summer because Chelsea were unwilling to meet Juventus' asking price, while a reluctance to match Everton's £75m valuation of Romelu Lukaku allowed Manchester United to swoop in. It is unlikely they would have been prepared to make a competitive offer for Virgil van Dijk even if the Dutchman's heart had not been set on a £75m move to Liverpool.
Since the blockbuster summer of 2014, when Thibaut Courtois was recalled from loan and Costa and Cesc Fabregas were acquired for a combined £65m, the only truly elite player to arrive at Chelsea is N'Golo Kante (with the help of a £30m release clause). In the post-Neymar market, where £60m appears to be the starting point in negotiations for players of such calibre, it is difficult to see where the next one will come from.
Chelsea's priority has instead been to tie their current core to new long-term contracts -- keeping both Courtois and Eden Hazard from the clutches of Real Madrid in 2018 would arguably be more important than any trophy -- while targeting value deals for younger players to fill in around the edges.
Barkley is a project. The immense physical and technical promise that led to comparisons with Wayne Rooney and Paul Gascoigne in his teens have not materialised into consistently outstanding Premier League performances and, at 24, he can no longer use the status of "prospect" to shield himself from criticism.
The good news for Chelsea is that at £15m, he represents a low-cost swing for the fences. If he finally unlocks his full potential under the guidance of Conte, a coach who has already reinvented Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta at Stamford Bridge, he will be an absolute steal. Even if he falls short, there is a reasonable expectation that he can be a solid homegrown squad option with resale value.
In terms of finance, the cost to Chelsea is negligible. But there is another price to giving Barkley his opportunity to shine on a grander stage, and it is one that has been highlighted by many supporters.
We are less than two months on from Ruben Loftus-Cheek being named man of the match on his England debut against Germany, albeit in a low-intensity match that lived up to its friendly status. He is playing regularly on loan at Crystal Palace, performing well and stands an outside chance of making Gareth Southgate's squad for next summer's World Cup.
Such a campaign should provide the ideal foundation for Loftus-Cheek to return and build a successful career at Chelsea next season, but Barkley's arrival further increases the competition for midfield places at Stamford Bridge.
Conte is adamant that he will not give "stupid presents" to Chelsea's academy products and that first-team minutes must be earned, but with every squad signing made in this window and the next, the bar for earning such chances is raised. Many fans would argue that if money really is tight at Stamford Bridge, leaning more heavily on some of the most talented and highly decorated young footballers in Europe is a sensible option.
Chelsea, however, will have no regrets. They have been enamoured with Barkley for several years and have finally got their man. Now it is up to him to prove himself worthy of such admiration, if not the modest price tag.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.