European Dreams: Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech And Chelsea's 2020/21 Spending Spree

The end of Lampard, the start of Tuchel and Chelsea's last Roman conquest
14:00, 27 Jun 2023

Hopes were high for Chelsea at the dawn of the 2020/21 season. Frank Lampard had done a decent job with the club labouring under a transfer ban, steering them into the Champions League by finishing fourth. A bumper summer spending spree followed as Stamford Bridge welcomed a number of superstar signings. 

Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva, Edouard Mendy, Kai Havertz and Malang Sarr made for a mighty haul on paper. A mixture of world-travelled experience, Premier League excellence and exciting talent from further afield; this team was tipped to go far. Which it did, winning the Champions League at the end of the season, beating Manchester City 1-0 in the final with a goal from new boy Havertz.


But this strange, incongruous group was also on its second manager by this point. Lampard had gone in January after a run of just two wins in eight games. But former Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel had steered the club back to fourth and lifted the Champions League. There was every reason to be cheerful, even if beneath the surface that heavily-hyped batch of transfers wasn’t entirely panning out.

That’s not to say there were no success stories among them. Ageless wonder Thiago Silva made a mockery of those who thought he’d struggle in the Premier League deep into his 30s. Edouard Mendy established himself as the club’s undisputed number one between the posts. Meanwhile, Ben Chilwell showed signs of being the most accomplished left back Chelsea had fielded since fellow Englishman Ashley Cole. 

But more was expected from the attacking players signed. Hakim Ziyech struggled to adjust while Havertz’s Champions League final goal was one of just nine he scored across 45 appearances. Werner was equally limp in front of goal, notching six Premier League strikes. Sarr was loaned to Porto, where he made just eight league appearances.  But the season had ended brightly and each man had shown at least flashes of what they were capable of. A full pre-season with Tuchel was seen as just the ticket to knit the group together.

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It felt like the Chelsea hierarchy knew this too. Rather than load up on new signings, they decided to complement last year’s group with the big money capture of Romelu Lukaku and a loan for Saul Niguez. While the former would shoulder some of the goalscoring burden, the Spain midfielder would add strength in depth. But the last summer window of the Roman Abramovich era would end in disaster.

Lukaku’s club record £97.5 million return to English football resulted in just eight Premier League goals across 26 games. Worse, his style of play failed to gel with the likes of Havertz and Werner and he found himself accused of slowing down Chelsea’s play. The west London club had spent nearly nine figures to make their team worse.

The Saul deal was less high-profile of a failure given it was just a loan, but the fact he made just ten Premier League appearances tells its own story. Chelsea did reach both domestic cup finals and finished third in the Premier League. But ending the season trophyless and with the team struggling for cohesion stylistically was seen as a regression.

Last season, the wheels truly came off. Timo Werner wasn’t around to see it, returning to RB Leipzig after flattering to deceive for two years in the Premier League. Abramovich wasn’t either, having sold the club to Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital. The flux continued under the new paymasters, with Tuchel being sacked and replaced by Graham Potter. The ex-Brighton manager was then sacked himself, leading to Bruno Saltor and then Frank Lampard limping to the end of the season. Chelsea finished 12th, their worst league placing since the 1993-94 season.

Now that once-promising batch of signings from the summer of 2020 are dispersing. Ziyech has agreed to join Cristiano Ronaldo at Al-Nassr FC. Mendy is set to join him in the Saudi Pro League at Al-Ahli. Havertz is looking likely to remain closer to home, crossing London to join rivals Arsenal. Werner has already gone. Only Silva, Chilwell and Sarr remain. The latter is yet to make an impact at Stamford Bridge and, at 24, you feel this season is make-or-break. Silva is 38 but writing him off at this point feels pointless, given he’s been a “veteran” for nearly a decade now. But in the near future it could just be Chilwell standing as Chelsea navigate their new era under Mauricio Pochettino.

So was that 2020 transfer window a success? Yes and no. If you’re measuring it in trophies then the Champions League is the best you can win at club level. But the wider contributions of many of those players will not live long in the memory of Chelsea fans. A lot of players have signed since as Boehly has flashed the cash. Some of them are already leaving in similarly anonymous circumstances. Look at Kalidou Koulibaly, the once-prized defender departing for Al-Hilal after just 32 games in Chelsea blue. 

They say if you don’t learn from history you’re doomed to repeat it. But perhaps Boehly will risk packing his squad with hastily-assembled star names if it means replicating Tuchel’s Champions League. However if he chooses this route it is more likely to resemble the messy end of that era than the jewelled, trophy-lifting peak.

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