A long time ago, long before the COVID-19 pandemic — three months to be exact — Chelsea were about the enter the January transfer window, the first window after the transfer ban from FIFA was cut in half on appeal.
In those days, we had simpler worries than the state of the world.
It was the first opportunity for new head coach Frank Lampard and new technical
director advisor Petr Čech to bring in new players. There was some excitement, tempered by the fact that business is not easy in the winter.
Traditionally, it was always the manager who was in charge of incoming and outgoing transfers. However, in modern times, football is very much a business, and the setup is far more complicated, opaque, and even secretive. (Here’s our best guess from 2017 how it might have looked at Chelsea.)
At the start of this season, there was belief that Chelsea’s new backroom structure from the top down would usher in not only some much-needed new blood, but would set in motion a long-term plan to rebuild and get back to the top.
Buzzwords like synergy would not have been out of place. Roman Abramovich, beloved owner, would be well connected thanks to the work of Marina Granovskaia, club director, who would work together with Petr Čech, newly appointed technical and performance advisor, Scott McLachlan, head of international scouting, and Frank Lampard, beloved head coach. Granovskaia would head up the financial side of things, Čech the technical side, McLachlan the scouting side, Lampard the football side, and Abramovich would of course have final approval of everything (or defer to Granovskaia). At least that’s what we assumed.
How it all may actually work we may never know, but The Athletic recently profiled both McLachlan, who’s the biggest unknown (and thus potential scapegoat) in all of this, as well as Granovskaia, who’s worked very hard to successfully improve her public perception among the fans.
It may read a puff piece at times, but it does seemingly provide some genuine insight.
Scott McLachlan’s profile on the official Chelsea website is literally one sentence long. Is it any wonder no one (in the public) knows who he is?
Scott McLachlan joined Chelsea in 2011 having previously worked at Fulham, as a technical scout, and Southampton, where he was head of performance analysis.
He has a master’s degree in sports coaching science and is apparently well regarded as one the pioneers of performance profiling in football, which is the process of identifying and analyzing strengths and weaknesses in an athlete’s performance. (It should come as no surprise that Chelsea would hire someone who’s considered a leader in a certain field.)
Unfortunately for Chelsea, McLachlan was not around to influence the club during the winter transfer window that saw an incoming Fernando Torres.
“What is crazy is that, to pick a moment in time, £269 million was spent in the transfer window in January 2011. How much of that was down to quantitative analysis of the facts? How much objectivity was used in the signing decision? How much involved real scrutiny of the data? If you are going to make a capital investment of £50 million in one player, how are you going to discover what you are getting for your money?”
- Scott McLachlan, source: The Athletic
Nearly a decade ago when he started, the recruitment structure was very different. According to The Athletic, Abramovich was heavily influenced by a group of select advisors, including former manager Bobby Campbell and ever-vocal scout Piet de Visser. Michael Emenalo, who was then the technical director, worked his own network of contacts and scouts to make recommendations and acted as mediator between business functions. McLachlan began his tenure with the club reporting directly to Emenalo.
The results from the club’s recruitment were relatively disorganized and very much hit and miss. The club’s recruitment strategy did not necessarily synergize between senior and youth recruitment. On the recommendation of De Visser, the club spent far less on Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, and Thibaut Courtois than on Fernando Torres.
Emenalo, on the other hand, championed the ideal of the loan army. By signing players young and experienced with the intent to loan, the club could pivot into ancillary revenue through player sales with those players furthering their own development in the meantime.
Since Emenalo’s departure in 2017, McLachlan’s influence within the club has unsurprisingly grown. He now reports directly to Granovskaia. Chelsea have seemingly been satisfied with the recruitment structure without filling the void left by Emenalo, as two years had elapsed before Čech came on board with a similar title but different responsibilities.
The new recruitment structure apparently sees greater communication between business functions as McLachlan speaks frequently Granovskaia, Čech, and Lampard. As anyone in a business setting can attest, communication is key to success. Lampard reportedly has taken a more active interest in the recruitment than previous regimes, and the hope is that the synergy between all in the recruitment pipeline will help circumvent the palpable discord seen in previous regimes.
McLachlan has helped change Chelsea’s scouting system to his ideals in prioritizing data and analytics. Per The Athletic, amongst elite clubs, Chelsea’s scouting system is well regarded as one of the smartest, most efficient and forward thinking. When McLachlan initially joined, he was tasked with identifying weaknesses in the recruitment process and making effective changes.
“...I have about 20 scouts working to me. It is my job to educate them scientifically, to tailor their observations and analysis to data presentation. I’ve got to stop them using silly cliches, like the boy does this and that, and get them to focus on trends and averages.”
-Scott McLachlan, source: The Athletic
Under McLachlan, Chelsea’s scouting process has become an even more covert operation. He’s instructed scouts to keep a low profile when attending matches. Chelsea scouts work internally for the club and are not from third party consultancies. They do not formally request scout accreditation, instead, they buy a ticket in the stands. To ensure anonymity, they do not wear any club attire. Furthermore, Chelsea scouts use coded language (abbreviations, mostly) to ensure wandering eyes are unable to decipher the reports.
Internally, Chelsea have built our own proprietary scouting and data analysis system. McLachlan’s team combine notes from live scouting, video assessments from Wyscout and other sources, and various advanced performance metrics to identify players who should be added to a list of potential targets.
McLachlan’s task is then to complete the due diligence on any player of interest and come up with an estimated cost. After advising Granovskaia, Čech, and Lampard of his team’s findings, a decision is made whether the player fits the overall recruitment strategy and the needs of the coach. If an agreement is made internally, then Granovskaia reported takes over to begin negotiations with relevant parties.
How unique is this (ideal) system may be is unclear. One might imagine all top level clubs follow similar principles in many respects. But if things do work as outlined, we’re in a pretty good place in this regard.
Marina Granovskaia gets a six-sentence-long profile on the official website, which reveals the basic facts that she’s been a “senior adviser” to Abramovich for the last 18 years and “is mainly responsible for player transactions”. Above all, what is beyond clear is that she is the owner’s most trusted ally at the club.
Her reputation as one of football’s most notorious and successful dealmakers is well known. This past summer, Granovskaia saw through the transfer of former talisman Eden Hazard to Real Madrid to the tune of £88.5M plus up to £41.5M in add-ons despite just one year remaining on his contract and a clear stated desire to move.
According to The Athletic, Granovskaia is clear and firm in her negotiation tactics — to the point there that is little wiggle room. She does not engage in mind games or tricks, which is apparently well received by rival club executives.
“I’ve been involved in three or four deals with Marina and she’s always been good to her word. Every time I dealt with her, it was very straight forward, very business-like, very professional and she never went back on her word. I can’t say that about everybody else in this business.”
-A. Nonymous; source: The Athletic
Perhaps one of her strongest traits as a negotiator is to leave emotion completely out the decision making. Reportedly Diego Costa had sent her a multiple messages during his self-imposed exile in Brazil. Refusing to let emotions cloud her judgment, Granovskaia held off on the green light until the money was right for that deal with Atlético Madrid.
For roughly a decade, Granovskaia has been the closer, for both incoming and outgoing transfers. And Chelsea have been very successful in that regard, especially sales, with full Financial Fair Play (FFP) compliance and, per The Athletic, almost £400m in profit on player sales since 2013. Chelsea has earned “£397.4 million profit from player sales since 2013.”
No one has a perfect record of course. Granovskaia had hoped to convince Thibaut Courtois to stay in 2018 for example, despite all evidence to the contrary from the Chelsea man and negotiations with Alisson an AS Roma reaching an advanced stage. While it’s not certain that Alisson would’ve chosen Chelsea in the end, this hesitation allowed Liverpool to sweep in, leaving us with our second option, Kepa Arrizabalaga, at an even higher fee.
So where does this leave Chelsea?
Over the past decade, we have transformed our recruitment structures and strategies. The foundations of our core business functions are now aimed to strengthen the club at all levels, including the academy and first-team. By following a common strategy, Chelsea hope to breed success organically (though maybe not literally) throughout all aspects of the club.
Thanks in part to the transfer ban, Chelsea have pivoted to youh. Led by Frank Lampard and Jody Morris, we have seen the rise of Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, and many more to follow.
The relative success of the youth movement can potentially save the club millions in future transfer fees. As long as players continue to develop as expected, we have a solid foundation of homegrown players to build upon. Incoming transfer strategies can then be focused on players who would complement the current young Chelsea core.
Based on prior transfer windows, we can classify incoming transfers into two simplistic categories: distressed assets and elite players.
Chelsea have found value in by targeting players coming off serious injury or poor form (e.g.: Antonio Rüdiger, Emerson, Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovačić), who are therefore valued lower than comparable players. We then rehabilitate them with the hope that they can contribute or at least earn a profit in a subsequent sale.
Elite players arrive less frequently, by definition. There are only so many Eden Hazards, Diego Costas, and N’Golo Kantés around. Competition for their signatures is necessarily also much stronger. The value balance is a lot harder to find. Undoubtedly, all coaches would want more marquee signings.
It should be noted that in the history of football, no club have ever been perfect with their transfers. Regarding this past winter transfer window, the inability to sign reinforcements for the rest of the season was rather underwhelming. But from all accounts it appears that Chelsea were firmly focused on our supposed targets, and were reluctant to move down to secondary options. This is perhaps an improvement to other recent transfer windows, such as the summer of 2017 when over £180m was spent on Álvaro Morata, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater, Davide Zappacosta, and the one useful piece in Antonio Rüdiger.
With a unified strategy led by McLachlan’s analytics, Granovskaia’s iron will, Čech’s planning, and Lampard’s coaching, there is hope that Chelsea will get the next transfer window(s) right.