LONDON • When Eden Hazard joined Chelsea it was a pecking-order transfer. He considered Manchester City and Manchester United and teased fans before announcing on Twitter (sic) "I'm signing for the champion's league winner."
That was late May in 2012: perhaps the high watermark for Roman Abramovich at Stamford Bridge. The Russian's final frontier, Europe, had just been conquered - he won the Champions League final with a temporary manager (Roberto di Matteo) after making another of his sackings (Andre Villas-Boas).
Such a turn of events appeared to confirm Abramovich as the father of Chelsea's success. And here was Hazard, 21, Europe's hottest youngster, eschewing rivals to work for him.
Chelsea were not only No. 1 on the pitch, they were also No. 1 in the financial hierarchy. City had recently overtaken them in terms of overall wage bill but Chelsea still offered better packages to individuals and City had baulked at the £170,000 (S$312,620) per week plus reported £6 million agent's commission Hazard required.
His £32 million transfer fee was more than United or Arsenal had ever spent in a deal and Chelsea comfortably held the British transfer fee record (£50 million for Fernando Torres).
Six years on, it is very different terrain. Chelsea are struggling even to be fourth, not just on the pitch, but financially.
Their revenue of £220 million, the size of their entire wage bill, was behind United's in 2016-17. It was £112 million behind City, and £62 million behind Arsenal, with Liverpool closing in fast.
That Chelsea's wage bill is now £40 million short of United's and City's and their net spend on players since 2015 averages £21 million per year compared to £65 million in the period when they were signing Hazard, and £95 million in those heady three years after Abramovich's 2003 takeover.
It is not as if the oligarch has stopped supporting his club. Abramovich has ploughed £1 billion into Chelsea overall, spending about £800 million on player recruitment, and analysis of Chelsea's accounts by the acclaimed blogger Swiss Ramble suggests Abramovich put in £34 million from his own pocket to sustain the club in 2016-17 - and £34 million was Chelsea's net outlay on players.
So, despite all their impressive commercial activity, including a £60 million-per-season Nike deal, the club still need their benefactor to buy improvements on the pitch.
His money just does not go as far as it used to. The problem is rivals' expansion: in these past six years City have flourished thanks to Abu Dhabi and the traditional powers exploiting their commercial potential. United's turnover since 2012 has increased by 71 per cent, City's 85 per cent, Arsenal's 68 per cent, Liverpool's 82 per cent, Tottenham's 100 per cent. Chelsea's (despite winning more than the rest) is up just 33 per cent.
You see it in transfers. Post-Hazard, City and United have bought 11 players each costing £40 million or more and Chelsea two. Swiss Ramble says it is notable how much more than their rivals Chelsea make from player sales. Over the past four seasons, Chelsea earned £224 million compared with £32 million at United, £45 million at Arsenal and £69 million at City.
What Conte is missing is not just that Chelsea recruitment has always been done the way it is now: headed by Abramovich, working via lieutenants, of which the coach is merely one. No, there is a big picture that he is missing: Chelsea do not sign the very biggest players any more, because they cannot.
All this must be kept in mind when observing Antonio Conte's stare of fury, amid these sorry embers of his reign.
He has been indignant about transfers since his very first window, believing he has lacked backing and control. What he is missing is not just that Chelsea recruitment has always been done the way it is now: headed by Abramovich, working via lieutenants, of which the coach is merely one. No, there is a big picture that he is missing: Chelsea do not sign the very biggest players any more, because they cannot.
What happens next for Chelsea, who need to rebuild with the team at the end of their cycle? Hazard, in 2012, remains the last truly top-rank signing, the last showstopper they were able to bring in. Lately, Chelsea have not even been in the conversation; nowhere near the transfers of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Alexis Sanchez or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Nor are they in the conversations about the possible big moves of this summer: Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Lemar, Fred, Robert Lewandowski, Gareth Bale, Isco, Neymar again. Nowadays they get turned down by Romelu Lukaku and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
And the future of Hazard himself is uncertain. Poised to enter the final two years of his contract, he did nothing to dampen speculation about Real Madrid by giving an interview to Marca this week.
The intention is to keep Conte until the end of the season, not least because paying off managers has already cost £75 million during Abramovich's time, but another flop against West Brom today might change the dynamics.
Luis Enrique is lined up to take over, but is not interested in starting before the summer. Whoever is in charge over the next few years will face the steep task of building the team without the old transfer muscle.
THE TIMES, LONDON
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2018, with the headline 'Forget top signings as Roman empire lags behind others'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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