The transformation of Chelsea under the club’s new ownership gathered pace on Thursday with two firm statements about their priorities. Cristiano Ronaldo, whose advisers had been in contact with the club following the veteran forward’s indication he wants to leave Manchester United, is not on Chelsea’s wishlist. High-calibre defensive reinforcements are.
As the squad prepared for their first match, this weekend’s friendly, against Club America, since the sanctioned Russian-born former owner Roman Abramovich relinquished control of Chelsea to a US-based consortium, the Senegal international centre-back, Kalidou Koulibaly, was undergoing a medical with a view to his transfer from Napoli.
Ronaldo’s camp were also told that, after more than one round of talks about the Portuguese’s future, Chelsea would not be pursuing any interest in the 37-year-old.
Both decisions were given the nod of approval by Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea manager, while Tuchel was building his working relationship with Todd Boehly, the hands-on new chairman, and redefining his authority at a club where several long-serving executives have departed since the £4.25 billion sale of the club in May.
Tuchel had always intended this summer to be busy in the transfer market, but one effect of the sanctions against Abramovich, imposed by the UK government because of his perceived links to Russia following the military invasion of Ukraine, was to stall contact negotiations with several key players and slow down approaches to possible transfer targets.
But Chelsea’s activity in the market over the past two weeks, said Tuchel, had been “intense”. Its first significant yield has been the signing of Raheem Sterling from Manchester City for a fee of up to £50m. The England international forward flew immediately to join his new teammates on the west coast of America, ahead of the Club America match on Sunday.
Koulibaly, 31, has been among the most sought-after footballers in his position for a number of years, and such a popular figurehead at Napoli that the Italian club resisted major offers for him almost annually for the last eight years.
On the news that they had accepted a bid of close to £34m from Chelsea, some Napoli fans protested at the club’s headquarters. Chelsea have gained an authoritative leader, the captain of Senegal when they won the Africa Cup of Nations in February.
Tuchel has reminded Boelhy, however, that so far the recruitment does not cover the major departures from a squad that finished third in the Premier League, 19 points behind City, whose defence of their 2021 European Cup ended at the quarter-final stage last season and who finished second to Liverpool in both domestic cup finals.
Antonio Rudiger left for Real Madrid in June. Fellow centre-back Andreas Christensen has joined Barcelona, who are also pursuing deals with the Chelsea full-backs Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso, both in the final year of their contracts.
Chelsea have an interest in Nathan Ake, the versatile City and Netherlands defender who developed at the Chelsea academy – he is valued at over £45m – and in Presnel Kimpembe, the Paris Saint-Germain and France central defender, who Tuchel coached at PSG.
“The priority right now is defence, it’s not a secret,” said Tuchel, who authorised the loan exit to Inter Milan of Romelu Lukaku earlier this summer, only a year after Chelsea had invested almost £100m in the centre-forward. “We need to see what’s possible.”
Chelsea must be alive to the danger of falling behind their English rivals in the market, added Tuchel. City and Liverpool have both recruited coveted young strikers in Erling Haaland and Darwin Nunez, and Tottenham Hotspur have brought in five senior players already. Arsenal have signed Gabriel Jesus from City.
“We’re competing against the top two [City and Liverpool], but Tottenham did a very active and aggressive early transfer period and have maybe the strongest squad they have ever had, and one of the best coaches [Antonio Conte],” said Tuchel. “Arsenal have some big signings already and Manchester United are never shy of recruiting with a new coach. We need to keep the level up to be competitive.”
Tuchel welcomed the arrival of Sterling, 27 and a serial Premier League winner with City, as a mark of the ambition of the new owners and of the England star’s confidence in Chelsea’s new set-up. “We went for it,” Tuchel explained to Sky Sports. “We could convince him very quickly. He did everything that was needed to do, we gave our best to make it happen.
“He is a perfect fit. He's a big improvement to our squad and is exactly what we were looking for in terms of age, experience and style of play. He gives us a lot of flexibility, mobility and attacking options at the front.”