Champions on the pitch, operating like champions off it. Manchester City may have taken Chelsea’s crown as the Premier League’s big spenders, but the Blues continue to show that it takes more than that to turn cold hard cash into points and prizes.
While a number of the league’s top clubs are only beginning to implement their plans for coping with the competition’s new rules on squad sizes, Chelsea’s is already nearing execution. The £18.3 million signing of Brazilian midfielder Ramires, formerly of Portuguese champions Benfica, isn’t just a reinforcement for a team looking to maintain their superiority next season, it’s an example of the club’s forward thinking.
While title rivals—most notably City—continue to struggle to plan for how they will fill out their registered league squad of just 25 players (eight of which must be home-grown) this season, Chelsea have long since formulated how they will skip that hurdle.
In fact, with the likes of Juliano Belletti, Michael Ballack, and Joe Cole offloaded already, the Blues have been able to bring Yossi Benayoun and now Ramires into their squad without creating more headaches for themselves.
City might have added the likes of Aleksander Kolarov, David Silva, Yaya Toure, and now Mario Balotelli to their ranks at vast cost, unless they sell quickly they face the prospect of paying the sizeable wages of at least five other established stars they will be unable to use in league games.
And while the home-grown quota is not in itself an obstacle—they have more than enough applicable players currently on their books—complying with it might force them to include certain English players they might otherwise have left out (at the expense of foreign ones they wouldn’t).
Chelsea, despite Cole’s departure, have a smaller squad and thus no such worries. While they, like ever other top flight club, can only register 17 foreign players at the season’s start (leading to a Blues' maximum squad of just 23, to compensate for the fact they only have six eligible senior ‘home-grown’ players) Deco's departure last Saturday and Ricardo Carvalho's exit earlier this week means Ramires’ arrival brings the current squad to just 16 foreigners.
The rules will be abided, therefore, and another player can be brought in without a senior player being rendered ineligible.
And with players under 21 not needing to be registered in order to play league games, the continued progress of youngsters like Gael Kakuta, Jeffrey Bruma, and Fabio Borini (who, upon reaching 21, will all count as ‘home-grown’) means that the squad that held off Manchester United’s advances so impressively at the end of last season has only grown stronger—with or without such senior departures.
Chelsea’s chief executive, Ron Gourlay, gave early warning this was going to be the club’s summer modus operandi in an interview in May:
"If the right player is available that Carlo wants to bring into his squad and if it fits with everything else then we'll bring him in," Gourlay acknowledged.
"The money will be there but we'll stick to our goal of being self-sufficient and that's very, very important.
"It would be nice that any money we spend on players will be financed by players going out. We are very conscious of controlling our salaries.
"The balance is being able to bring players through from the academy and offset some of the higher costs we have spent over the years."
With Ballack, Belletti and Cole struck from the squad in one swoop of the pen, Chelsea alleviated owner Roman Abramovich of upwards of £18m in annual wage payments on the trio. Almost all of that has gone on Ramires, meaning the club’s net outlay is simply the 23-year-old’s wages, which will be in the region of £4m.
For that investment, the Blues are getting a player affectionately known as ‘the Kenyan’ in Portugal, a moniker handed to him due to his slim line frame and boundless energy. If his place in Brazil’s World Cup squad isn’t enough of an indication of his quality, his attributes should be.
Durable, resilient, tough in the tackle and capable of covering large areas of ground—Ramires is everything a modern centre midfielder needs to be, and will slot in perfectly as Ballack's successor in the more conservative role on the left-side of Ancelotti’s three man midfield.
"Ramires is the complete central midfield player," international team-mate Kaka said recently.
"He can tackle, pass, he works hard, he is strong and he can score goals. He will make the Chelsea midfield look frightening.
"At such a young age, Ramires plays with no fear and playing at such a big club and in such big games won't trouble him."
To call Ramires "Ballack's successor" is perhaps misleading, however. After all, it is worth noting that while Ballack refashioned himself in that role as age took its toll, Ramires is in his prime and perfectly attuned for the task. If the German was a square peg, Ancelotti now has a far better fit for his round hole.
And if the Italian opts to return to the diamond formation he began last season with, well, Ramires can occupy a role in that with ease, too. He might not be quite at an elite level yet, but on paper has every attribute required of a world-class "carrilero" (literally "shuttler"—the wide players in a diamond midfield).
Perhaps most significantly, his arrival shouldn’t upset the harmony that already exists in the dressing room. While his transfer fee is sizeable, in making his first foray at one of Europe’s biggest clubs he will not have any expectations about being one of the first names on the teamsheet. Willing to drop into a rotation with the likes of Jon Obi Mikel, Nemanja Matic and the aforementioned Benayoun, his approach will ensure everyone remains striving towards a common purpose—the title.
"In the end the Chelsea proposition was impossible to reject - not just because of the money but the chance to spend every day at one of the best clubs in the world," the man himself, who has 16 caps for Brazil and made a number of appearances in South Africa, admitted earlier this week.
"This summer has been a dream—the Portuguese title with Benfica, the call of Brazil, the World Cup and now the jump into the Premier League."
While some fans might have preferred to see the arrival of Yaya Toure or Bastian Schweinsteiger this summer, it’s arguable that neither would suit Chelsea’s tactical needs any better—and certain that their ego and demand for a starting place would bring as many problems as blessings to Stamford Bridge.
"If there's any player that's become available and we feel they can strengthen our team, then it will be on the terms of Chelsea Football Club,” Gourlay concluded.
"We've got to be respectful to the rest of the players in the pool and as we mentioned we have some great players coming through from the academy, so the future's bright."
The era of A-list signings at blue-chip prices might have passed, but with savvy operation and careful organisation Chelsea are hoping to prove to Manchester City et al that the new age doesn’t have to be any less successful.