Chelsea’s youth plan is paying dividends while United’s passengers linger

Photograph: Daniel Hambury/EPA

It remains to be seen whether Chelsea’s decision to prioritise potential over proven talent in the transfer market is a recipe for success, but one element of their recruitment strategy under the ownership of Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital deserves more praise.

Manchester United could learn from the ruthlessness. Erik ten Hag has said repeatedly that he wanted to improve the culture of the club when he took over at Old Trafford but that sounds similar to what Frank Lampard was saying after being appointed as Chelsea’s interim manager last April. Lampard, renowned for his dedication during his playing career, could not believe how far standards had dipped in training. Chelsea, whose oversized squad contained far too many disgruntled players, had to act.

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A reset was required last summer. Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley, the co-sporting directors, embarked on a clearout and were not afraid to get rid of a lot of seasoned players.

There was ruthlessness in the decision to sell Mason Mount, who is yet to make an impact at United. Chelsea were pragmatic. Some players were on big wages and some had seen better days. Others were unhappy and needed a change of scenery. Chelsea reacted by selling Christian Pulisic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kalidou Koulibaly, Édouard Mendy, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mateo Kovacic, Kai Havertz, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and César Azpilicueta, while N’Golo Kanté left on a free transfer and Hakim Ziyech, Kepa Arrizabalaga and Romelu Lukaku went on loan.

And how do those calls look now? Chelsea were accused of parting with too much experience but should there be any regrets? Arguably only Kovacic, who has mainly warmed the bench for Manchester City, and Havertz, who has been up and down for Arsenal, have moved on to bigger and better things.

Chelsea, who wanted to streamline their wage bill and lay foundations for the future, do not have to look back. Mauricio Pochettino has taken over an impressionable young squad and can mould a team in his image. Chelsea have been inconsistent and are 10th but results do not tell the full story. Pochettino is encouraged by his team’s performances. You can disagree with the strategy of buying raw talent but it is wrong to say Chelsea have no plan. They do, and they believe it will work.

The contrast with Ten Hag’s situation is stark. United have ground out wins and are five points above Chelsea before hosting them on Wednesday night. Ten Hag, though, is the manager under pressure. It is not Pochettino who is having to deny reports of disunity in the dressing room.

The mind goes back to last summer. While Ten Hag had demonstrated his authority by ditching Cristiano Ronaldo last season, other misfits have been harder to move out. With uncertainty filtering down from the top of the club, the balance of power has shifted.

It used to be the case that a player’s time at United was up whenever Sir Alex Ferguson decreed it so. Last summer United were unable to sell Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay, even though both were out of favour and had interest from West Ham. Anthony Martial, a perennial disappointment, is still hanging around on big wages. Jadon Sancho has been banished after clashing with Ten Hag. There are too many passengers. Why is Victor Lindelöf still at the club?

It cannot help the mood within the camp. It does not make it easier for United to build for the future. As Sir Jim Ratcliffe waits to buy a stake in the club, he could do worse than look at how Chelsea have gone about their rebuild.


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