Why Chelsea’s chase for Ronaldo is a warning to avoid Neymar

Chelsea want the probable appointment of Mauricio Pochettino as head coach to be the dawn of a new era, but accompanying speculation over a summer transfer move for Paris Saint-German forward Neymar creates a sense that history is repeating itself.

After completing the takeover of Chelsea last May, co-controlling owners Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital wanted to make a splash in the transfer market, partly to show fans their level of ambition but also to signal they would be as aggressive as former owner Roman Abramovich was in pursuing top talent.

Acting as interim sporting director amid wholesale changes at executive level, Boehly met with a large number of agents and clubs as he devised a strategy which would eventually lead the club spending over €600 million to sign 17 players. Perhaps “strategy” is too generous a word to use. It has felt haphazard, scattergun and chaotic at times, almost from the beginning when relations quickly became strained between Boehly and the head coach he inherited, Thomas Tuchel.

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Sources have told ESPN that after meeting with agent Jorge Mendes last summer, Boehly became fixated with the idea of bringing a 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo to Chelsea from Manchester United. The idea was presented to Tuchel, who rejected it on the basis of Ronaldo’s age and that the Portugal international’s inability or reluctance to press was at odds with the profile of striker he preferred. But that was not the end of the matter. Boehly raised the possibility of signing Ronaldo on several further occasions, much to Tuchel’s mounting frustration.

The issue became a major bone of contention between the pair; one aspect of a deteriorating relationship which eventually led to Tuchel’s sacking in early September. And, with this in mind, reports that Chelsea are tracking Neymar’s situation at Paris Saint-Germain — with sources telling ESPN’s Julien Laurens that both he and the club are open to an exit — should raise alarm bells.

Chelsea are yet to confirm the appointment of a new head coach, with caretaker boss Frank Lampard leading the team following Graham Potter’s departure last month. But sources said that Pochettino is the frontrunner and discussions over various aspects of the role have taken place, including the level of influence he would have over transfer policy.

Suggestions that Pochettino wanted to bring recruitment expert Paul Mitchell with him to Stamford Bridge after the pair worked successfully together at Southampton and Tottenham were swiftly denied by Chelsea, but it would be understandable if the Argentine wanted another trusted voice in what has become a crowded room.

Boehly has hired two sporting directors — Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart — as well as technical director Christopher Vivell, while Joe Shields, Kyle Macaulay and Jim Fraser are responsible for talent management and recruitment. The club also want data analytics to play a significant role in their decision-making, further diluting the impact any head coach could have, and that’s before we consider the possibility of Boehly reneging on his intention to step back and allow this new infrastructure to work free from interference.

ESPN reported on Feb. 15 that Boehly met with PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi at a hotel near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where a number of topics were discussed, including a deal for Neymar. And that link has resurfaced again in recent days as speculation grows that Neymar will leave PSG this summer with a move to the Premier League his desired option.

Even at 31, Neymar is still one of the world’s best players. He would strengthen any team and, at his best, the Brazilian is a match-winning talent with few equals. But would signing Neymar be in Chelsea’s best interests this summer, especially if Pochettino takes charge?

Chelsea are a collection of individuals right now. Adding a brilliant-yet-volatile global star into the mix would risk further disharmony. Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville described Newcastle United potentially signing Neymar as “a circus” which would “disrupt” the “foundations” that manager Eddie Howe has laid in getting them to third in the Premier League table.

Chelsea have no such foundations. They are rudderless, languishing in 11th place in the table, and in desperate need of cohesion and identity. They need to pull together, not to succumb to the whim of one sensational but high-maintenance player. They may decide Neymar is worth the hassle and it would undoubtedly be fascinating to watch a player of his calibre in the Premier League. But the stakes would be high, especially in the context of Financial Fair Play (FFP) compliance.

Neymar joined PSG from Barcelona for a world-record €222 million in 2017. With two years remaining on his existing deal (and an option for a further year), he would command a transfer fee of more than €100m, as well as huge wages, but his transfer value would not maintain at his age. Furthermore, the absence of European football next season means less money for Chelsea, who posted losses of £121m for 2021-22, and they need to prioritise offloading a raft of fringe players from their bloated squad if they are to comply with FFP.

It seems likely that if Chelsea are remotely serious about trying to sign Neymar, the move would have been discussed during negotiations with Pochettino. He reportedly had a checkered relationship with the Brazilian when in charge of PSG, telling Relevo in November about the difficulties of working with superstars Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe all vying for centre stage. “For Barca to have Messi or for Madrid to have Cristiano is a blessing,” he said. “But when you bring in too many players who all need their spot and be No. 1, there can be confusion.”

Chelsea’s focus must be on making themselves No. 1 again. They are a long way from that now, and if Pochettino is the man to take charge, Boehly needs to listen to his new head coach — whatever his own view on signing Neymar — and give him space to work.