Perhaps the most significant transaction involving Roman Abramovich this summer was not the purchase of Timo Werner or Kai Havertz for Chelsea, or even the signing of Thiago Silva.
It was the sale of a 40 per cent stake in a business called Highland Gold, with mines in Russia’s far east, which the oligarch and his partners have been involved in for many years.
Highland Gold was valued at $1.4 billion (£1.081 billion) and so 40 per cent of it was worth around £437 million, which is clearly quite a chunk of money.
All well and good – but why does this matter in terms of football and Chelsea? Surely, it just shows that a billionaire is making even more millions?
But what it reveals is opportunism. The coronavirus pandemic drove investors towards gold in the belief that the precious metal was a safe haven in times of economic crisis and amid fears around money-printing by governments. Bullion was trading close to a record high.
Abramovich has taken advantage of that to make a tidy financial profit and has also applied that ruthless business approach to the transfer market which has also been hit with uncertainty. With Chelsea cash rich following the sales of Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata – money that had not been spent – the unexpected chance presented itself to try to close the gap to Liverpool and Manchester City in one bold go rather than attempt to do it over the next few years.
Abramovich’s attitude to gold tells us much about his approach to Chelsea spending during this transfer window. While some of the club’s rivals have preached caution, he has seen the opportunity to go for it and has encouraged the club to undertake its biggest spending spree since he bought Chelsea in 2003. So far, £200 millon has been committed on six players, including two free transfers, with a further £18 million expected on a new goalkeeper, Edouard Mendy.
Of course, as Lampard stressed again ahead of Chelsea’s first Premier League home game of the season against Liverpool, the club are also essentially trying to “redress the balance” following last summer’s transfer ban – even if they were able to confirm deals for Christian Pulisic and Mateo Kovacic for around £90 million.
“We are trying to do our bit to improve the team after a year in which we had quite a few younger players and the squad had remained the same for two or three windows,” Lampard reasoned. “Generally that is not a positive thing and we’ve seen with other clubs where if you do not add freshness and strive to improve then it is very hard moving forward.”
Lampard will also argue that he has seen a raft of players leave – not just Hazard and Morata but David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Pedro and Willian. That is a lot of highly-paid experience departing Stamford Bridge. “We couldn’t do much business last summer. We lost the best player in the Premier League [Hazard], probably in the modern market with years on his contract would be a £200 million player at that time,” Lampard said – with Chelsea actually receiving up to £150 million from Real Madrid for Hazard if all the bonuses are met.
“So with that point and in that time since then it is not just Manchester United who have spent an awful lot of money, but there are teams around us – Tottenham, Arsenal – who have spent last summer, are spending again, spent in January so the competition always remains strong.”
With Chelsea’s spending, it is not actually Abramovich pumping money in but rather sanctioning its use. There is the Hazard and Morata cash and television revenues, and the club is run on clear business lines by Abramovich’s key director Marina Granovskaia, who has a talent for extracting significant fees for players who are sold. She will know some of the young players used by Lampard last year may not now get much of a look in but will have enhanced their transfer value.
This is not like Abramovich’s first spending splurge at Chelsea when he arrived to sign 14 players and the then Arsenal vice chairman David Dein, as he fought off an attempt to buy Thierry Henry, declared: “Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank in our front garden and is firing £50 notes at us.”
Chelsea are more self-sustainable but Abramovich is manoeuvring that tank again because he senses, after falling behind City and Liverpool, that ground can quickly be made up by being bold and aggressive. Chelsea’s most expensive new signing, Havertz, sums that up perfectly.
With this comes first backing for Lampard but also pressure and an acknowledgement that he has to improve the team quickly and that it would certainly be unacceptable to finish 33 points behind the champions, as happened last season, and lose 12 league games.
“I would be pretty naïve to think that doesn’t change any outlook in terms of expectation,” Lampard said of the spending. “It has to change it. We have to want to improve and close the gap upwards towards Liverpool and Manchester City. But whilst I say that we also look around us, left and right, and see Arsenal improving and Tottenham with a front three, if Gareth Bale comes along, which will be very dangerous.
“So there are lots of teams who are trying to do the same as us, so I don’t want to get too caught up in expectation.”
That may be so but Lampard, more than most, knows how Chelsea and Abramovich operates. It is about grasping the opportunity and he has to seize it. By the way, a few days after Abramovich sold his stake in Highland Gold the price of the metal suffered a huge drop. He will hope his timing, again, is right.