Covert scouts, modern data and Marina the leader: Chelsea’s transfer revolution
There is one story that illustrates Chelsea’s recruitment strategy in the Frank Lampard era. It comes from the agent of one of Europe’s brightest young players, who had been made aware that his client was first choice to be Chelsea’s long-term solution in his position.
Chelsea’s interest in the player dated back several years and it was clear they were serious. Scott McLachlan, the club’s head of international scouting, kept in contact, letting the agent know when they were coming to watch and compile further information on his client. The agent was keen to do a deal and optimistic the player’s club could be persuaded to sell.
But then, this season, the situation suddenly changed. Lampard brought through an academy graduate in the player’s position, giving him regular first-team minutes and the opportunity to prove that he was every bit as promising. The academy graduate, having been handed a new long-term contract, went from strength to strength and is regarded as integral to Chelsea’s future.
Chelsea’s interest in the player formally ended with a phone call from McLachlan to the agent, in which the message was: “Frank is happy with X (the kid) coming through.”
Despite his relative inexperience, Lampard is leading the conversation over who Chelsea do and don’t try to sign. He has further cultivated a healthy working relationship with the director Marina Granovskaia, and is regarded internally as a real asset in persuading transfer targets to join.
“I was in contact with him for a few weeks,” Hakim Ziyech said of Lampard in an interview with Ajax shortly after his £39 million transfer to Chelsea was announced. “At first, it was mainly by phone. We had a few long conversations about his approach, his playing style, the club and about me. Later on, we texted a lot.
“He was such a big player and he was a midfielder, so I can learn a lot from him. I have a lot to learn. I had a good feeling after I talked with him and that feeling only became stronger. There was no doubt in my mind.”
Lampard pushed for Ziyech, as well as other players, to be signed in January. Unlike more combustible previous Chelsea head coaches, however, he did not lash out at the board publicly or privately when no reinforcements arrived, instead recognising the club’s efforts in pursuing the names he requested, as well as understanding how difficult it is for any top club to do deals that make sense for quality, long-term targets in the winter market.
Chelsea believe that Lampard’s youth movement this season will save them millions in future transfer fees, as well as providing a vibrant young home-grown foundation on which to build a team that contends for the Premier League and Champions League in the near future. But they also know the importance of getting the next transfer window right.
The pressure is on, and not simply because they have spent the last two on the sidelines. The disastrous summer of 2017 remains fresh in the minds of many supporters, and Chelsea are still trying to extricate themselves from the consequences of some of those failed deals. Finding any buyer for Danny Drinkwater may yet be Granovskaia’s greatest achievement to date.
Yet the picture painted of Chelsea’s recruitment system from a wide range of conversations with scouts, agents and rival football executives is one that stands up well to comparisons with the most modern, slick transfer operations. If they fail again, it won’t be due to a lack of resources, effort or thinking.
McLachlan has been Chelsea’s head of international scouting since 2011, but the scope and nature of his role has evolved over the years. When he reported to technical director Michael Emenalo, he was granted considerable autonomy to identify weaknesses in the scouting and analytics departments, and to make the necessary changes.
The recruitment structure at the time was convoluted. Each new manager voiced their transfer preferences, but owner Roman Abramovich had a tight-knit group of football advisors — including former manager Bobby Campbell and Dutch scout Piet de Visser — who influenced decisions. Emenalo’s job was to mediate, adding recommendations from the scouting system and his own network of contacts.
The results were muddled and inconsistent; within a year of committing £50 million to an ill-fated move for Fernando Torres, Chelsea spent far less combined to acquire rising Belgian stars Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois on the recommendation of De Visser. Emenalo pursued his idea of building a large pool of loan players, to act both as a developmental pathway and an additional source of revenue.
McLachlan’s focus was on making Chelsea’s process of talent identification more data and analytics-driven. A graduate of London South Bank University with a masters degree in sports coaching science, he had worked as head of performance analysis at Southampton and as a technical scout at Fulham, building a reputation as one of the pioneers of performance profiling — the process of analysing an athlete’s performance to identify strengths and weaknesses — in football.
“I am going to four or five matches a week, because I don’t want to lose touch with the essence of the game, but at Chelsea my role has changed,” he said in Michael Calvin’s 2013 book The Nowhere Men. “It is more managerial. I have about 20 scouts working to me. It is my job to educate them scientifically, to tailor their observations and analysis to data presentation. I’ve got to stop them using silly cliches, like the boy does this and that, and get them to focus on trends and averages.”
McLachlan also spoke of the dangers of a lack of due diligence in deals like the one for Torres. “What is crazy is that, to pick a moment in time, £269 million was spent in the transfer window in January 2011,” he added. “How much of that was down to quantitative analysis of the facts? How much objectivity was used in the signing decision? How much involved real scrutiny of the data? If you are going to make a capital investment of £50 million in one player, how are you going to discover what you are getting for your money?”
By the time Emenalo resigned in November 2017, McLachlan’s remit had expanded to include the UK scouting operation. Ever since, he has reported directly to Granovskaia, and the lack of urgency to appoint a new technical director — technical and performance adviser Petr Cech has different responsibilities, despite the similarity of his job title — underlines the club’s satisfaction with how this more streamlined structure is functioning.
McLachlan speaks frequently to Granovskaia, to Cech and to Lampard, who has taken a more active interest in the work of the recruitment department than previous head coaches. Lampard’s approachable demeanour and desire to offer a “willing ear”, as one source describes it, to scouting recommendations have been appreciated, and this more collegiate atmosphere has prompted hope that damaging tensions over transfer strategy with past managers will not be repeated.
There is broad respect in European football for McLachlan, who remains driven by a desire for self-improvement: he is enrolled in the FA’s Level 5 course for technical directors. His reputation is founded on the Chelsea scouting system he has re-moulded to his own specifications — a system regarded as one of the smartest, most efficient and forward-thinking among elite clubs.
It’s possible that you could find yourself sitting next to a Chelsea scout at a match. You may already have done so, and simply not realised. Unlike a lot of clubs who formally request scout accreditation, Chelsea more often buy a ticket in the stands to make sure no one knows they are watching. They wear nothing to identify who they represent, and are under strict instructions to keep a low profile.
When notes are made on smartphones or iPads, technological precautions are taken to ensure they are not seen by the wrong eyes. At times they still record their observations with pen and paper, but even if you did manage to get your hands on a Chelsea scouting report, you would not be able to read it. Like several other top clubs, they have developed over years a language of code and abbreviations that no one on the outside can understand.
To help maintain this veil of secrecy, McLachlan does not use scouting consultants who also provide their services to other clubs. Chelsea’s scouts work for them, and for them alone.
Their reports feed into a bespoke scouting and data analysis system, built by a member of Chelsea’s recruitment department regarded as one of the best in the industry. McLachlan’s team at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham then sift through the sea of data — a combination of live scouting from around the world, video assessment using Wyscout and other resources, and advanced performance metrics — to identify the players who should be added to the list of potential first-team targets.
Robustness is a quality particularly valued in Chelsea’s scouting assessment. They pay close attention to a player’s injury record and whether they are capable of playing three matches in the space of a week — the kind of challenge English football frequently poses. Cesar Azpilicueta’s appearance record since moving to Stamford Bridge in 2012 is held up internally as an example, while durability was also a defining characteristic of Eden Hazard and Willian’s careers at the club.
McLachlan can make his player recommendations in transfer discussions with Lampard, Cech and Granovskaia, but central to Chelsea’s overall recruitment strategy is that it must ultimately serve the needs of the head coach. It is part of the reason why Jorginho accompanied Sarri to Stamford Bridge in 2018, and why Lampard has been able emphasise targets that complement the young academy core he is trying to build around.
Emenalo moved to separate Chelsea’s senior and youth recruitment operations, but since his departure the two have become more integrated. The emphasis is on building players towards one journey from the under-9 age group to first-team level, and so while head of youth development Neil Bath and his assistant Jim Fraser are directly responsible for all academy business, there is frequent communication with McLachlan and Cech. In the age of Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland — an era when players between the ages of 17 and 20 are increasingly ready to shine at first-team level and are priced accordingly — such joined-up thinking is vital.
Youth scouting is increasingly regarded as a separate specialism in modern football, and Chelsea are widely seen as the masters. Domestically, their ability to spot, secure and develop talent at an early age is borne out by the presence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James and Fikayo Tomori in Lampard’s squad, while Andreas Christensen and former Chelsea defender Nathan Ake are testament to the club’s success at attracting promising teenagers from across Europe.
Even accounting for the transfer bans FIFA handed the club in 2009 and 2019 for violating transfer rules regarding foreign players under the age of 18, their aggression in this area has worked for them more often than against them.
McLachlan empowers his team — headed up by his second-in-command James Bell-Walker, a former scout for Everton and Bolton who lives in the north west but spends most of his week at Cobham — but he also insists on watching any potential senior recruit several times. Assessing the player’s temperament and personality are an important part of the process — one agent told The Athletic that McLachlan had revealed he had watched a fly-on-the-wall documentary series focused on the player’s club to see if he could glean anything about his character.
Part of McLachlan’s job is to do any due diligence relating to a player of interest and to come up with an estimated cost of any deal. At that point, if it is something Chelsea are minded to commit to, the relevant parties are informed that Granovskaia will call them to begin the final negotiations.
Granovskaia’s prominence has been the constant in a decade of evolution for Chelsea’s recruitment process. The person entrusted with managing the club’s day-to-day football operations by Abramovich when she joined the board in 2010, her voice has grown more authoritative as she has established a reputation as one of the game’s most capable transfer dealmakers.
Among those who have worked with or against her, the consensus is that Granovskaia is firm but fair in negotiations, and formidably dedicated to her job. “She’s constantly working,” one agent says. “It’s not uncommon to get a reply from her at midnight if she hasn’t had a chance to get back to you during the day.”
An executive at a rival club says: “I’ve been involved in three or four deals with Marina and she’s always been good to her word. Every time I dealt with her, it was very straight forward, very business-like, very professional and she never went back on her word. I can’t say that about everybody else in this business.”
Granovskaia does much of her transfer communication via phone calls, and is not known for engaging in tricks or mind games during negotiations. She states her position in plain terms and makes it clear when there is no room for manoeuvre. Abramovich is kept updated on all the key decisions Chelsea make in the transfer market, but her judgment is trusted.
As a number of high-profile Chelsea players have discovered, Granovskaia never allows emotion or sentimentality to cloud her decision-making. If there is a good, fair deal to be made in the interests of her club, she will do it. If there isn’t, she will not be convinced otherwise. Diego Costa sent her a barrage of WhatsApp messages during his self-imposed exile in Brazil pleading to be allowed to join Atletico Madrid, but the transfer did not happen until the money was right.
One agent went so far as to describe Granovskaia’s approach as “cut-throat”, though most of those who spoke to The Athletic did not use those words. The over-riding impression is of a serious dealmaker who is widely respected within the business, even by those with whom she has engaged in more fraught negotiations.
She has worked productively with most of the major agents, and some have done a lot of business with Chelsea in recent years — Kia Joorabchian and Giuliano Bertolucci represent many of the Brazilians who have come and gone from Stamford Bridge, while Federico Pastorello helped facilitate the appointments of Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri. Pini Zahavi has had long-standing connections with Abramovich.
Relations with Mino Raiola became strained in the fallout from Chelsea’s failed attempt to bring Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge in 2017, when it was felt that he had steered his client towards a more lucrative offer from Manchester United at the 11th hour. But overall, Granovskaia does not favour particular agents and Chelsea’s recruitment is not regarded as agent-led — the suitability of the player is what matters.
Granovskaia chairs Chelsea’s internal discussions about transfer strategy, but does not overstep her brief in pretending to know the strengths and weaknesses of individual players. She understands that her expertise lies in the business of transfers, and relies on the input of the first-team head coach and scouting reports presented by McLachlan to take the lead in identifying club targets. Once a player is identified, she initiates talks and makes the final decision on the deal.
Her biggest achievement in the role has been maximising Chelsea’s income for players deemed surplus to requirements, generating £397.4 million profit from player sales since 2013 — a vast sum that has provided a key source of income to help keep the club competitive near the top of the Premier League in the age of Financial Fair Play.
Perhaps her most notable miscalculation was the sequence of events that led to Chelsea making Kepa Arrizabalaga the most expensive goalkeeper ever in the summer of 2018. Talks over a deal with Roma for Alisson, the club’s first-choice target, reached an advanced stage but Granovskaia had still hoped to convince Courtois to stay. Liverpool capitalised on their rivals’ hesitation to snatch Alisson, Courtois went on strike and Kepa was No 2 on the recruitment list. The only option left was to pay the £71.6 million buyout clause in his contract with Athletic Bilbao.
But indecision is not a trap that Granovskaia often falls into. If they feel a fair deal can be done for a player they want, Chelsea tend to move quickly: their speed in reaching an agreement with Ajax to sign Ziyech impressed recruitment professionals elsewhere in Europe, where Premier League clubs have a reputation for being too reactive and ultimately paying over the odds.
It’s fair to wonder how this widespread respect for Granovskaia, McLachlan and Chelsea’s broader recruitment system squares with the undeniable howlers that transpired in the summer window of 2017. Of the five players signed at a combined cost of almost £180 million (Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Drinkwater, Antonio Rudiger and Davide Zappacosta) only Rudiger still factors into the club’s plans.
Each deal has its own context. Morata was a worthy but ultimately lost bet on an elite talent, a bet that Chelsea only made once Lukaku chose United. Bakayoko was a player with potential who could yet blossom somewhere, but he arrived injured and never adapted. Drinkwater and Zappacosta, the least defensible, were late signings made to try and appease Conte, who had spent the summer furiously lobbying for squad reinforcements. Rudiger has become a solid contributor.
No matter how scientific your approach to recruitment, you can never turn it into an exact science. Chelsea’s record since offers greater cause for encouragement: Kepa is the only senior signing to underperform the fee paid for him and, at 25, still has time to improve. Mateo Kovacic has been one of the best players this season, while Jorginho has proven his usefulness was not tied to Sarri and his system. Christian Pulisic showed enough flashes prior to injury to suggest he can be a significant part of the next great team at Stamford Bridge.
The biggest test of Chelsea’s senior recruitment is coming, but there is a quiet confidence that they will prove equal to the challenge. McLachlan’s data-driven scouting network has never carried more weight behind the scenes, or found a first-team head coach more receptive than Lampard. As long as they can find the players capable of taking this team to the next level, Granovskaia’s track record indicates she is capable of delivering them.