For a glimpse of the uncertain future that awaits, Chelsea might cast a nostalgic glance towards Manchester, where United head to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday not only second best but as second class citizens.
Access to the vast wealth of Roman Abramovich is no more. The certainties provided by money beyond conventional audit has gone. What the likes of Manchester City, PSG and now Newcastle United enjoy, and Chelsea had under Roman rule, is an unlimited expense account.
In the hands of Abramovich, Chelsea was a football club providing a service to which success, though pretty much guaranteed, was incidental. The function, as it is for City, PSG and Newcastle, was to provide legitimacy, to give him a foothold in an accepting, uncritical Western space.
A clue to the motivations of the prospective new owners is the desire to drive the price down, to pick up a bargain. This is all about the deal. Buyers are not seeking validation but profit. The number of Russian billionaires looking to land football real estate in London, or Middle East regimes seeking validation in one of the cultural capitals of the world is shrinking.
And with the prospect of an independent regulator looming, tapping into a new mood of accountability triggered by the outrages perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine, the fit and proper persons loophole that allowed dubious owners to enter football society may be getting smaller too.
This model circling Chelsea is based on taking money out as opposed to pouring it in. Winning trophies is great but not essential. Investments are calculated on maintaining the conditions that keep the yield high, not silverware.
It has been perfected, of course, by the Glazer family, whose ownership has reduced United from serial winners to fringe campaigners. There is still enough in the United tank to flirt with success but not to counter the power shift across the city.
As long as the debt, which stands at £420m, is manageable, and the six members of the Glazer clan can pocket the greater part of the annual £20m-plus dividend, the conditions for a happy life are met.
This is the territory Chelsea are about to enter. They might point to Liverpool, presently mining a hot period under American ownership using the same template. The difference is, Liverpool are managed by one of the coaches of the epoch with the likes of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, et al, players the like of whom we see only rarely. Take a couple of those out of the equation and the picture changes rapidly, as we saw with the injury to Van Dijk last season.
The admirable Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel captured the sense of unease and confusion running through the club in the aftermath of FA Cup victory at Luton. With one foot on the wall by the pitch Tuchel rocked back and forth as the questions from reporters rained down. “It’s a bit too early to speak, because I can only think about Chelsea with Roman Abramovich,” he said. “It’s very hard for me. It hasn’t sunk in yet that this is going to stop. It’s a massive change.”
Tuchel will now have to answer to a consortium of wealthy interests, whether that be individuals, companies, hedge funds or any shade of speculator who may or may not be able to distinguish beekeeper from goalkeeper, quarterback from right-back. The Premier League is big business. Chelsea is big brand.
The money rolling in from broadcast deals and sponsorships continues to grow. The fragmenting media landscape offers yet more potential as the big clubs develop their own in-house income streams. As the United example demonstrates, you don’t need the best centre-forward in the world, just one good enough to keep the bounty flowing.
Romelu Lukaku has become an unwitting case in point, symbolically straddling both dimensions. He was bought for a record fee with cash from a £1.5bn debt silo. Had Abramovich not been chased out of town because of his Russian business interests, he might easily have shipped out Lukaku in the summer for, let’s say, Erling Haaland. They are in a different market now. Cristiano Ronaldo or Edinson Cavani for Stamford Bridge anyone?