Hopefully Maurizio Sarri has settled in quickly at Chelsea, because his first major issue is on the horizon: Thibaut Courtois must not leave Stamford Bridge.
As was evidenced by the end of last season, Courtois is a critical piece of this team. Comparing him to Willy Caballero is clearly a false equivalency, but that stretch of games at the tail of 2017-18 really did emphasise the difference between an outstanding goalkeeper and a merely (sometimes) competent one.
Of course, if Courtois were to move, presumably back to Spain, Chelsea would try to replace him. Even for a side of their resources though, the options are limited: Jan Oblak would cost a small fortune, Marc-Andre ter Stegen isn’t leaving Barcelona, and Manchester United would rather give away Old Trafford than part with David De Gea. Roma’s Alisson Becker was available, but is – obviously – already now off the market.
It’s one of those situations in which Chelsea cannot budge – particularly given Courtois’s performances at the recent World Cup. Russia 2018 saw him ascend to a different level of the game. He’s been a highly-valuable goalkeeper for some time, of course, but he was one of the cornerstones of Belgium’s tournament and it’s easy to imagine that rippling into his club form. He behaved like a leader over the past month, performing with exactly the right blend of belief and arrogance, and he looked outwardly like a player easing into the prime of his career.
Symbolically, to lose him now – for what are likely to be his best years – would be devastating. Particularly so if Eden Hazard is also to leave. Both players’ contracts expire in the summer of 2019, but the cost of allowing Hazard to run his deal down is far greater; goalkeepers have always been incorrectly priced by the market and so, while Chelsea could certainly demand a fee north of £150m for one, they would be lucky to receive in excess of £50m for the other.
£50m which, on the evidence of recent seasons, they wouldn’t necessarily spend wisely. The vacant role left by Michael Emenalo’s departure still hasn’t been filled, which leaves transfer policy in the hands of Marina Granovskaia – a highly capable executive without question, but on past form not necessarily a natural sporting director. Chelsea’s decision to sign Jorginho earlier this summer was smart, but presumably driven by Sarri himself, and none of the deals concluded since Emenalo left inspire much confidence.
On that basis, this is not the moment to be making critical changes to the first-team. Particularly not in any area which has been such a traditional strength.
Better, then, to spend the summer resisting whatever efforts are being made to take Courtois away and, if necessary, swallow the financial loss. In twelve months’ time, the European goalkeeping landscape may also have changed, offering a far broader range of replacements than currently exist. Additionally, Chelsea may also be negotiating their next step from inside the Champions League again, making them a more attractive proposition in general, but also to Courtois himself. Perhaps by that point the club’s recruiting strategy will also have been refined and a replacement for Emenalo will actually be in place. It would be a much sounder basis from which to operate; a position from which it would be far easier to make macro, era-defining choices.
Hazard seems likely to go and that would be a hefty punch to take. To allow Courtois to follow him, though, having seen him become one of the pillars of this side is inconceivable. In an ideal world, Sarri’s beginning to life at Stamford Bridge should coincide with a period of incongruous stability. Seeing two cornerstone players leave within the same the transfer period, ahead of a season which will be his first in English football, would be as difficult a beginning as it’s possible to imagine for the head-coach of a club who are already short of positive momentum.
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Also published on Medium.