The dust had barely settled on Chelsea’s 3-1 Premier League victory over Norwich City on Saturday when the Blues announced the signing of Ulises Dávila.
The 20-year old Mexican joins on a five-year deal from Chivas Guadalajara and is the latest in a recent spate of interesting South and Latin American transfers which offer up some interesting talking points about the club’s transfer and scouting policies.
From the moment Roman Abramovich took over at Stamford Bridge, every club in world football was on notice that their players could be targeted by the ambitious West London club.
However, with such obvious spending power, Chelsea were often held to a higher standard than other teams and were expected to pay more ‘because they could’.
Going hand in hand with that, to an extent, has been the desire to capture ready-made stars in order to compete for every trophy right now. There has been the occasional signing which was both cheap and full of potential – most notably that of Petr Cech – but by and large the club’s transfer policy has been to spend big and to win now.
That, of course, has left a squad which many will argue is past its best and, until this summer, was in desperate need of rejuvenation.
Four of Andre Villas-Boas’ five signings to date have been teenagers but even in the case of Romelu Lukaku, established young European potential comes at quite a price, and so the club have been turning their attentions further afield.
Indeed, they’ve been doing so for a while, but much of it has been under the radar. South (and in the case of Dávila Central) America is an intriguing market, one which is undoubtedly full of unearthed riches, but one which has proven to be inconsistent with regards to English football.
Not only do many players struggle to secure work permits in the UK, but the change in culture, lifestyle and weather is often too much for many to handle.
As is the jump in quality of football as well. Mike Forde, Chelsea’s Performance Director, noted in a presentation some time in 2010 that the club would typically look to sign a player who has made the jump from South America to Europe first, and not take them directly in order to minimise the risk factor.
This was the case with Alexandre Pato, who the Blues had a long-standing interest in before he ultimately joined Milan. Instead of inviting him to join up with the first team squad in London immediately, they proposed a plan whereby ‘the Duck’ would spend at least a season on loan at CSKA Moscow.
Pato baulked at the suggestion and the rest is history, but it shows the mindset the club has adopted for much of the past decade.
Elsewhere, you can find as many hits as you can misses but in what is now an exceptionally saturated market, clubs are desperate to find a way to get ahead. That invariably means casting the net farther afield in search of bargains.
In this pursuit, as with many aspects of football, imitating the success of others will likely be high on the agenda. Manchester United’s discovery of Javier Hernandez last summer gave them fantastic bang for their buck en route to regaining the Premier League title and the development of twin full-backs Rafael and Fabio Da Silva, signed for relative pennies as teenagers, has allowed them to rejuvenate an ageing back line.
Arsenal have tried similar under Arsene Wenger, but the likes of Carlos Vela and Denilson have been inconsistent at best whilst Costa Rican forward Joel Campbell has failed to get a work permit.
With two key scouts operating in South America (Jorge Alvial and Victor de los Santos), Chelsea’s presence in the region has been well known since Frank Arnesen arrived at the club and they have reaped the rewards of centre-back Alex (although the less said about compatriot Alcides the better).
However, the majority of their transfer activity there has been to secure the rights and/or signatures of much younger players for much cheaper fees, before they’ve developed into fully-fledged top level performers.
Uruguayan forward Jhon Pirez put pen to paper in 2008 and has continued his development at Defensor Sporting in his homeland, scoring on his senior debut for the club earlier this year.
He unfortunately suffered a serious knee injury in April which ruled him out of the Under-20 World Cup, else he could easily have been another star performer making waves on the international stage.
The sale of Deco to Fluminense last summer saw the Blues acquire 40% of the rights to three of the club’s young talents; Rafael Pernao, Wallace, and Ronan.
Pernao has since left the club after a dispute and is now affiliated with the Traffic group heavily involved with Manchester United, but Wallace, an attacking right-back, was one of Brazil’s standouts at the Under-17 World Cup in Mexico in June.
One of his team-mates during the competition was Lucas Piazon, the highest profile of Chelsea’s future imports. He will move to London next month ahead of making his transfer permanent when he turns 18 in January.
Dávila is the latest in this wave of activity, markedly stepped up in the last 24 months, and is almost certain to go on loan to Vitesse Arnhem for the coming season.
The Dutch outfit – with whom Chelsea have an unofficial relationship due to the friendship between their respective owners – have also recently acquired twin Brazilian full-backs of their own in Alex and Anderson along with Ecuadorian forward Renato Ibarra.
In each case Chelsea have been linked with a partial involvement in the deal, and it would come as no surprise to learn that they had a hand in bringing them to Europe.
What is certain, however, is that there has been a definitive shift in focus from the ‘football board’ on the type of player they should be targeting.
David Luiz – a Brazilian – and Fernando Torres – a Spaniard – joined in January, whilst Juan Mata and Oriol Romeu have added to the Latin element to the squad under a new Portuguese manager.
The squad still features much by way of the big and physical athletic presence assembled by Jose Mourinho, but the future looks set to be a more subtle, technically minded one.
Whether it’s successful or not will be determined on the pitch, both at Stamford Bridge and in the wider footballing world. Success breeds imitation; the question is whether Chelsea will be the leaders or followers.