THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

A New Era

A busy week at Chelsea. Romelu Lukaku is heading back to Inter for a fraction of what Chelsea paid for him, accompanied by the sound of laughter and shrugging and people asking one another 'Worst transfer ever?'
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But Lukaku, though expensive, never managed to establish himself as crucial to Chelsea; indeed, that was part of the problem. So his absence isn't going to make too much difference. The same cannot be said for this week's other departures, chairman Bruce Buck and director Marina Granovskaia, who have been working at Chelsea through most of the Roman Abramovich era. Buck had been chairman since all the way back in 2004, while Granovskaia became a club representative in 2010.
Replacing them? Todd Boehly, and Todd Boehly. And there could not be a more exciting moment for Chelsea's new owner to take his first steps into the wonderful world of the transfer market. The ideal situation for this kind of move - a man with no experience taking temporary charge of transfers at one of the world's biggest clubs - would be a slow January, one in which Chelsea have little business to do, and do that quietly. A contract renewal here, a youth prospect there. But this summer? Chelsea's to-do list reads as follows: the goalkeeping is probably all right.
Up front, Lukaku's departure only exacerbates the problem he was brought in to solve: Chelsea have lots of exciting attacking players but no dead-eyed finisher. The midfield doesn't require immediate patching, but N'Golo Kante and Jorginho are both in stick-or-twist territory, on the wise side of 30 and with just one year left on their contracts. And at the back, the senior central-defensive options currently comprise Thiago Silva, Trevoh Chalabah and Malang Sarr, with Cesar Azpilicueta currently deciding whether or not to decamp to Barcelona. That would rob Chelsea of their captain as well.
But the thing about rebuilds is that you can take them in any direction. Boehly may not have experience in the transfer market but he does have, in Thomas Tuchel, a manager with extremely clear ideas on how football should be played. This change in personnel also perhaps allows for a change in approach, a move away from the previous strategy of picking up good players as and where available, in the hope that somebody on the rotating carousel of coaches will get the best out of them.
This is a chance to reorient Chelsea around lots of exciting buzzwords like "integrated" and "strategy" and "who would you like to sign, Mr Tuchel?". No guarantees it will work, of course: Manchester City and Liverpool are miles ahead; Tottenham and Arsenal are huffing and puffing; Manchester United are, er, a professional football club based at Old Trafford. But without the endless churn of oligarch money, Chelsea are going to have to find another way to operate. What Boehly tries to do will be just as interesting as whether he manages to do it.

Todd Boehly

Image credit: Getty Images

Wales. Golf. Question Mark?

For the Warm-Up's money, the most interesting transfer of the summer is going to be Gareth Bale's eventual move to somewhere. (He visited Cardiff City this week.) This is not just because we're hoping for a surprise Welsh victory in Qatar, though it is at least partly that. But there's a lot going on behind the simple fact of his free agency.
Bale, now 32 and a fringe player at Real Madrid for the last two seasons, is not the player he once was. That we can all agree on. But equally, a Bale in decline is still a seriously useful footballer, one that can do things with his left foot that are beyond most mortals. Beyond all that, he's still a genuine superstar, with a heap of medals and a highlights reel to match anybody in the world. Consider the impact on the socials.
But then there's the Wales question. Anybody signing Bale right now can be sure of two things. First, his priority is going to be the World Cup in November. And second, there has to be a good chance that he decides, after Qatar, to hang up his boots to spend more time with his golf clubs. That decision may already have been made, or it may come in a moment of post-World Cup reflection, with no more worlds left to conquer. But the possibility is there.
And so Gareth Bale: Free Agent is floating through the summer as a kind of test for ambitious football clubs. Part gamble, part opportunity: how does a club weigh the potential upside against the chance of distraction, the chance of abbreviation. Can a club lovebomb him into sticking around for a couple of seasons? Can a club get enough season tickets sold on the back of his name that it won't really matter? Can Manchester United control themselves?
Ultimately, any Bale transfer is going to be an exercise in short-term cynicism, as Bale uses his new club to get ready for the World Cup and his new club accepts that and works with it. But if Cardiff City are able to tempt him home, then perhaps there might be something beyond Qatar, a coda to an already full career. Or at least, something to break up the endless monotony of golf, golf, golf. In that order.

Bale gives hope to Cardiff City fans with cryptic comments

Where Is The Mard?

Arguably the least interesting transfer of the summer is now complete, and we can all go on with our lives. That's not a comment on the footballing implications of Sadio Mané's move to Bayern Munich, which are fascinating for both teams. No, the problem is more fundamental than that. Why has this been so boring?
A very important player at a very big club indicates that they would like to move. Another very big club makes an offer. There is some negotiation. And then the move happens to everybody's broad satisfaction. Here's Jürgen Klopp reacting to the departure of one of his starting 11.
"One of Liverpool’s greatest ever players is leaving and we must acknowledge how significant this is. He leaves with our gratitude and our love. He leaves with his status among the greats guaranteed. And, yes, he leaves in a moment where he is one of the best players in world football."
How kind. How reasonable. How— hang on, there's more.
"But we must not dwell on what we now lose, instead celebrate what we were privileged to have. The goals he scored, the trophies he won; a legend, for sure, but also a modern-day Liverpool icon. Since he first stepped through the door, he made us better."
We don't think we're being unreasonable when we say: where is the drama? This hasn't been a saga. It's barely been a soap opera. And — oh, wait, hold on. We're still going.
"To be that good for such a sustained period and continuously improve season on season – no matter how high he set his own bar in the previous one – is an example to any player anywhere on the planet that professionalism and dedication leads to reward. I respect completely his decision and I’m sure our supporters do also. If you love LFC, you have to love Sadio – non-negotiable. It is possible to do this while accepting our loss is Bayern’s gain."
We can enjoy Klopp's heavy metal football, we can admire his mentality monsters, we can tolerate his occasional snark at journalists whenever things go badly. But if he's going to make the transfer market into a thing conducted by grown-ups, in grown-up fashion, then he goes too far. Could somebody call somebody else a Judas, please? This just isn't right.

RETRO CORNER

It is exactly 24 years since Scotland last played a game at a World Cup finals tournament, though it's not a game any Scot will look back on too fondly. A 3-0 reverse against Morocco that pivoted on Craig Burley's daft red card, and ended with another failure to get beyond the first round. Here are the highlights, with extra-bonus content in the form of some Americans being very rude about Jim Leighton.
Fun fact stolen from Wikipedia: Leighton's appearance in this game makes him the last player born in the 1950s to appear at a World Cup finals.

HAT TIP

Hey, you remember that time Australia were playing Peru, and they brought on a goalkeeper for the penalty shootout? And that goalkeeper proceeded to dance on the line, front up to the Peru players, throw his opposite number's notes into the crowd, and generally make a complete spectacle of himself until he and his took the win? Come on, you must remember. It was [checks calendar] a whole 10 days ago.
Anyway, it turns out that there was some actual psychology behind all the silliness. ABC's Samantha Lewis has been consulting with the experts, including Socceroos goalkeeping coach John Crawley, who reveals it was all a secret. Even from the rest of the team.
"We always knew we had Redmayne up our sleeve. We planned for that. We did a couple of sessions throughout the window where we did some specific stuff on penalties. But we didn't need to tell anyone [in the team] as long as we knew the plan ourselves. I think you just have to do something different to disrupt the penalty-taker's routine."

COMING UP

The old season is dying, and the new season struggles to be born. Now is the time of Fluminense vs. Cruzeiro in the Copa do Brasil, first leg of the round of 16.
Between now and tomorrow's column, Manchester United will fail to buy another 17 players. And Andi Thomas will be back with all the fallout.
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