Chelsea FC are one of the most successful Premier League clubs of the 21st century, and this is thanks mainly to a huge amount of ambition in the transfer market, and the desire to appoint only the very best as club manager. However, not all of Chelsea’s moves have worked out, and those in power at Stamford Bridge have then decided to release some players just a bit too early.
There are several standout examples of players who have joined Chelsea, only to fail, and then achieve later success. The question, however, is whether or not they would have prevailed in the end, had Chelsea just been that shade more patient.
The first of two men that Chelsea should have clung on to for dear life, and the most obvious example of recent times. Back in the summer of 2017, Salah joined Liverpool for a relatively modest £36m, inevitably leading some Chelsea fans to dismiss him as a ‘Chelsea reject’. With Serie A imports having a very chequered history in the Premier League, those Blues fans who indulged in that description may have had a point.
Flash forward to April 2019, and those same Chelsea fans are laughing on the other side of their faces, having just witnessed Salah burst the corner of the Kop End net with an Exocet. That goal put Liverpool out of sight, made it impossible for Chelsea to catch them in the league, and prolonged Chelsea’s run of away defeats against their peers in the top-six.
In true ‘Bullseye’ fashion, it was a perfect illustration of what Chelsea could have won – as was the Champions League trophy that he ended up cradling just six weeks later.
The truth is that Salah was indeed a Chelsea reject, but only because his move from Basel in January 2014 came too quickly. After all, the jump from the Swiss top flight to the Premier League is not one so easily negotiated, and a loan move to Fiorentina was forthcoming after but a handful of appearances.
That eighteen-month loan was just the boost Salah needed, and he found his scoring boots at opportune moments, reserving his best for games with something tangible at stake – such as the Europa League round of 16. However, he rejected a permanent move in the summer of 2015, and instead joined Roma. He continued his strong form, and the rest is history.
What if Salah had stayed?
There is no way that Salah could have thrived under Jose Mourinho, especially with the squad winning the 2014/15 Premier League so easily. However, if he had chosen to return, and managed to survive any planned cull from Mourinho, it is hard to imagine him ever breaking into the starting XI.
He would undoubtedly had grown even more disillusioned with the Premier League, and rejected any future approaches at all from English clubs. In turn, his standing as the top scorer of 2017/18 would have been erased from history, as potentially would Liverpool’s sixth Champions League title.
Kevin De Bruyne
Some would assert that the loss of Kevin De Bruyne is, in retrospect, a bigger loss. On his day, the Belgian midfielder can do everything and anything, as stands as a cornerstone reason that Manchester City currently command the shortest title odds by far in outright Premier League betting markets.
De Bruyne had made just 95 appearances for KRC Genk by the time Rafael Benitez came after his signature. Indeed, that tally was all De Bruyne required to get a very early taste of success, with a goalscoring contribution made in over half of his games for Genk during 2010/11, including a return of five goals, being vital towards only the club’s third-ever title win.
Back in the summer of 2012, Chelsea desperately needed a long-term prospect embodying youth and a winning mentality. De Bruyne was ideal in that regard, and his loan to Werder Bremen for 2012/13 proved successful, with his contributions doing much to help the club survive a relegation dogfight.
However, by the summer of 2013, Mourinho was in the hot seat, and De Bruyne shared future title rival Salah’s fate in being locked out of the squad. He made just three appearances in Mourinho’s XVIII thereafter, moving to Wolfsburg in January 2014. Inevitably he improved, and found himself in a better position to build upon his abilities as a deep-lying playmaker in a less-frenetic league.
In his first full season (2014/15), De Bruyne set a new Bundesliga record by getting 21 assists, and a wonderful campaign was capped on the DFB Pokal final, where he scored in a 3-1 win over Dortmund. His reward was a move to Manchester City, and yet again, the rest writes itself. He was instrumental in Manchester City’s charge towards the 2017/18 title, with City becoming the first club to bank triple figures in a Premier League campaign during that season’s final moments.
What if De Bruyne had stayed?
With youth on the Belgian’s side, Mourinho would likely have allowed him to return to the Bundesliga on a season-long loan. In the real course of events De Bruyne was always open to a Manchester move, but there is no telling how another successful spell in the Bundesliga would have altered his course.
As Bayern Munich manager at the time, Pep Guardiola would have likely snapped him up before City did, given how he has utilised De Bruyne as the all-round midfield solution in the actual world.
In this alternate scenario, the 2017/18 campaign would have been much closer, and Liverpool might well have won the title in 2018/19. That is, of course, if Guardiola did not go back for De Bruyne in 2016 once appointed the City boss – and ultimately alter precisely nothing.
Given how well Marco Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta did in 2016/17, the loss of left-back Filipe Luís is less profoundly felt. However, with Chelsea now considered vulnerable to losing their long-held ‘top-six’ status, some Blues fans may feel as though they have missed out on a man capable of filling the space of the aforementioned Spaniards when they are out of form and bereft of ideas.
Starting out as an attacking midfielder in his native Brazil, it took just one Luís goal from 24 appearances to generate interest from Ajax. It was too soon for him to make the leap to Europe, and after precisely zero minutes played for the Amsterdam club, he was off to Uruguayan club Rentistas, and subsequently loaned out to Real Madrid (to play in the ‘B’ team) and later Deportivo La Coruña.
Luís was made a permanent signing by the latter in 2008, but try as he did, there was no stopping the club’s decline. He was rescued from oblivion by Atlético Madrid one year before Deportivo La Coruña’s near-inevitable relegation.
He started life with the Rojiblancos in impressive fashion, and despite getting just two goals in 127 appearances before his move to Chelsea, his positional versatility was very useful when it came to springing surprises. This was particularly the case during the club’s run to the Champions League final in 2014, which resulted in him being named as one of the three best defenders in the Spanish top-flight.
That man again, Jose Mourinho, came calling for his signature, and lured Luís to Chelsea for an apparent dream move. Unfortunately for Luís, Cesar Azpilicueta decided to have one of his best seasons in the famous blue and white, locking the Brazilian out of his now-favoured position. In the end, Luís’ versatility backfired, and he was little more than an impact sub designed to fill whatever holes necessary in defence and midfield.
Given how different the tempo of the Premier League is, he had no opportunity to really find his milieu at Chelsea, and back he went to Atlético. From then on it was normal service resumed, and his group stage contributions would help Atlético win a Europa League trophy in 2018 prior to an injury in March 2018 that spelled the beginning of the end for Luís at the top of the European game.
What if Filipe Luís had stayed?
While 2014/15 was never an ideal opportunity for him, nobody could have foreseen the disaster that would be 2015/16 for Chelsea. It all unravelled horrendously, and with the first team in disarray, there is every chance that Luís would be deployed with greater regularity to shake things up.
It is unclear where Luís would have figured in Mourinho replacement Guus Hiddink’s agenda, but if Dutch national Hiddink had followed Luís since his Ajax days – albeit days where he never played – then Luís might well have thrived at Chelsea after all.