Roman Abramovich is known to be an enthusiastic and typically high-end art collector, strongly rumoured be the buyer of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” by Francis Bacon in November for £89m. In 2008 The Art Newspaper claimed he bought Bacon’s “Tryptych” and Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” for around £60m, never confirmed or denied.
Earlier that year, Abramovich and Chelsea paid around £8m for the Brazil-born, naturalised Portuguese, midfielder Deco – a man who had the word “Art” placed before his name by headline writers more often than any footballer in the history of newspapers. But he was a relatively modest acquisition by comparison with those investments in the world art market.
If the reports are true then Abramovich has easily exceeded the £50m British transfer record his club paid for Fernando Torres three years ago on one canvas of oil paint alone. But then art is a much more secure investment than buying footballers: it generally rises in value over the years, you don’t have to pay it a salary and you never have to worry about it turning up late for training.
If he wants, Abramovich can hang his great works on his office wall, or leave them in a 24-hour security, temperature-controlled warehouse for his children to inherit. He cannot do the same with a footballer. They are much more complex. Their price fluctuates dramatically. Under-used or ignored, they become just a moody face and a tracksuit and when their contract runs out, so too will their value to Chelsea.
Which brings us to the sale of Juan Mata. It is the ultimate modern transfer because it was sanctioned according to a much more complex set of criteria than those that dictated player trading in the past. One that takes in Financial Fair Play, pressure on squad numbers under home-grown quota rules, and a more complicated relationship between club and player than one is accustomed to in these kind of deals.
There was a time when Chelsea would have just held on to Mata to stop a rival like Manchester United signing him. After all, they could afford to pay his salary, keep him for games like the FA Cup tie against Stoke City yesterday. They could have waited until he was so fed up that he would jump at the chance to join a new-money club like Monaco.
There is a good argument for not selling your best players to direct domestic rivals. But who wants a game where the best players are stockpiled, with some of them only occasionally exhibited in the early rounds of the Capital One Cup?
Mata, as Jose Mourinho acknowledged, is too good a player to spend his days watching games at Stamford Bridge. It has been tough for Chelsea supporters to accept, but for football – the basic notion that the top players should play every week at the top clubs – it is the best outcome.
At the start of the season, when it first became clear that Mata was not part of Mourinho’s plans, his advisors drew up an agreement that he could leave the club for $45m (£37m) this month if the situation remained the same. United were originally the only club excluded from that agreement but when it was amended to include United, Chelsea stuck to their promise.
Why? One starts with the basic fact that Oscar was Mourinho’s first choice, ahead of Mata, in the playmaking role, and once that is established, the question is whether it is prudent to keep an asset worth £37m on the bench.
There is much about FFP that is half-hearted, not least the manner in which it seeks to shut the portcullis on clubs challenging the elite with the help of a benefactor – unfortunately the only way these days. But it can claim a significant part in the reasoning for selling Mata, a factor in the decision acknowledged by Mourinho.
The sale of Mata is earning Chelsea by coincidence exactly the same amount of losses Uefa permit clubs to make in the current monitoring period of Financial Fair Play over its first two seasons.
This is a club that just about managed to keep their FFP losses under that threshold in their most recent financial results, having been permitted around £12m of reductions by Uefa on their annual losses of £49.4m. Mata’s sale is fundamental to keeping them within those parameters, especially with the arrival this month of Nemanja Matic (£21m) and Mohamed Salah (£11m).
Mata will score goals for United. He may even score them against Chelsea. This could never be a win-win situation for his former club. In keeping or selling Mata, there was no option left open to them that did not have major disadvantages.
Despite his professionalism at Chelsea during his exile under Mourinho, there was already pressure developing between manager and player. Hold onto him and it could get worse while his transfer value would begin to fall.
The biggest decisions that face all managers, so too political leaders, are those when the margins are at their finest. Much easier to sanction the signing of Eden Hazard for £32m when he is the player whom the whole of Europe wants. Just as it was relatively easy for Sir Alex Ferguson to jettison a then 34-year-old, injured, rebellious Roy Keane. Not a decision likely to come back to haunt a manager in the long term (give or take the odd barb on ITV).
Much harder to let go a 25-year-old who has carried the team at times over the last two years, especially when he is joining a club that can never be discounted as a threat to Chelsea in the long term. But the good managers make their big decisions based on a firm set of principles that they hope will see them through the thick and the thin.
Ferguson did it in his famous summer of change in 1995 at United. To a lesser extent it was the same when Brendan Rodgers moved on Liverpool’s record signing Andy Carroll immediately upon taking over as manager, when it would have been easier just to bumble along with him and not rock the boat. More than 18 months on, Rodgers has been proven right.
A manager, a club, must constantly re-evaluate his squad’s strengths in this era of 21st-century football. Post-Bosman, post-FFP, post-Champions League and Premier League squad home-grown quotas, the picture is changing day-by-day, as contracts tick down and potential new signings emerge. Neglect to tend it and you can quickly find the garden going to seed, as United have discovered over the last five months.
These are all delicate factors which have to be balanced and at the centre must be one man with the strength to make a big decision and accept the consequences. Mourinho said on Friday that the decision to sell Mata was taken in consultation with other executives, even, he said, the commercial department. But it won’t be them getting sacked if Chelsea cannot finish in the Champions League places next season.
By comparison, managing the Abramovich art collection looks relatively straightforward: one keeps bidding until everyone else in the room simply stops trying to catching the auctioneer’s eye. It used to be that simple running his football club, but not any more.