On Wednesday, the British media was full of reports that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho won’t stand in Petr Cech’s way should the Czech goalkeeper decide to move elsewhere at the end of the season.
“I don’t think Petr is a guy to be persuaded [to stay],” Mourinho said. “I will just wait, wishing his decision is to stay. But I don’t waste my time trying to persuade him. If he tells me he wants to leave I will tell him my opinion, that he is one of the three best goalkeepers in the world, so huge money.”
Nobody would begrudge Cech if he left Stamford Bridge. Eleven seasons and almost 500 appearances for the club, as well as 12 major trophies, tell their own story. But it’s also been 11 years of behaving like a gentleman and being a credit to the club, as several former Chelsea bosses (not to mention the current one) will confirm.
That last point is part of the reason Cech stuck around in the summer of 2014, even after the arrival of Thibaut Courtois, who had previously been on loan at Atletico Madrid. Make no mistake about it, from a budgeting and squad-management point of view, not selling him last summer made little sense for Chelsea.
Cech only turned 32 in May, ahead of a transfer window in which a number of top clubs had some level of goalkeeping uncertainty or upheaval, including Atletico, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Roma, to name just half a dozen outside the Premier League.
However, he made it very clear he wanted to stay and compete for the No. 1 jersey, knowing full well the deck was stacked against him. Courtois is 10 years younger, earns considerably less money and is already one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Only a sudden drop of form or serious injury could likely have kept him out of the starting job.
Even then, it was extremely unlikely that Cech would get a new contract beyond his current deal, which expires in 2016.
Goalkeepers, more than most players, thrive on confidence and self-belief. Cech likely believed he could outperform Courtois if given the opportunity. That’s all he asked for, and Mourinho — ever the players’ coach — gave it to him, before eventually anointing Courtois as the first choice.
From a bean-counters/Moneyball perspective, keeping Cech was the wrong thing to do. You sell assets you don’t need or whom you believe are overvalued. Reserve goalkeepers hardly ever get on the pitch, so essentially, whatever you pay them is “dead money” because, at best, they’re a seldom-used insurance policy.
Conventional wisdom is that the only time you allocate significant assets to your No. 2 keeper is if you’re not sure about how good your starter really is or if your backup is a youngster you’re preparing to one day take the starting job. Obviously, neither case applied to Cech, and Chelsea were paying him some $9.2 million annually, which made him the second-highest-paid keeper in the world at the time.
Mourinho talks about how Cech will fetch “huge money,” but in fact he knows that won’t be the case, regardless of whether folks really think he is one of the top three goalkeepers around (he no longer, is in my opinion, but talking up your own guys is part of a manager’s job, so don’t blame Mourinho for saying so).
Cech is a year older — he’ll be 33 when the summer window opens — and crucially will be one season away from free agency. That he has spent a season as a backup will also depress any transfer fee Chelsea could get, at least relative to last summer.
Given his wage bracket, the number of potential destinations was always going to be small. But now it has likely shrunk further, even if he were to agree to a pay cut in exchange for a long-term deal.
Barcelona are under a transfer embargo, while at Real Madrid, Iker Casillas is on far more solid ground now than he was a year ago, plus Keylor Navas is already on board as a pricey backup. Roma could face financial fair play restrictions, Borussia Dortmund are in no hurry to replace Roman Weidenfeller (plus they might not be in the Champions League next year). PSG are always in play, of course, though they too have FFP limitations, and right now you have no clue who will be in charge or whether they’ll make upgrading Salvatore Sirigu a priority.
There’s more potential in the Premier League, of course, but here you run into whether Chelsea (and Cech) have the appetite to do a deal with a direct rival.
David de Gea may or may not leave Manchester United but if he does, it likely won’t be until 2016. Arsenal have sunk money into goalkeepers, and the David Ospina/Wojciech Szczesny dance is likely to continue. Manchester City locked up Joe Hart through 2019.
That leaves, potentially, Liverpool (though Simon Mignolet is doing better) and Tottenham Hotspur, if Hugo Lloris moves.
In other words, despite Cech’s quality, there are limited options at the highest level. Certainly fewer than a year ago and, when it’s a buyer’s market, Economics 101 tells us the price will be driven down even further.
That’s the thing about goalkeepers: You can only play one at a time. Outfield players don’t have that problem, which is why, when a team comes across a deal that’s too good to pass up, they’ll take it and then figure things out later.
With goalkeepers, though, it generally doesn’t work that way, especially when they’re as expensive as Cech. Indeed, you could even envision a scenario in which he simply sucks it up and accepts another season as a backup before turning to free agency in 2016.
The bean-counters wouldn’t like it. In fact, there’s probably someone with a calculator and a spreadsheet in the bowels of Stamford Bridge right now pointing out how Chelsea could have got by this season with two other goalkeepers, the veteran Mark Schwarzer and the inexperienced Jamal Blackman, played Courtois in the cups and, most likely, they would have achieved exactly the same results (even allowing for the few games the Belgian missed through injury, all of which Chelsea won).
But, the numbers person would point out, Chelsea would have an extra $25 million to $30 million in the bank (the savings on Cech’s wages plus a hypothetical transfer fee). It might also be pointed out that, because Cech is neither homegrown nor “association-trained,” his presence gobbles up a valuable slot that could help Chelsea fulfill those player requirements.
That’s one way to look at things and, in the FFP era, maybe it’s the “right” way. Numbers rule.
But it’s comforting that there are other factors that come into play beyond cold, hard figures, that a classy guy like Cech (go on, try to remember any controversy or bad behaviour he’s been involved in over the past decade at Stamford Bridge … you can’t) not be shown the door like some house guest who has overstayed his welcome.
Mourinho went to bat for him in the summer, knowing it was costing the club a big wad of money and that, should things have not worked out this year, it would be another thing his critics would throw up in his face.
The Chelsea manager had very little to gain, other than behaving like a decent guy and rewarding loyalty.
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