Chelsea, Strasbourg, BlueCo and a multi-club model yet to convince a sceptical fanbase – The Athletic

Simon JohnsonMar 7, 2024

A young team struggling in mid-table despite significant investment. Fans regularly making their displeasure known. Constant negative scrutiny over the direction the club appears to be heading.

Chelsea followers can be forgiven for thinking this sounds familiar but this is not a piece dissecting the latest goings on at Stamford Bridge. Instead, it is about their sister club, Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace, who are experiencing a very similar season in France.

It has been nine months since BlueCo, the company the Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital consortium created when buying Chelsea for £2.3billion ($2.93bn) in 2022, made Strasbourg the first member of its multi-club model, purchasing 99.97 per cent of the Ligue 1 side for €76.3m (£64.9m; $83.1m).

Strasbourg president Marc Keller has been at the helm since 2012, helping the team recover from severe financial problems and demotion to the fifth tier of the French football pyramid to establish them in Ligue 1. This season is their seventh successive campaign in the top flight.

Keller felt he had to find greater investment because of increased competition from foreign takeovers at other French sides and the decision, from this season, to reduce Ligue 1 from 20 to 18 clubs. Failure to act would run the risk of Strasbourg being left behind.

It is early days in the partnership and, inevitably, there have been a few teething problems. Keller has remained in charge to run things locally and, perhaps unsurprisingly, with Strasbourg mirroring Chelsea’s plan to lower the average age of the squad, consistency has been an issue on the pitch.

Patrick Vieira’s side are the only club not to have won a Ligue 1 fixture in 2024.

Vieira instructs his players from the touchline (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

That run of three draws and four defeats has seen them drop to 12th, three points above the relegation zone. Qualifying for Europe has become very unlikely and their hopes of winning any silverware ended last week with defeat on penalties to Lyon in the quarter-finals of the Coupe de France.

On the surface, there are not many reasons to be positive but, as at most clubs, the situation is nuanced. The Athletic has taken a closer look at how things are progressing.

How is the relationship working?

Let’s start with logistics.

Every two to three months, a board meeting is held either in Strasbourg or London between Keller and BlueCo representatives. Keller reports on the situation at the Ligue 1 club, providing updates on the financial situation. 

There is less formal weekly communication, though, mainly with Chelsea co-owner Behdad Eghbali and co-sporting director Laurence Stewart, but nothing is set in stone. Others, including co-owner Boehly, are also involved on occasion.

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Eghbali, Stewart and their families attended Strasbourg’s final Ligue 1 game of 2024, a 2-1 win over Lille on December 20. The BlueCo contingent joined Keller and his son, Mehdi, for lunch at Les Haras, one of Strasbourg’s finest restaurants. They also met with local dignitaries, including Strasbourg’s mayor, Jeanne Barseghian, and club staff.

Keller presents Vieira to the media following his appointment in July (Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images)

Staff numbers have grown since BlueCo arrived. There have been hires to work in specialised fields such as physiotherapy, data and video analysis. Kristian Wilson, who was at New York City, Nice and Crystal Palace with Vieira, and Paul Nevin, previously with West Ham United, were added to the coaching staff. In January, a player liaison officer, who speaks English, Portuguese, French and Spanish, was brought on board. The club feel they are becoming more professional behind the scenes.

They do not automatically share the same views on everything but Strasbourg see it as a partnership rather than being subservient to an absentee owner.

Is the ‘buy young’ transfer policy BlueCo’s idea? 

It is understandable why people would draw this conclusion given targeting youth and potential has been BlueCo’s policy since taking over at Chelsea, but Keller had been planning a significant revamp of Strasbourg’s squad anyway.

The president felt too many players had been at the club for too long and that it was time for a change — but to instigate the makeover, Keller needed BlueCo’s funding.

Strasbourg spent significant amounts of money. Abakar Sylla joined from Club Bruges for a club-record €20million (plus €2m in potential add-ons). Emanuel Emegha arrived from Sturm Graz for €12m. Saidou Sow was bought from Saint-Etienne for around €4m, while Dilane Bakwa and Junior Mwanga were acquired from Bordeaux for a combined €20m. Those five players are either 20 or 21 years old.

Sylla and Bakwa celebrate during the Coupe de France game against Le Havre (Patrick Hertzog/AFP via Getty Images)

Academy graduates Habib Diarra, 20, Marvin Senaya, 23, and Dion Moise Sahi, 22, have also been promoted to the senior squad. The average age of the side that lost to Paris Saint-Germain last month was 22.8, the lowest recorded in France’s top division since Reims played Brest in February 2022.

Some of the sales were sanctioned to fulfil promises made to players in the past.

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Strasbourg fans were furious when Belgium goalkeeper Matz Sels was sold to Nottingham Forest for €6million on February 1, seeing it as a sign of BlueCo’s interference. However, two years earlier, Strasbourg had rejected a big offer from another club and convinced Sels to sign a new deal. As part of the negotiations, Sels insisted that, if another bid came in for him, it would have to be discussed. On hearing Forest’s offer, Sels, who turned 32 in February, made it clear he wanted to leave.

Keller spoke with Vieira, head of recruitment Loic Desire and BlueCo before the deal was ratified.

Similarly, Senegal forward Habib Diallo made a similar request after a sizeable offer for his services was rejected in 2022. In return for staying, he asked to be sold the following year should a suitable bid come in. So when Saudi Pro League club Al Shabab offered €20million last August, it was accepted, even though Strasbourg wanted to keep Diallo, 28.

Even so, there have been some issues.

Strasbourg were making progress on acquiring Davinson Sanchez, 27, from Tottenham and Gent’s Joseph Okumu, 26, last summer only for BlueCo to determine they were too old. The players ended up moving to Galatasaray and Reims.

In the months leading up to the January transfer window, Strasbourg began planning with a budget of €30million-€35m in mind. With just Chelsea loanee Angelo Gabriel, 19, and Bakwa to choose from to play on the flanks, Vieira wanted another winger as a priority, plus a left-back, but neither arrived. The only acquisitions for the second half of the season were Andrey Santos, 19, on loan from Chelsea, and 34-year-old goalkeeper Matthieu Dreyer on a free from Saint-Etienne.   

One source close to the club — who, like others in this article, spoke anonymously to The Athletic to protect relationships — claims BlueCo told Strasbourg not to sign another winger because they did not want the possibility of Angelo’s minutes being reduced.

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Strasbourg dispute this, saying they had been given the go-ahead but could not secure their principal targets. One was Jean-Matteo Bahoya, who rejected them in favour of an €8million switch to Frankfurt. The Ligue 1 club were prepared to match their valuation. They also looked at Ibrahim Osman and Mohamed-Ali Cho, but Osman is joining Brighton in the summer after Nordsjaelland accepted a €19.5m bid and they could not agree a fee with Nice for Cho.

Angelo Gabriel sprints away from PSG’s Carlos Soler (Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

Before Santos made his loan move, Chelsea offered 18-year-old Brazilian forward Deivid Washington on loan instead, but sources close to the French club suggest Vieira was not keen on the idea.

There were purchases made with the future in mind in January. Milos Lukovic, an 18-year-old striker, was signed from IMT Belgrade for €4.7million plus €500,000 in add-ons and a 10 per cent sell-on. He has been loaned back to the Serbian club for the rest of the season. Pape Daouda Diong, who has already been capped by Senegal, is training with Chelsea before joining Strasbourg when he turns 18 in June.

Is Vieira under any pressure?

In the same way that Mauricio Pochettino is suffering at Stamford Bridge, Strasbourg’s form is giving Vieira difficult questions to answer.

His players were jeered by supporters during the 3-0 loss at home to Brest last month, with many fans leaving the Stade de la Meinau well before the final whistle. “It’s easy to sum up: the public were right to whistle, to leave the stadium, because the performance wasn’t up to scratch,” Vieira told Canal+. “You can’t hide. You have to take responsibility.

“Too young a team? There’s a big frustration. We’re not going to call everything into question — it’s been a long season with good and bad moments. We have to question ourselves and get back to work. We have to get our act together, take the criticism and it’s important to work.”

This calm response is typical of Vieira, who took over in the summer. Keller knows him well from their time together playing for France’s national team and, given Vieira’s record of working with young players at Manchester City, New York City, Nice and Crystal Palace, he was regarded as a good fit. The decision was discussed with BlueCo before being ratified.

Keller, playing for West Ham, tackles Arsenal’s Vieira in a Premier League game in December 1998 (Chris Lobina /Allsport)

Vieira, 47, likes to play 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. He has his own ideas but he is prepared to listen to what his players think. For example, one of the summer signings — 21-year-old striker Emanuel Emegha — felt he would benefit from having Kevin Gameiro play more often behind him, so Vieira began using the 36-year-old more.

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That was an indication of how Vieira makes decisions he thinks are right for the team and does not simply adopt everything BlueCo dictate from above.

Another example of this came with how he handled Sylla. Vieira kept the centre-back on the bench for two months this season. Weaker coaches might have felt under pressure to play the most expensive signing in the club’s history and it became one of the subjects for discussion during the regular talks between Keller and BlueCo representatives, but Vieira was left to manage as he saw fit. Sylla has started regularly since being recalled in December and looked much better in defence.

Strasbourg are content with the job Vieira is doing.

The run of eight games without defeat, which extended from December 7 to January 28 in all competitions, was a source of optimism. There were signs of progress, reminiscent of Vieira’s first season at Palace two years ago. The unbeaten streak ended in a 2-1 home defeat to PSG last month but the display against the champions perhaps warranted a draw. The subsequent run of three defeats and a draw have curtailed the team’s momentum.

The club always felt patience would be required. The plan from day one was for Strasbourg to be challenging for the top six within a few years rather than expecting it from the outset.

How are the Chelsea loanees doing?

A further indication that Strasbourg and Vieira are not simply going to cow down to what Chelsea want is provided by how Angelo and Santos have been treated.

Both Brazilians were signed on loan, Angelo agreeing a season-long deal in August and Santos joining him for the rest of the campaign in January. Chelsea, as the parent club, would like the duo to feature regularly but are not going to force it.

Angelo, a €15million signing from Brazilian club Santos last July, has made 25 appearances in all competitions, of which 15 have been starts. The 19-year-old is still adjusting to life in a new continent, let alone his loan club’s style of play.

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After being in and out of the side playing as a right-winger, Angelo has established himself on the left flank. Keller’s son Mehdi, who is the general secretary of the academy, speaks fluent Portuguese and has helped the teenager settle.

“I’m very happy to be here,” Angelo said last week. “I have adapted very well, I have very good relationships with my team-mates and the staff. Everything is going well. I took a few English and French lessons before arriving. There is a very good understanding with everyone, the welcome really facilitated my integration. I feel like I’m at home.”

A groin injury will rule out Angelo for up to two months so he will struggle to add to his tally of four assists. The setback has added to the criticism over the failure to add another wide player in January.

Angelo was a long-term target of Strasbourg anyway having been scouted by Desire, but the club did not have the finances to compete for his signature. The deal with Chelsea was seen as a win-win for both parties as Chelsea wanted the player but could not offer regular game time.

Andrey Santos joined on loan from Chelsea in January (Patrick Hertzog/AFP via Getty Images)

Santos was not quite the same situation. Chelsea bought him from Vasco da Gama for around £18million last year. He was initially loaned to Nottingham Forest, but the season-long agreement was ended because the 19-year-old had made only two appearances.

Having missed out on a winger, Strasbourg were happy to strengthen their midfield with Santos. Even so, he has only made a couple of substitute appearances totalling 33 minutes. He has not walked straight into the first XI as some cynics might have expected.

Chelsea are regularly kept informed on the pair’s progress in dialogue with their counterparts at Strasbourg.

What of supporter unrest?

Strasbourg supporters were against BlueCo’s takeover from the start, although the club believe the opposition represents a minority of the fanbase and their views are not shared by all.

Banners voicing their displeasure have been displayed at La Meinau over the campaign. At the PSG game last month, one read: “All of our fears about the BlueCo project confirmed in this transfer window.” A similar sentiment was expressed during the Brest defeat.

Banners at the Brest match read, ‘Losing executives, deplorable strategy — only one person to blame, Blueco’ (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

In November, Strasbourg’s largest supporters group, Ultra Boys 90, released a statement saying multi-club ownership is “a blight on football” and expressing its opposition.

“Racing is no longer independent,” they wrote. “Racing no longer has any ambitions of its own. Racing is being stripped of its substance. The consequences, of which there are many, have appeared at a speed no one could have imagined:

  • “A team unworthy of Racing, with a catastrophic style of play
  • “A rebellious Meinau, whose stands are already becoming overcrowded
  • “The threat of relegation in November, despite the good start to the season

“BlueCo is not welcome at the Meinau, and never will be. For more than 30 years, we have been involved in every battle. We’ve fought (former owners) Mark McCormack, Alain Fontenla and Jafar Hilali. We’ll fight BlueCo. We don’t have short memories. We are not ungrateful people. We are, however, true to our values and convictions.”

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Strasbourg and BlueCo believe opinions have been negatively influenced by the toils of other clubs in France who are part of multi-club groups, rather than judging their relationship on its merits. City Football Group bought Troyes in 2020, with the club now 16th in Ligue 2.

Keller had been meeting with fan representatives two or three times a year since returning to the club in 2012 but increased that to once every two months following the takeover to explain how things are working. The hope is that people will trust Keller given his achievements in re-galvanising the club but it is going to take time to convince the masses.

The idea of BlueCo representatives meeting with Strasbourg supporters to relay their message first-hand is under consideration. It should be noted that, despite all the angst, home games are consistently selling out.

Strasbourg’s La Meinau is selling out regularly (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

Are there plans to develop the stadium?

There was an aspiration to redevelop La Meinau before BlueCo’s arrival, with discussions beginning in 2016. Rather than move to a new site, they decided to increase capacity from 26,000 to 32,000.

The cost of the project will come to €160million, but Strasbourg are paying just €20m towards it. BlueCo does not have to contribute, either, with the rest of the money provided by the Eurometropole, the wider Grand-Est region, Strasbourg City Hall and the European Community of Alsace. Work on the site, which will take around three years to complete, began in October.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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Simon Johnson has spent the majority of his career as a sports reporter since 2000 covering Chelsea, firstly for Hayters and then the London Evening Standard. This included going to every game home and away as the west London club secured the Champions League in 2012. He has also reported on the England national team between 2008-19 and been a regular contributor to talkSPORT radio station for over a decade. Follow Simon on Twitter @SJohnsonSport

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