Chelsea must have thought they’d pulled off a double deadline day dip. Danny Drinkwater had already been signed for £35 million from Leicester City by the time Ross Barkley turned up at the club’s Cobham training ground to undergo a medical.
For reasons that remain somewhat unknown, though, the Everton midfielder turned around and headed back north, leaving without penning a deal that would have seen him sign for the Premier League champions.
It’s a tale that will go down in transfer deadline day folklore, along with Peter Odemwingie’s jaunt to Loftus Road and Harry Redknapp’s tendency to answer media questions from through his car window. It had the effect of overshadowing the one signing Chelsea did make.
Antonio Conte needed midfield reinforcements and in Drinkwater, he got one. But is the 27-year-old really of the calibre to develop Chelsea as a side?
He might have shone in a Leicester City team that sensationally won the title just over a year ago, but Wes Morgan shone in that side. Drinkwater reverted to his default as a solid, if unremarkable, midfielder operator last season.
Of course, the point could be made that Conte was simply looking for options ahead of a campaign that will test Chelsea both domestically and continentally as they challenge on four fronts. In that sense, the signing of Drinkwater gives them greater depth, especially after the sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United.
But if Drinkwater has been signed to improve the Blues’ starting lineup, Conte may well be left disappointed. The England international’s signing is reflective of a frustrating summer transfer window for Chelsea, in which they came up short in too many of their efforts to sign top targets.
More than once, Conte was forced to improvise. He wanted Leonardo Bonucci, but had to make do with Antonio Rudiger. He wanted Romelu Lukaku, but was railroaded into signing Alvaro Morata as a form of compensation. Did he really want Drinkwater or was that a late transfer window improvisation as well?
The bounce and exuberance has gone from Conte’s body language, cutting an unhappy figure on the touchline in the early part of the new season. The charisma that made him one of the most refreshing figures in Premier League history last season has been washed away by the exasperation of a difficult few months, clashing with the club’s board over what the Italian perceives to be a lack of ambition.
Jose Mourinho knows how he feels. Not so long ago it was the Portuguese vying with the Chelsea board for similar reasons. In fact, Mourinho met a familiar fate in each of his two stints in charge of the club. Steve Sidwell was one of the final signings of his first spell, arriving after Chelsea had failed to secure their more expensive, higher calibre targets.
Sidwell was a solid enough central midfielder, but he was hardly of the quality to improve Chelsea at the very top level. He didn’t do anything to harm them, giving them depth, but where it mattered, his signing was somewhat redundant. Sound familiar?
Indeed, Drinkwater could prove to be Conte’s Sidwell. The feeling at the time of Sidwell’s signing was that Mourinho was using the midfielder to make a point to the board, showing to everyone what their lack of investment was doing to his transfer market options. Is it possible that Conte sees Drinkwater in the same way?
What’s more, the former Leicester midfielder will be expected to hit the ground running at Stamford Bridge, with the Blues still very much a work in progress. The new season is already under way and Conte’s Chelsea 2.0 must start to take shape too. And if it doesn’t, he can point to Drinkwater as reason for why it didn’t.