LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 16: Yuri Zhirkov (L) of Chelsea challenges William Kvist (R) of FC Copenhagen during the UEFA Champions League round of sixteen second leg match between Chelsea and FC Copenhagen at Stamford Bridge on March 16, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Romelu Lukaku's arrival at Stamford Bridge coincides with a veteran making his way out of the club. Left-sided utilityman Yuri Zhirkov has left Chelsea for a move to Russian Premier League side Anzhi Makhachkala two years after joining from CSKA Moscow. Zhirkov didn't make a spectacular impression at the club - more due to injury than any lack of skill - so it's no surprise that he was allowed to move on.
I'll miss Zhirkov. He was (well, I suppose still is) a really easy guy to root for and he really was instrumental to our success in the 2009/10 double-winning season, filling in with aplomb when Ashley Cole suffered a broken ankle in February. He also scored a brilliant goal against Spartak Moscow in the Champions League group stages and won the penalty that reignited Chelsea's 2010/11 season in the 2-1 win against Manchester United at the Bridge. But the good moments we few and far between, and I think everyone knew that he wasn't all that he ought to be.
It was time for him to move on, and I hope he does well in Russia. Now we need to look at the impact this move has on the team.
Zhirkov cost Chelsea £18M in August 2009, and was in the last year of his contract with Chelsea. It's not entirely clear how much he was paid per week, but he was reportedly seeking six-figure wages, and his new deal with Anzhi Makhachkala apparently sees him paid £5.5M a year. It's not out of the question that Zhirkov would have taken a gross paycut to move away, considering the tax situation in Russia vs. England, so I think we can guesstimate that Chelsea saved around £5M in wages on top of the transfer fee, which is reported to be around £13.2M. That's a neat £18M net save over letting him leave on a Bosman at the end of the year. Good work by Chelsea here - that fee is much higher than anyone was expecting.
Zhirkov leaving opens up a non-home-grown player slot for Chelsea. With Michael Essien out of action until January, Chelsea now have two senior non-home-grown roster slots open. Depending on the fate of Slobodan Rajkovic and Ryan Bertrand, they could have a further two senior home-grown places available as well. Ultimately, Zhirkov leaving isn't a particularly big deal - the Blues had room to accommodate a big foreign signing whether they sold the Russian or not.
With Zhirkov gone, he is of course no longer Ashley Cole's main understudy. Instead, we have a few options at left back. Paulo Ferreira is an option, although not a particularly palatable one. So too are Patrick van Aanholt and Ryan Bertrand, although there's been rumour of Bertrand heading out on loan to Queens Park Rangers for next season. If push came to shove, Andre Villas-Boas could probably throw David Luiz wide left too, although based on his play with Benfica that might not be a great idea. Even if one of van Aanholt and Bertrand goes away on loan, I think that there's enough depth here not to worry about it.
Using Zhirkov in the centre of midfield was always a little off, because he tends to gravitate to the left touchline, no matter where the manager deploys him. He was used frequently in the centre last season, but it's difficult to see him as being considered a real option there. With Oriol Romeu added to the fold and Josh McEachran ready to step up into a first-term role, Zhirkov's production has been replaced (and then some). That doesn't mean that Chelsea don't need central midfield help, of course, just that this move doesn't really change the equation at all.
Unless I've completely missed something Florent Malouda is now the only naturally left-sided forward on the team. This strikes me as slightly problematic. Sure, Nicolas Anelka, Daniel Sturridge or Salomon Kalou can probably fill in there, but Chelsea have a width problem and it's unlikely to go away if they keep losing their wide players without replacing them - and neither Anelka nor Kalou are likely to stay wide. Malouda is 31 years old, and Villas-Boas would do well to rest him frequently. The problem is that with Zhirkov gone, it's going to take either a new signing or some creativity to both rest Malouda and keep the team playing effectively. With Villas-boas doing lots of tinkering, I'd bet we see option number two.
Essentially, Zhirkov's departure has given Chelsea the funds to buy Romelu Lukaku and then some plus an extra non-home-grown player slot on the roster. The cost isn't particularly high, with only an easily-patched hole popping up at left forward. All in all, a good bit of business for the Blues.