Chelsea are understood to have bid £30 million for the Atlético Madrid striker Sergio Agüero. Although it is a substantial offer, it is puzzling given the indications in November that they would offer £40 million.
It is another clear indication of the firm policy that owner Roman Abramovich has demanded when it comes to transfers. It could be called the Robinho reaction – or the Shevchenko syndrome. It is a philosophy that has influenced Chelsea's transfer dealings for the past three seasons. Some frustrated agents would say it has hamstrung the club.
The policy is a product of Abramovich's insistence that he will not pay over the odds for players and, more significantly, neither will he be held hostage by agents demanding extortionate fees.
It all stems from Abramovich's first year of owning Chelsea when the club went on an extraordinary spending spree. Big-name players arrived – Juan Sebastián Veron, Hernán Crespo, Adrian Mutu – and even bigger names were bid for.
There is still a deep regret among Abramovich's coterie that the informal £50 million offer for Thierry Henry, then of Arsenal, was only put to David Dein, who dismissed it out-of-hand, and not taken to the club's board for a proper discussion.
The Russian billionaire knew he had to spend big to fulfil his ambitions and was enjoying attempting to assemble a fantasy team even though he quickly grew tired of the likes of Veron and his advisers. Abramovich was exasperated.
He once called in the agent Pini Zahavi, who had brokered many of the deals, and told him: "When you tell me that this agent has to be paid, and that agent, and that agent, I know what it means is a bit here for Pini, a bit more there for Pini, and a little bit extra for Pini."
Zahavi steadfastly refuted the claims but Chelsea have since maintained that after that year they have not paid the Israeli any fees – although he has, as in the sale of Wayne Bridge to Manchester City, received serious amounts of money in transactions emanating from Stamford Bridge.
What all this means is that Abramovich is adamant that, as best he can, Chelsea will not pay a premium for their transfer targets. And yet they work in a premium market. Not that he hasn't broken that rule – as with the £31 million vanity signing of Andrei Shevchenko which he came to regret and which ultimately did for Jose Mourinho.
Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck has spoken openly at the relief that Manchester City are now on the scene and have made efforts to eclipse the spending at Stamford Bridge.
There is another club who can expect to be asked to pay that bit extra. Chelsea have, nevertheless, made big bids for players – the £40 million offer last summer for Franck Ribery and the £30 million attempt the previous year to acquire Robinho.
However, with Agüero and Ribery, these huge offers still fall far short of what their clubs are demanding, even if the overall packages would represent record deals for a British club. And with Agüero, as with Robinho, there are the agents fees providing another stumbling block.
Agüero's representatives, IMG and their head of football Bruno Satin, have been demanding £5 million – which Chelsea are saying is unreasonable – while Abramovich steadfastly refused to pay Robinho's now former agent, Wagner Ribeiro, and other representatives the £4.2 million that City eventually agreed.
It is a frustration for Chelsea's sporting director Frank Arnesen who, following the departure of chief executive Peter Kenyon, now has a clearer route to overseeing transfer negotiations. He had hoped to make a splash with the Agüero deal – and still might by the end of this month – while Chelsea still want to acquire Ribery although, again, they are far apart on Bayern Munich's valuation.
Chelsea are working in a rarefied atmosphere or, as the club prefer to put it, they are fishing in a very small pool of exceptional talent which is not easy to reel in.
Making a marquee signing makes sense for a club with Chelsea's resources and ambitions. To push on a dressing room that already contains dominant characters such as John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Petr Cech requires rare qualities. And those rare qualities come at a high price.
Neither the Agüero deal nor the Ribery transaction is dead while Chelsea also realise that, in this window in particular, there is a certain element of them being less able to negotiate freely as they have the ticking time bomb of a Fifa-imposed transfer ban still to deal with.
Unsurprisingly manager Carlo Ancelotti, who had hoped at one stage in the summer that he could bring either, or both, Andrea Pirlo and Kaka with him from AC Milan, has played down expectation of any signings being made this month. He doesn't want the club to appear desperate or a failure should they not land anyone.
But inquiries have also been made for several other players including Wolfsburg's Edin Dzeko and Everton's Jack Rodwell, although Chelsea have distanced themselves from claims they are interested in Sampdoria striker Giampaolo Pazzini, as they try to make a mark in the transfer market without crossing Abramovich's clear diktat that, effectively, he must not be fleeced by agents.
Two that got away
Chelsea long-tracked the Brazilian and hoped that with Carlo Ancelotti joining the club it might persuade him to follow from Italy. In the end they did not attempt to match Real Madrid’s offer, realising the player wanted to go there instead.
Luiz Felipe Scolari banked on landing the Brazilian to give him the pace and youth to revitalise the Chelsea squad, only to see the deal fall apart at the last minute because of Manchester City’s intervention and willingness to pay not only Real Madrid’s asking price, but also the fees being demanded by agents.