Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah will go down as two of the greatest ever Premier League players, with Manchester City and Liverpool the beneficiaries of the wonderful talents they are.
But, for Chelsea, De Bruyne and Salah are the ones that got away.
Both briefly passed through the corridors at Stamford Bridge and Cobham in their early twenties. Neither made an impact – most would argue neither got a proper opportunity to do so – and went elsewhere to reset before returning to England and proving themselves as world class.
Kevin De Bruyne at Chelsea
De Bruyne was only 20 years of age when his £7m transfer to Chelsea was announced in January 2012, remaining at Belgian club Genk for the remainder of that season. He spent the subsequent campaign on loan with Werder Bremen, impressing with 10 goals in 33 Bundesliga games, before returning to London to try and establish himself under new Blues boss Jose Mourinho.
Primarily used as a right winger, the youngster started Chelsea's opening Premier League game of 2013/14, registering an assist in the win over Hull City, and soon started against reigning champions Manchester United at Old Trafford. But, by late September, De Bruyne was completely out of favour in the league, only handed further cameo appearances in the Champions League against Schalke, Basel and Steaua Bucharest, as well League Cup starts against Swindon, Arsenal and Sunderland.
The latter, 120 minutes in an extra-time defeat for Chelsea, was De Bruyne's last game for the club on 17 December 2013. He joined Wolfsburg for £18m a month later.
Mohamed Salah at Chelsea
A 21-year-old Salah joined Chelsea within days of De Bruyne's permanent departure. The winger had started out at Al Mokawloon in his native Egypt, before 20 goals in 79 appearances for Basel in Switzerland got him noticed by Stamford Bridge recruiters, who agreed to pay £11m.
Cup-tied in the Champions League, Salah relied on domestic football for his game time. Yet by late March, he had been afforded just 13 minutes of Premier League action. That at least changed when the player appeared in all of Chelsea's final eight league matches, starting each of the last six – including the notorious 2-0 win over Liverpool, as the Blues fell just short in the 2013/14 title race.
But, instead of kicking on in 2014/15 in a side that eventually claimed the Premier League title, Salah was victim to the same fate as De Bruyne. He fell horribly out of favour, with his only starts in a Chelsea shirt by the end of January coming against lower league opposition in the cups and a Champions League dead rubber. Salah played 30 minutes of Premier League football across the club's first 23 games and moved on loan to Fiorentina on January transfer deadline day.
Salah never played for Chelsea again, spending the 2015/16 on loan with Roma, followed by a permanent deal there for a round £16m – the Blues made a profit on both Salah and De Bruyne (£16m combined), which may have appeared smart business at the time but pales into insignificance when considering the levels both ultimately have gone on to reach with rival clubs.
Why Kevin De Bruyne & Mohamed Salah left Chelsea
Although there will be more complex factors, the most basic explanation appears to be that neither De Bruyne nor Salah were quite ready for Chelsea at that stage of their respective careers. Stamford Bridge, particularly under Mourinho, was notorious for its intensity and 'win now' culture.
Former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, speaking on The Obi One Podcast, suggested that De Bruyne may have lacked the maturity or attitude to succeed in such an environment at that age.
"I think Kevin De Bruyne, wasn't the best trainer back then," the retired star said. "He was somebody that comes to training, and probably because he wasn't playing that much, always having his head down, always angry and sulking. He was like a kid who came to the playground and nobody wanted to play with him. I remember when Samuel Eto'o had a go at him and they had a massive fight on the training ground just because [De Bruyne] wasn't putting in the effort that Samuel Eto'o wanted."
Mourinho is long known to have a been a very demanding coach who likes to test and push his players to their limits so that they learn to handle pressure situations when it really counts. While a lot of players respond well to that under him, not all do and Mikel argued that may also have been a factor, particularly where a young Salah was concerned.
"They were so unlucky that the boss, Mourinho, then didn't take any prisoners," Mikel explained. "If you weren't doing your job, it didn't matter who you were, he would have a go at you. He had a go at Mohamed Salah at half-time once and he was in tears crying. We thought he's going to let him back on the pitch, but then he destroyed the kid and then pulled him off. But that was just his mentality."
Mikel suggested that Mourinho's own maturity and growth as a manager has changed him since then, adding: "I think that's just how he got the best out of us then and that's how we were when we were successful because of how he wanted us to play, train and behave as players."
Kevin De Bruyne & Mohamed Salah since Chelsea
With a fresh start at Wolfsburg, De Bruyne showed Chelsea what they missing. Predominantly playing as a 'number 10', he put up incredible numbers in 2014/15 – 44 combined goals and assists in all competitions, including 31 in 34 Bundesliga games to steer the club to second place. It is still one of just two top four finishes since winning the title in 2009.
After only one and a half seasons, Manchester City coughed up what was then a club record £55m to take De Bruyne back to England. Although a knee injury in his first season forced him to miss more than two months, it was immediately a completely different to his Chelsea story.
Since Pep Guardiola arrived at City in 2016, De Bruyne has reached even higher levels, winning five Premier League titles, two FA Cups, multiple League Cup and the Champions League, the latter as part of 2022/23's historic treble. De Bruyne also served as the natural successor to City legend David Silva, ensuring the club never skipped a beat when the Spaniard departed in 2020, and has twice been named PFA Players' Player of the Year in the last four seasons.
For Salah, his form at Roma, where he scored 34 goals in 83 total appearances, prompted Liverpool to shell out around £34m in 2017. Given his record at Chelsea, few would have expected the impact he had straight off the bat, scoring 44 times in all competitions – the most of any Reds player since Ian Rush in 1983/84 – as the club consolidated their improvement early in Jurgen Klopp's reign and reached the 2018 Champions League final.
Salah and Liverpool won the Champions League the following year and finally added the Premier League title in 2019/20, the club's first league success in 30 years. But for the incredible standards being set by De Bruyne's Manchester City, Liverpool arguably would have won several more Premier League titles, astonishingly only finishing as runners-up with 97 and 92 points in 2018/19 and 2021/22 respectively.
Salah has never quite matched his goalscoring numbers from his first season with Liverpool, but the Egyptian national hero has still been remarkably consistent at a high level, never dipping below 19 Premier League goals across six full seasons to date, and hitting the 30 milestone across all competitions in four of those. It has yielded three Premier League Golden Boot awards (two shared), as well as matching De Bruyne with two PFA Players' Player of the Year prizes.