Stats are from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
This season reset the floor of what a bad Chelsea season looks like.
I always assumed Chelsea’s 2015/16 season was the worst a “big” club could get in the Premier League. The Blues finished in tenth that year with 50 points. For Chelsea to hit the big five-oh this time, they’ll need to win at least two of their last four matches and draw the other two, which include games against both Manchester clubs and Newcastle. I wouldn’t feel good about that outcome. At the first attempt, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital have put together a season worse than any of Roman Abramovich’s 19 years in charge. Yeah, it’s rough. Even Boehly’s natural allies, the data nerds at FBRef, are making fun of him now.
What might arguably be worse than the results is that they’ve been playing like a bad and jumbled team. With Liverpool, for example, you can easily point to the ways in which the team has fallen apart and the things they’re still very good at. But unlike Liverpool, Chelsea don’t have a clear identity that isn’t totally working. It’s all just sort of a mess.
The defence is definitely the stronger side of things. Chelsea’s 38 goals conceded (1.15 per game) are the third-strongest in the league, better than even Arsenal. There is some air in those numbers, driven by Kepa Arrizabalaga’s out-of-nowhere excellent season. Their 1.27 expected goals per game conceded are fifth-best, though still a decent chunk worse than the excellent defensive unit Thomas Tuchel had built previously. This was the story under Graham Potter, though things have taken a turn for the worse under Frank Lampard. Still, the defence is not the biggest concern.
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That’s because the attack is abysmal for the money spent. 31 goals scored (0.94 per game) is the fifth-fewest in the league, 12 fewer than relegation-threatened Leeds. Here they’re actually underperforming the metrics, but 1.26 xG per game is still below average. Of those 31 goals, 10 have been scored or assisted by new signings, some of which cost a lot of money with an expectation to ignite this attack. No single Chelsea player is in double figures for combined goals and assists this season. In theory, it might be possible to assemble this much talent and produce fewer than 31 goals, but science hasn’t yet figured out how to achieve this.
That means the next manager – almost certainly Mauricio Pochettino – may as well have a blank slate to turn this group of players into a football team. It’s scary and interesting. There are no real tactical patterns worth preserving here. There are no clear partnerships on the pitch you’d want to build around. All Chelsea have are a lot of players and no plan. There isn’t much point recapping their tactical set-up this season under Tuchel, Potter and Lampard because it’ll be totally irrelevant soon. That means Pochettino can come in and almost do whatever he wants in a coaching sense.
So what will he have to work with? It obviously starts with the goalkeeper, and that’s the first big decision. A year ago, this would’ve been a no-brainer. Kepa had earned a reputation as one of the worst transfers in Premier League history, while Edouard Mendy was seen as one of the division’s more reliable ‘keepers. But injury problems this season gave Kepa the chance to reclaim his place, and he’s done so impressively. Even Lampard, definitely not a Kepa fan during his first spell in charge, has been won over right now. Do we expect this to continue? Well, I have no idea. Goalkeeper is a specialist position requiring specialist knowledge I don’t really have. But in a bloated squad with a large wage bill and no European football revenues, having two goalkeepers earning “number one” wages might not be wise. I still think Mendy is the better player, but it’s definitely a more complicated choice than it used to be.
Pochettino has been happy to play either a back three or a back four in the past. The sheer number of centre backs on the books might force his hand. Wesley Fofana, Benoît Badiashile, Kalidou Koulibaly, Trevoh Chalobah and Thiago Silva are all specialist centre backs, with César Azpilicueta and Marc Cucurella also comfortable in a back three. Levi Colwill, a very promising young centre back currently on loan at Brighton, is rumoured to be on the chopping block because Chelsea are so deep at his position. Thiago Silva and Azpilicueta are probably the only players here who need to play in a three, so Chelsea are flexible. Whatever Pochettino wants to do, he should be able to find the centre backs to do it in this group.
It’s funny seeing Reece James compared so directly with his compatriot Trent Alexander-Arnold because they’re such different right backs. Alexander-Arnold is a specialist who truly excels at specific skills while looking short in other areas. James, however, is one of football’s most natural all-rounders. Think of just about anything a footballer is supposed to be good at, and he’s good at it. Therefore James should be able to do just about anything Pochettino asks of him. When he’s fit, at least. But the injuries are a concern. Over the last three seasons, he’s missed an average of 12-13 Premier League matches a season to injury (assuming Lampard’s claim he’ll miss the rest of this season is right). So that’s about a third of each season that Chelsea have needed someone else in his position. They do actually have a good young alternative out on loan right now in Malo Gusto, so I think he should be coming straight to Stamford Bridge next season. On the other side, Marc Cucurella hasn’t really changed many people’s minds that Ben Chilwell is Chelsea’s best left back. It’s a much more straightforward situation there.
I still can’t believe Chelsea didn’t sign a central midfielder last summer. Many at the club and in the fanbase seemed to think Conor Gallagher could be a deeper midfielder in the mould of N’Golo Kanté and that never made any sense to me. The midfield needed a reboot, and they finally signed the first piece of that with Enzo Fernández. He’s a tremendous ball-playing midfielder who can link everything perfectly and form a complete midfield next to prime Kanté. Unfortunately, they have later era Kanté instead. He’s frequently injured, and when he does play he’s become much more of a passing midfielder than an all-action runner. Whatever system they play, Chelsea need a more dynamic midfielder alongside Fernández. That might mean a role for Mateo Kovačić or Gallagher in a three, or it could be a double pivot.
All indications are Mason Mount won’t be around next season. His contract runs out in a year and he hasn’t signed the new deal Chelsea have offered him. When Lampard came back in, many expected his former “teacher’s pet” to play a starring role, but Mount hasn’t started a single game since Potter was sacked. He’s injured right now (and we’ve seen photos of him in hospital, so hold your conspiracy theories), but he was completely absent from Lampard’s starting lineups even before that point. The only hunch is that Chelsea told him to sign the contract or sit on the bench. We’ve seen no indication this is getting resolved, so Mount has probably played his last game for Chelsea.
Now, minus Mount, here are all the first-team attacking midfielders, wingers and strikers under contract at Chelsea next season:
Kai Havertz, Mykhailo Mudryk, Raheem Sterling, Christian Pulisic, Noni Madueke, Hakim Ziyech, Armando Broja, David Datro Fofana, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Romelu Lukaku, Callum Hudson-Odoi
Those are a lot of players for a lot of money and very little production in a blue shirt. It’s far too early to judge Madueke and Fofana, while Mudryk has come into a team at the worst possible moment. Pochettino will be hired in part to help develop those three. Broja had horrible luck with his injury and should get a chance to come back and show what he can do, though you can never be confident with a player missing that much football at a young age. Hudson-Odoi could tell you that much, and it sadly looks more and more like he’ll never fulfil his huge promise. Pulisic has struggled with injuries and form, enough that I don’t really see him turning it around at Chelsea. Ziyech is 30 and hasn’t looked remotely the part. Sterling, Aubameyang and Lukaku were all established players signed in their peak or post-peak years who haven’t looked like recreating their form at previous clubs.
That just leaves Havertz, who can sort of be called a success if you squint? I really don’t know what to do with this group of attackers. They probably need to sign at least one player here (maybe João Felix, but he shouldn’t be first choice just because he’s already there), but Pochettino needs time to figure out what he wants to do with them, to really see what they each can do and how they’ll fit into the side. That’ll take time.
Update: somehow I completely forgot that Chelsea are signing Christopher Nkunku this summer. He’s a player I’ve liked for many years, though that was before I became more sceptical of Bundesliga signings. I’ll probably write a full article on him over the summer, but it’s a good start in terms of what they need to do.
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And it’ll take time because Pochettino is not a fast worker. It took Tottenham’s players a full year to learn the pressing structure he wanted. Even at Southampton, he had a bumpy first two months, winning just one game in seven, before things came together and they won the next three. At Paris Saint-Germain, he obviously never built a coherent side after a season and a half. That’s a red flag, but I think there are reasons why Chelsea can avoid this outcome.
Pochettino is a “culture” manager. He has to build an environment where everyone is engaged and believes in the project, otherwise he offers virtually nothing and you may as well just hire Tim Sherwood. At Spurs, that meant clearing out more experienced players who weren’t interested in engaging with his project (the so-called “Kaboul cabal”) and rebuilding around a younger and hungrier group. It took him that first season to figure out who would be willing to come along on that journey with him and then reshape the squad accordingly. At PSG, there was no chance of achieving this with the high-profile names and divided dressing room, so Pochettino’s methods were useless. His first season at Chelsea will, as much as anything else, be about figuring out the characters in the dressing room and deciding who can become part of his long-term project.
The big concern is working with Boehly and the weird behind-the-scenes structure with two sporting directors, a director of football operations and a technical director. Those are a lot of directors for a manager who likes complete control. I have no idea how that all plays out, but if they can just figure out a way to get Pochettino the players he needs without causing friction then I think Chelsea really have something. Of course, it could all blow up, but no one knows how these personalities will work together.
But let’s say that stuff all works out, and he turns Chelsea into exactly his vision of football. What does that look like? It’s obviously focused on pressing high, and I’d argue much more so than most top Premier League clubs right now. Pochettino wants to press all the way to the opposition goalkeeper, rather than a German-style counter-press at specific moments. The fear of facing an effective Pochettino press is that they just won’t stop coming at you. No wonder he needs total buy-in from the players. When his teams have the ball, it’s a little more direct than the Pep Guardiola mould. “There are [structural and positional] ideas with the possession”, explains tactics writer (and Spurs fan, so he’s probably not thrilled at the prospect of this) Nathan A Clark, “but it’s much looser” than Guardiola-style positional play. “It’s much more improvised because they’re going to take risks, and those risks won’t always come off”, he explains, “but that’s not going to matter, because they’re just going to go again and again and again. They can keep winning the ball back and they’re just going to grind you down”.
Is that necessarily the most sophisticated form of football in 2023? Is there a risk that other managers, with more complex ways to pick a lock, have moved past Pochettino’s approach? I think it’s possible, though I’m not fully convinced of it. I definitely think the bigger risks are about dressing room and boardroom dynamics than the style of football. I would strongly encourage Chelsea fans to be patient on this and accept that next season is about the process more than the results. The judgement should be about whether we can start to see Pochettino’s ideas emerge and if this feels like a team that can keep improving. If results aren’t there immediately then that shouldn’t cause panic. Chelsea need to give things time if Boehly is to turn the club around.
And, once Chelsea do that, the Roman Abramovich era will truly be over. Whatever comes next will be different. Pochettino can make it different in a positive way. It’s a question of whether the club is ready to go on that journey.
as you noted in a previous piece about Chelsea, they could be in real trouble if very little of this first wave of investment comes good, because Boehly was anticipating to lock up the future now, and is unlikely to shell out again and again the way the Russian did, in part because Boehly has little to prove (i.e. no sportswashing angle) and appears a casual fan of the sport
this means Pocchetino might get the time he needs, but if this goes south I’m not really sure what they’ll do, and the aging core combined with unproven youth is the recipe that put Everton in their constant relegation fights... one to watch for sure!
Thanks Grace. Good read as always. There's so much as a Chelsea fan I could comment on but I'll keep it to saying we're 100% going to have to be patient as the Potter regime set Chelsea back physically and tactically, so much so that I think it has probably added 3-4 years to any plan Boehly-Clearlake might have had.
The squad is a complete mess: generally good players but thrown together with no clear plan in place. Like you, I think going from Boehly as (circumstances dictating) DoF was bad but having about five or six people trying to have their hand on the tiller is a recipe for confusion and indecision.
Who knows what we'll look like at the start of next season. I just hope we don't sell all the Cobham graduates for FFP offset. It's hard enough relating to the team at the moment without losing the players we've been rooting for for years to come good.