Feature

Why Chelsea have made a slow start under Pochettino

By Alex Keble 22 Sep 2023
Mauricio Pochettino, Chelsea

Alex Keble looks at Pochettino's struggles and says Aston Villa could be ideal opponents for an upturn in fortunes

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For most clubs, a 0-0 draw at AFC Bournemouth wouldn’t require any soul-searching but at Chelsea, where crisis and collapse have been a frequent presence since Todd Boehly’s arrival, it was a too-soon reminder of what can go wrong.

Chelsea’s second consecutive blank, following the 1-0 home defeat to Nottingham Forest before the international break, triggered memories of how things unravelled for their last full-time manager Graham Potter: plenty of creativity, but nothing really flowing – and no goals.

It leaves Mauricio Pochettino in a difficult situation ahead of Sunday's Stamford Bridge encounter with Aston Villa. Lose that and Chelsea will need back-to-back away wins against Fulham and Burnley before a difficult run of fixtures through until early December.

Chelsea's next 10 fixtures
Date Opponent Date Opponent
24 Sep Aston Villa (H) 6 Nov Spurs (A)
2 Oct Fulham (A) 12 Nov Man City (H)
7 Oct Burnley (A) 25 Nov Newcastle (A)
21 Oct Arsenal (H) 2 Dec Brighton (H)
28 Oct Brentford (H) 6 Dec Man Utd (A)

Ominously, Chelsea have not beaten a top-half side since April 2022, when they edged to a 1-0 win against West Ham United. If that record continues, the Pochettino project simply won’t get off the ground.

Chelsea’s Potter-esque goalscoring problems

Like under Potter, Chelsea simply cannot put the ball in the back of the net. Despite boasting the fifth-highest Expected Goals (xG) in the division of 10.3, they have scored a mere five goals. Indeed, only Everton have underperformed against their xG to a greater extent.

Chelsea's record of five goals from five matches this season is their fewest since 1995/96, a season in which they finished 11th, and only four clubs have scored fewer - with three of these currently in the relegation zone.

Still, it is better to be creating chances and missing them than not creating at all. Chelsea have taken 80 shots, the same number as Liverpool, and they are joint-fourth in the charts behind Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Brighton & Hove Albion.

Their conversion rate of 6.2 per cent, however, is the third-worst, only ahead of Luton Town (4.7 per cent) and Everton (3.0 per cent). This reflects a profligacy that is highlighted by Nicolas Jackson who has scored only one goal from an xG of 3.3. Man City's Erling Haaland, with 5.6, has a higher non-penalty xG, while also missing six of his seven big chances.

It is understandable if Jackson needs time to adapt. He is, after all, still new to top-level football, having only had one senior year at Villarreal.

Too much change in an oversized squad

But that is part of the problem for Chelsea. They have a young and inexperienced squad, which is contributing to the lack of fluency in their play - and possibly to an inability to deal with the high-pressure moment of shooting.

The insecurity and revolving door at the club cannot have helped. Chelsea have used 37 different starters across 2023, which is eight more than joint-second Nott'm Forest and Spurs.

Pochettino has steadied things this season, making a total of only four changes to his starting line-up in the Premier League. Nevertheless, the 37 starters highlights an approach that has left weak connections between players (in attack and defence) and a lopsided squad.

This, again, links to their goalscoring problems. Chelsea’s creativity has broken down since Carney Chukwuemeka’s injury partly because they have no obvious replacement in the left inside-forward position, while Jackson cannot be taken out of the firing line because Pochettino lacks a suitable back-up.

Chukwuemeka's Matchweek 2 goal v West Ham

In Chelsea’s defence, their injury list – 17 at the last count – is remarkably long and undermining the cause.

Christopher Nkunku would excel in either the Jackson or Chukwuemeka positions, for example, while a deeper bench would help turn the tide in difficult matches. Against AFC Bournemouth, Ben Chilwell and Ian Maatsen were the only outfield substitutes to have made 20+ senior appearances.

Perhaps, then, with a bit more time and patience Pochettino’s side will find their groove and – converting more of the chances that they are creating – climb up the table.

Villa match offers silver lining

That process may even start against Villa on Sunday, because facing deep blocks against Bournemouth and Forest is arguably a much harder task for a Pochettino team than playing an expansive top-half club.

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Pochettino likes his team to play fast, vertical football through the lines, hence why Chelsea rank third this season for through-balls played (16). They averaged 4.3 per match in the first three fixtures of the season, but only 1.5 per match in the last two, when Forest and Bournemouth denied space in behind to play those passes.

Villa could be the ideal opponents for Chelsea to get back on track. Unai Emery's side has had the most through-balls played against them this season (19), while they conceded the most through-balls last year too (95), reflecting the downside to the head coach's high-risk tactic.

Emery’s infamous high line has already come unstuck twice this season when, in a 5-1 defeat to Newcastle United and 3-0 defeat to Liverpool, balls were constantly played in behind.

It is fair to assume that Chelsea will enjoy playing against this kind of team, with Enzo Fernandez – the Premier League leader for through-balls (8) – constantly looking to find Jackson, Raheem Sterling and Mykhailo Mudryk.

Difficulty finding their rhythm

Chelsea are not, however, necessarily favourites. Villa are adept at isolating opposition flaws, and the gap developing between Levi Colwill and Thiago Silva (responsible for all three of Chelsea’s open-play concessions) is something Emery will be targeting via the direct running of Moussa Diaby and Leon Bailey.

Villa's total of 21 direct attacks is a competition-high and reflects their threat in the transition, while Chelsea are getting sloppier in possession as the poor results stack up. Pochettino's side have 56 passes intercepted and mis-controlled the ball 96 times, both more than any other Premier League team.

These are worrying statistics for Chelsea supporters. Difficulty finding their rhythm is a growing problem, yet with such a young and inexperienced squad – and a striker struggling to score goals – those issues could get worse before they get better.

Chelsea lost 2-0 to Villa at Stamford Bridge last season. A similar result on Sunday would leave Pochettino’s rebuild in danger of collapsing.

Words by Alex Keble

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