How Pochettino's vision is coming together for Chelsea

By Alex Keble 14 Nov 2023
Chelsea FC

Alex Keble analyses why Blues head coach's plans are beginning to fall into place at Stamford Bridge

Related Articles
Are things finally clicking for Pochettino's Chelsea?
Chelsea 4-4 Man City: How Guardiola was unable to bring control to the chaos
The BEST matches of the season so far

“Still far away… away in the distance,” was Mauricio Pochettino’s response to a question regarding how far along into the project Chelsea were following the 4-4 draw with Manchester City.

“Maybe it is a starting point to start to build our confidence and to believe more in the way we are working.”

That, perhaps, is an understatement, because looking deeper than Chelsea’s mixed Premier League results - they are 10th in the table, nine points off the top five - we can see Pochettino’s tactical plans are already falling into place.

The top five

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Arsenal ARS 15 +19 36
2 Liverpool LIV 15 +20 34
3 Aston Villa AVL 15 +14 32
4 Man City MCI 15 +19 30
5 Spurs TOT 14 +8 27
See the full table

In fact, the league table isn’t telling the whole story. According to Opta’s model of ‘expected points’, based on Expected Goals (xG) numbers from individual matches, Chelsea ‘should’ be sixth in the table with 23.4 points, less than five points off top spot and firmly within the UEFA Champions League places.

Between the boxes, things are looking not only cohesive but decidedly Pochettino-esque, albeit with the caveat that Chelsea are struggling against deep blocks like those put up by Nottingham Forest and Brentford.

Here’s a look at why Chelsea’s revival is well underway.

Pochettino’s tactics have already taken hold

There is no greater example of the Pochettino way – of the Marcelo Bielsa-inspired hard-pressing, line-breaking, formation-shifting principles the Argentinian brings – than Chelsea’s draw on Sunday.

It was a match largely defined by Pep Guardiola’s inability to control the tempo, and although he is partly to blame for leaving Rodri alone at the base of midfield, as analysed on Sunday, Pochettino deserves credit for pulling Guardiola into a basketball match.

See: Chelsea 4-4 Man City: How Guardiola was unable to bring control to the chaos

Pressing urgently throughout, Chelsea wouldn’t let the match settle as Pochettino’s detailed positional coaching created the quick-tempo and forward-thrusting football that Man City just couldn’t handle.

Looking beyond this match, there are plenty of statistics that help capture Chelsea’s tendency to move in straight lines, fusing possession football with a desire to break beyond the opposition at every opportunity.

Chelsea top the Premier League charts for through-balls, with 41, have produced the fourth-most attempted take-ons with 269. and their 302 progressive carries ranks third. Three figures that speak to that energetic and direct style.

It can be erratic – Chelsea have miscontrolled the ball 199 times, the most of any side in the Premier League this season – but it gives the Blues an interesting mix of order and chaos, not unlike Liverpool.

To illustrate the point, only Brighton & Hove Albion, Man City, and Arsenal have completed more 10+ open-play pass sequences than Chelsea’s 200, and yet the Blues are fifth for ‘direct attacks’ with 27, ranking considerably higher than those three possession-based clubs above.

Midfield trio epitomise Pochettino’s progress

Things are far from perfect, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that things are coming together - and nowhere is this clearer than in the configuration of Pochettino’s central midfield.

Despite another whirlwind summer of transfers, the Chelsea head coach has quickly established favourites in an attempt to calm the storm, making only 14 changes to his starting line-up in the first 12 league matches.

The most settled area of all is midfield, where Conor Gallagher, Enzo Fernandez and Moises Caicedo have emerged as one of the most industrious and dynamic trios in the Premier League.

Gallagher, as we could have predicted, is a perfect fit for Pochettino’s hard-pressing and tactically astute front-foot way of playing. He has made 34 tackles, 19 interceptions, 85 recoveries, and 26 fouls, more than any other Chelsea player.

That box-to-box energy is complemented by the brilliant press-evading movement of Caicedo, whose 91.3 per cent pass completion rate the third-highest of any midfielder in the Premier League, behind Rodri and Yves Bissouma, while he is also complemented, of course, by the metronomic Fernandez.

Only Bruno Fernandes has made more progressive passes than Fernandez’s 97, reflecting the Argentinian's importance in driving Chelsea forward by threading passes quickly into the final third.

His 12 switches and 10 through-balls also ranks in the division’s top five.

Jackson exemplifies goalscoring issue

The midfield shape is good, the team are playing cohesively in a complex hybrid 4-2-3-1/3-4-3 formation and even the defence is looking strong, thanks to Pochettino’s well-drilled high press as his side have produced 128 high turnovers and caught the opposition offside on 35 occasion, more than any other side for both metrics.

They also rank second for percentage of aerial duels won with 58 per cent: this aggressive, high-line defensive approach is working for the most part, hence why their 15.0 Expected Goals Against (xGA) is the fifth-lowest in the division.

Why, then, are Chelsea so badly under-performing against Opta’s xPoints table?

The simple answer is bad finishing. Chelsea's 25.2 xG ranks second in the league and yet they are ninth highest scorers with 20, making them the division’s biggest underachievers against the ‘expected’, at -5.2.

What’s more, Chelsea’s ‘post-shot expected goals per shot on target’ – which measures the quality of each shot on target, based on how hard the shot is to save – is 0.25. Only Brentford and Crystal Palace have a lower score.

A lot of this profligacy rests on the shoulders of Nicolas Jackson, but not as much as you might think.

Jackson, whose movement and strength under challenge is off the pace, is still getting up to speed with the Premier League – which is understandable considering he had a grand total of 28 senior starts under his belt before joining Chelsea.

Nevertheless we cannot help but focus on his deficiencies at the time of writing, even if his well-taken goal against Man City – not to mention his hat-trick at Tottenham Hotspur - suggests he is improving fast.

He has scored six goals from a 7.8 xG, with only three Premier League players – Marcus Rashford, Rasmus Hojlund, and Jacob Brown – scoring worse than Jackson’s -1.8 when comparing goals to non-penalty xG.

Nkunku return should stop low-block blanks

Perhaps surprisingly, are the two other Chelsea players appear in the top 10: Cole Palmer with -1.7 and Fernandez with -1.6, and the latter missing a penalty on top of that.

That helps explain why, when the eye test shows Chelsea looking fluent, they are all the way down in ninth. It also suggests that Christopher Nkunku, returning from injury later this month, can super-charge the Pochettino era.

Nkunku is an elite footballer who hit 20 goals and 13 assists in 34 Bundesliga matches last season and, according to FBRef’s calculations comparing him to other forwards from Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues over the last 365 days, Nkunku's 5.34 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes is in the 99th percentile.

That kind of creativity and goalscoring will be crucial in overcoming the difficult defensive blockades that are currently hurting Pochettino’s side.

Chelsea have held 64 per cent or more possession in six Premier League matches this season.

They have won only once, 3-0 at home to Luton Town, and they amassed a total of just five points, scoring only twice across the other five matches.

But even here, the problem isn’t quite as bad as it looks. It might seem like Pochettino’s high press and desire to play through-balls in behind is stumped by low blocks, yet in those six matches Chelsea amassed an xG of 12.1, underscoring it by 7.1 goals.

In other words, they should have won most of those 64+ per cent possession matches. Better finishing and they would have.

And so, with Palmer a rising star, Raheem Sterling approaching his best form, Jackson scoring freely, and a host of players still to come back from injury, Chelsea have very little to worry about.

It is far too late for a title challenge, but sneaking into the Champions League places is definitely on the cards.

Beyond that, 2024/25 already looks promising.

Latest Videos

More Videos