Talking Tactics

Will Pochettino's tinkering lead to a winning formula?

22 Dec 2023

Adrian Clarke weighs up pros and cons of Blues boss's constant changes ahead of trip to Wolves

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 18.

Team analysis: Chelsea

Head coach Mauricio Pochettino has kept opposition managers guessing with his constant tinkering this season.

While he appears to have settled on 4-2-3-1 as his preferred shape, having begun the campaign in a 3-4-2-1, he is yet to commit to a regular starting XI at Chelsea.

Fluctuating form and injury problems are a factor, but 17 matches into his reign at Stamford Bridge it still feels like he is in an experimental phase.

The versatility of Cole Palmer, Raheem Sterling, Conor Gallagher and Axel Disasi gives Pochettino the ability to mix up his tactical approach – and he has been keen to take advantage of that.

Freshening things up game by game, he also hinders the preparation of opposition managers.

Wolverhampton Wanderers head coach Gary O’Neil will not have any clarity on the side he is about to face on Christmas Eve. His pre-match plans will need to be very adaptable right up until kick-off.

Positional changes

Pochettino has made a total of 34 changes to his line-ups this season, the seventh-most among Premier League managers.

Averaging two per match is plenty, but it is not the main talking point. Of greater interest is the way he makes so many positional alterations.

In last week's 2-0 home win over Sheffield United, just four players started in the same roles as they did at Everton in the previous fixture.

In his starting XI for that 2-0 loss at Goodison Park, Pochettino had also made seven positional changes from the match before, a 2-1 loss at Manchester United.

When naming his team for the previous two matches, Pochettino also tweaked five and four roles respectively.

The search for his ideal formula goes on, and results may stay inconsistent until he does. But the presence of so many multi-purpose players is currently a help rather than a hindrance.

Core group

Thiago Silva, Disasi, Levi Colwill, Moises Caicedo and Gallagher are the only players to start all six of Chelsea’s league victories so far.

This quintet are tactically invaluable to Pochettino, seamlessly switching roles without impacting the quality of the team.

When one regular starter is out injured or suspended, it sets off a chain reaction and a reshuffle.

Thiago Silva moves between the left and right of Chelsea’s centre-back partnership with minimum fuss, while Disasi rotates between right-back and central defence.

Colwill has featured primarily as a left-back but has also started in his favoured centre-back position, while fellow academy graduate Gallagher is excellent as both an orthodox and attacking central midfielder.

Caicedo, who could be used as a right-back if necessary, is the only member of this group who is yet to multi-task.

Switching Sterling and Palmer

Pochettino’s use of Palmer and Sterling has also been interesting to watch.

In matches where Pochettino prioritises solidity down the centre, he likes to use Palmer on the right wing with Sterling moving to the left and Gallagher at No 10 ahead of Caicedo and Enzo Fernandez.

On other occasions he has been happy to start Palmer as the central attacking midfielder, flanked by Mykhailo Mudryk (left) and Sterling (right).

In last weekend’s win against Sheff Utd, Pochettino also encouraged Palmer and Sterling to switch their positions during the second half. We saw Palmer move to the right and Sterling drift infield more often from half-time onwards.

This interchangeability tied the Blades in knots, with both players heavily involved in the two goals.

Earlier this week Pochettino described Palmer as "a playmaker who can link the team", and depending on the game state it seems he will move him around to suit the side’s needs.

Palmer’s goal v Sheffield United
Nkunku to shake things up

Christopher Nkunku made his long-awaited Chelsea debut in the midweek EFL Cup success at home to Newcastle United, coming on as a 69th minute replacement for Nicolas Jackson.

The Frenchman is now expected to enjoy his first taste of Premier League action at Molineux.

Once he is fully fit, the Blues' starting XI will contain even more jeopardy, as Nkunku can perform equally well as a central striker or as a No 10.

With partnerships and chemistry so important, I would therefore expect to see even more positional rotation from Pochettino in the coming weeks.

Finding the best configuration to extract the best from Nkunku, an outstanding attacking talent, could be the key to unlocking Chelsea’s full potential.

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