Mauricio Pochettino is taking charge of a very different Chelsea to that which ended last season under Frank Lampard, but there could still be work to do. We take a look at where he may improve or trim the squad.
A huge overhaul of the Chelsea squad is well under way. After the madness of the early days of the Todd Boehly era when it seemed like Chelsea would sign literally anyone who could kick a ball, was available and was willing to sign an eight-year contract, their squad had started to look rather bloated. There were a few things former manager Graham Potter got wrong during his time at the club, but managing a big squad of stars who all wanted to play might have been the aspect of that reign he struggled to deal with most.
Interim boss Frank Lampard also couldn’t get a tune from the players, and Mauricio Pochettino was deemed the man to grab the squad by the scruff of the neck, shake out any unneeded debris, and shape it into the title-challenging machine that it really should be given how much it cost to build. The day after he officially began work with his new club, we’ve decided to take a closer look at what still needs to be done.
The club has spent the early stages of this summer’s transfer market trimming the fat. It has been a remarkably quick and efficient job they’ve done, with big money – to later be spent elsewhere – brought in for a few players who are still at the top of their game, and many of the players who are surplus to Pochettino’s requirements swiftly discarded. We have only just reached July and Chelsea have already moved on N’Golo Kanté, Mateo Kovačić, Kalidou Koulibaly, Kai Havertz, Édouard Mendy and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, while Tiemoué Bakayoko and Baba Rahman have also left. Hakim Ziyech, Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi are all expected to leave on permanent deals, and César Azpilicueta, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could leave as well. Malang Sarr plus youngsters such as Ian Maatsen could go out on loan, while Chelsea still own players like Ethan Ampadu, who doesn’t have a future at the club and will surely leave as well.
If those players do leave, all of a sudden Pochettino will have something resembling the kind of streamlined squad he likes to work with.
Premier League rules state that each 25-man squad must have at least eight homegrown players, with ‘homegrown’ defined as a player of any age who has been registered with any club affiliated to the FA or FAW for three seasons or 36 months, continuous or not, before his 21st birthday or the end of the season during which he turns 21. With Mount, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi off, Chelsea could soon be left with just seven homegrown players in their squad, so they may need to address that by signing another player in the next month, or risk only being allowed to name 24 players in their squad.
They are also allowed a maximum of 17 non-homegrown players, but they have space in their squad – perhaps for Moisés Caicedo, Roméo Lavia or Gabri Veiga – even if they don’t move on the likes of Pulisic, Lukaku, Aubameyang or Azpilicueta.
So, where do they still need to strengthen, and where might other teams look for value in the Chelsea fire sale, like Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta did with the respective signings of Kovačić and Havertz?
Chelsea are short in central midfield, where Enzo Fernández and Conor Gallagher are currently the only two senior options, though Carney Chukwuemeka and Andrey Santos provide exciting possibilities for the future. Teenager Santos has already been capped for the senior Brazil team, while Chukwuemeka proved in his limited Premier League game time that he has the talent, confidence and attitude to succeed. It’s a very limited sample size, but of those to play at least 100 minutes for Chelsea last season, Chukwuemeka was involved in the most shot-ending sequences per 90.
He works hard off the ball, too, with only Marc Cucurella averaging more tackles per 90 for Chelsea than Chukwuemeka (3.4). Of players across the entire Premier League to play at least 300 minutes, Chukwuemeka ranked 13th overall.
The former Aston Villa youth prospect loves to get on the ball and demands others find him regularly. Clearly, he needs more game time, so will be hoping Pochettino doesn’t make too many more signings in the number 8 positions. If he does, Chukwuemeka might consider a loan move away, and he would make a fantastic short-term signing for another Premier League club, but Poch has previous with developing young players and the 19-year-old might well fancy staying to work under him.
Another area that Pochettino might want to address is centre-back, where he currently has Thiago ’39-In-September-Yet-Somehow-Still-Chelsea’s-Best Defender’ Silva, Benoît Badiashile, Wesley Fofana and Trevoh Chalobah, plus the hugely exciting Levi Colwill. Colwill is currently starring for England at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship, but it isn’t yet clear if Pochettino will consider the 20-year-old ready to play regularly for Chelsea. He is very much a modern-day centre-back, ranking in the top 20 at the Euros for successful passes despite having been rested for England’s final group-stage game against Germany, while he also made more progressive carries – travelling with the ball at least five metres upfield – per 90 (13.9) than any other Brighton player in the Premier League during his loan spell last season. Of players to play at least 500 minutes in the whole top flight, Colwill was only behind four others, in Aymeric Laporte, Rúben Dias, Allan Saint-Maximin and Joël Matip.
Meanwhile, Chalobah’s previous managers have all had doubts about using him at centre-back in a back four – he played there just five times in the league over the whole of 2022-23 under Potter and Lampard – so Pochettino may well choose not to go into his first season as Chelsea manager relying on him. The Argentine has used a back three at times throughout his career but tends to prefer a 4-2-3-1 and will need centre-backs he can trust in that shape. Chalobah is a competent narrow right-back in a back four, but if Pochettino wants to use him there, that means one fewer option at centre-back.
With Silva (surely?!) coming towards the end of his career, and even some talk of Fofana being offered to other clubs, Pochettino will either need to take the plunge with Colwill or dip into the transfer market again. If Fofana is available, he could be considered by the bigger clubs who could afford him, while Colwill would be an excellent signing for most teams in the Premier League – even if just on loan for a season.
In goal, it appears Pochettino is happy to go into the campaign with Kepa Arrizabalaga – who will be the longest-serving player at Chelsea of those who didn’t come through the academy if Azpilicueta leaves – as his number one.
It’s going to take something really special for Premier League fans to stop doubting Kepa, given how badly his first couple of seasons at Chelsea went. It was a disastrous 2019-20 – his second season at the club – that threatened to derail his career, and although he hasn’t quite done enough to convince the neutrals that he is a Premier League-quality goalkeeper, his displays last season in a poor Chelsea side appear to have done enough to persuade Pochettino to give him another go.
In 2019-20, Kepa conceded almost 11 more goals than our expected goals on target model says he should have done (calculated by comparing expected goals on target faced to actual goals conceded to give a ‘goals prevented’ value). That was the ninth worst performance by a Premier League goalkeeper in any of the last eight seasons, with most of the others in the list doing as badly as they did when playing for teams battling relegation.
After that campaign, Kepa spent much of the next two seasons on the Chelsea bench, before regaining the number one position in 2022-23. He then performed way above expectations, preventing six goals with the quality of his shot-stopping. His goals prevented total was the third best in the Premier League behind Bernd Leno (11.5) and Alisson (10.5). Maybe he does deserve another chance, after all.
Across the front line, Chelsea are well stocked, but there are still some questions to be answered. Ziyech, Pulisic, Lukaku and Aubameyang are all expected to depart, which would leave new signings Christopher Nkunku and Nicolas Jackson as well as Armando Broja and David Datro Fofana as options through the middle, and Raheem Sterling, Mykhailo Mudryk and Noni Madueke on the flanks. There’s a lot of versatility there, in that Nkunku could also play out wide, while Sterling has plenty of experience as a second striker and Jackson likes to drift out to the wing and could probably do a job on the left if asked.
But the combination of that versatility and so much quality means a lot is still up in the air. Broja might now consider himself so low down the pecking order – having made just two Premier League starts in 2022-23 – that he looks for first-team football elsewhere, so there could be a host of lower-half teams who may think about making a move for him. It is anyone’s guess where players like Ziyech and Aubameyang will end up, but while both have been heavily linked with a move to the Middle East, they could still do a job for a top-flight team in any European league.
It’s not inconceivable then that Chelsea could sell three more attacking players this summer, which would probably mean they would want to sign another one. Nothing would say more about Todd Boehly’s approach to club ownership than Chelsea, having in the last 12 months signed or loaned attacking players including but not limited to Jackson, Nkunku, Mudryk, Sterling, Madueke, Chukwuemeka, Aubameyang, David Fofana, João Félix – plus a few players returning from loans away – now looking to recruit yet another one. But this is the world we live in.
It has arguably been the most dramatic rebuild the Premier League has ever seen, and it is far from over, but the new era of Pochettino’s Chelsea is starting to come together. Watch this space for more movement.