Mauricio Pochettino is in the dugout in the Premier League once again, this time spearheading the revolution at Chelsea. The overhaul of players at Stamford Bridge has been vast, and there are some crucial questions to be answered in the new campaign. Here, we take a look at five key questions for the club.
Where Are the Goals Coming From?
Last season, Chelsea’s top scorer was Kai Havertz, with seven Premier League goals. They only had three players score at least four league goals all campaign in Havertz, Raheem Sterling (six) and João Félix (four). The season before that, their top scorer was Mason Mount, with 11. A year earlier, their top scorer was Jorginho, with seven. In that time, Chelsea won the Champions League and twice finished in the Premier League’s top four. This isn’t a club that needs an out-and-out goalscorer for success.
Even so, they definitely need more goals and better performances up front than they had in a disastrous 2022-23, when they scored only 35 non-penalty goals in their 38 games and finished 12th. The overhaul of attacking players at Stamford Bridge has been stark, and they have a remarkable amount of talent in their squad now. That was the case last season as well, though, and goals were extremely hard to come by.
So, what can we expect from Chelsea in an attacking sense this season?
Well, for starters, things surely can’t be as bad as they were in 2022-23. One reason for optimism is that Chelsea underperformed their non-penalty expected goals by 12.7 last season – the worst underperformance in front of goal of all Premier League teams. According to the data, they should have scored around 48 non-penalty goals, so after bringing in a couple of goalscorers in Nicolas Jackson and Christopher Nkunku, manager Mauricio Pochettino will hope his team finishes off chances much more efficiently this season.
However, 48 non-penalty goals would still only have put them level with relegated Leicester, and even if the new strikers can finish off the chances that are created for them, there will also need to be a huge improvement in terms of chance creation. Given how many changes there have been in personnel, the attackers will need to gel very quickly indeed if Pochettino is to see instant results.
Will Pochettino Be Given the Time He Needs?
Chelsea owners aren’t renowned for giving their managers time if things aren’t going even the slightest bit wrong. There had been hope that Todd Boehly might not be quite as impatient as Roman Abramovich, but after insisting that he would stand by Graham Potter for weeks on end with results getting worse and worse, the club dismissed the manager with the same ruthlessness that we came to expect over the Abramovich era.
The expectation is that Pochettino is coming in with a project to build, and most fans won’t be too upset if Chelsea aren’t challenging for the title in his first season. At the time of writing, Chelsea have sold or released 14 players and will start 2023-24 with an almost completely new team. There’s no doubt they have brought in lots of quality and have a brilliant manager in Pochettino, but instant results are a big ask.
Pochettino hasn’t enjoyed the fastest starts at his previous clubs. It took a few years for Tottenham’s players to start to really grasp his ideas and the way he wanted them to play, while he took over at Paris Saint-Germain when they were just one point behind Lille at the top of Ligue 1 in January but failed to chase them down despite having 21 games in charge in 2020-21 to overturn the deficit. He won the league the next season, while we all know how incredible his Spurs team later became. What happened in the following years at both clubs shows what he can do if he is given time.
In Thiago Silva, Reece James, Ben Chilwell, Enzo Fernández and Raheem Sterling, Pochettino does have an exceptional core that will provide a crucial chunk of his Chelsea team going forwards. They have all been key in recent years. Despite being the oldest player to appear in the Premier League last season (38 years, 248 days for Chelsea’s final game of the season against Newcastle), Silva played more minutes (2,352) for Chelsea than any other outfielder apart from Havertz. James and Chilwell have both had bad luck with injuries in recent years and yet, despite both being defenders, rank third and sixth respectively for Chelsea for Premier League goal involvements since the start of the 2020-21 campaign.
Meanwhile, Fernández was involved in more open-play shot-ending sequences per 90 (5.8) than any other Chelsea player who was on the pitch for at least 1,000 minutes last season. Sterling led Chelsea for goal involvements (nine) despite settling in at a new – and underperforming – club and only playing 1,905 of a possible 3,420 minutes (55.7%).
There are strong foundations to build on… if Pochettino is given time to work with them.
Is it Time to Believe in Kepa?
There is overhaul in just about every corner of the squad, but Pochettino insists he is happy with Kepa Arrizabalaga as his first-choice goalkeeper.
“We are so happy with him,” the Chelsea manager said after the pre-season draw with Newcastle. “He shows great commitment and adapting to the new demands from [goalkeeping coach] Tony [Jiménez] and the coaching staff. He is a fantastic keeper”.
Confirmation bias is a bit of a problem for most of us when it comes to Kepa. It’s hard to forget his disastrous first couple of seasons at the club, when he looked incredibly nervous under pressure, flapped under crosses and could barely keep a shot out of his goal. His rate of -10.7 goals prevented (in other words, he let in 10.7 more goals than the average goalkeeper would have based on our expected goals on target model) in 2019-20 was by a distance the worst in the Premier League. His histrionics in refusing to be substituted by Maurizio Sarri in the 2019 Carabao Cup final also paints a picture of a troublesome player who doesn’t know his place and isn’t all that likeable.
So, now, when Kepa fails to keep out a shot that your Sunday-league goalkeeper mate says he would have saved, it’s all too easy to agree. Lots of us have made our minds up about him.
But after a couple of seasons out of the team, Kepa had a resurgence last season. His 6.0 goals prevented in 2022-23 was the third best such rate in the whole Premier League.
He is also one of the best goalkeepers around when it comes to using his feet. His pass success rate of 80.7% was the third best among goalkeepers in the Premier League last season (minimum 1,500 minutes played) behind only Ederson (84.4%) and Alisson (83.4%). Both of those goalkeepers play for teams that were far more dominant than Chelsea last season, and so will have faced a high press less often than Kepa.
His distribution and passing was never really the problem, so if he is now overperforming when it comes to shot-stopping, then maybe it’s time for us to put aside our preconceptions and accept Kepa as the top-class goalkeeper Chelsea thought they were buying when they shelled out £72 million on him five years ago. Reports of the imminent arrival of Robert Sánchez from Brighton would provide some competition, but going on Kepa’s performances last season, he will hope to keep hold of the number one spot.
How Much Youth is Too Much Youth?
Silva (38), Marcus Bettinelli (31), Raheem Sterling (28), Kepa (28), Chilwell (26), Marc Cucurella (26) and Nkunku (25). After you take out Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech (both 30) – who are both likely to be leaving the club this summer – those seven players are the only members of Chelsea’s squad who are over the age of 24.
Nkunku aside, all of Chelsea’s summer signings and the players who are returning to the club after a loan away are aged 22 or under. Their squads for their pre-season friendlies have been full of under-21 players, including Levi Colwill (20), Bashir Humphreys (20), Malo Gusto (20), Cesare Casadei (20), Carney Chukwuemeka (19), Andrey Santos (19), Diego Moreira (19) and Angelo Gabriel (18). That many young players getting game time in pre-season is perfectly normal – it certainly isn’t cause for concern – but when there are so few senior alternatives in the squad that these youngsters are going to have to play a role in the upcoming season, it is something of a risk.
Pochettino likes a young squad and will have pushed for the level of squad-reshaping that we have seen. For the players, there aren’t many better managers to learn under than someone who is happy to trust in youth as much as Pochettino. That said, there could be such a thing as too much youth.
Southampton were relegated in 20th position with a meagre 25 points last season, having given more minutes (7,687) to players under the age of 21 than any other team in the league. Meanwhile, three of the four youngest teams in terms of the average age of their starting XIs in the Premier League last season were Southampton (25y 41d), Leeds (25y 285d) and Leicester City (25y 155d), All three were relegated.
However, playing young players can go very, very right, too. The other member of that group of the four youngest teams in the English top flight last season did very well indeed. With an average age of their starting XIs of 25 years and 51 days, Arsenal were the second-youngest team in the Premier League in 2022-23 and, but for an injury to 22-year-old William Saliba, might have won the title.
It will be interesting to see if Chelsea bring in a bit more experience before the start of the season or if Pochettino goes into the campaign with young players making up the bulk of his squad. If he does the latter, he could be taking a bit of a risk, but the pay-off could be remarkable if it works.
Can Levi Colwill Make the Step Up Straight Away?
Roberto De Zerbi, the Brighton manager who Colwill spent a year playing on loan under last season, has made no secret of his admiration for the centre-back. Still only 20 years of age, Colwill became an important member of De Zerbi’s hugely impressive Brighton team at the end of last season, so much so that the Italian wants him back on the south coast. There had been talk before Colwill signed his Chelsea contract extension of De Zerbi proposing that Colwill is used as a makeweight in any deal that would see Moisés Caicedo move to Chelsea.
However, Chelsea don’t have many centre-backs, and with Wesley Fofana having sustained another serious knee injury and Silva turning 39 next month, they couldn’t have afforded to lose a player of so much promise who already has half a season of Premier League experience under his belt. The question now is whether he is ready to start for Chelsea.
He could turn out to be of huge value for years to come, particularly given he is a left-footed left-sided centre-back who is extremely comfortable in possession, something he showed while playing a key role for England Under-21s as they won the Under-21 UEFA European Championship this summer.
Despite being rested for England’s final groups stage game, Colwill ranked fourth of all players at the tournament for successful passes (201), maintaining a pass success rate of (90.9%).
He is a very progressive player, having also led the way at the U21 Euros for forward passes (161), making at least 38 more than any other player at the tournament. Only two England players – Taylor Harwood-Bellis (60) and Noni Madueke (50) made more progressive carries – travelling with the ball at least five metres upfield – than Colwill (43).
Back in the Premier League for Brighton, he made more progressive carries per 90 (13.9) than any other teammate in 2022-23. Of all players to play at least 500 minutes in the whole top flight, Colwill was only behind four others for progressive carries per 90, in Aymeric Laporte, Rúben Dias, Allan Saint-Maximin and Joël Matip.
The quality is clearly there and given another season of top-flight football, he certainly has the potential to become a top-class centre-back. Whether Pochettino trusts in him enough to play him week in, week out next season is another matter entirely. Doing so would be another risk that could be worth taking for the new Chelsea manager.
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