Chelsea were supposed to be progressing this season, but after 23 games they sit in 11th place in the Premier League after back-to-back losses, conceding four goals in both. Is time running out for Mauricio Pochettino at Stamford Bridge?
Boos rang out at Stamford Bridge when the full-time whistle blew on Sunday. Chelsea had been beaten 4-2 by Wolverhampton Wanderers, with Matheus Cunha scoring a hat-trick against very little resistance.
Mauricio Pochettino could only look on from the dugout as, for the second time in less than a week, his team shipped four goals and lost in the Premier League. While reports suggest his job remains safe for now, it seems as though patience is starting to wear thin in some quarters with the former Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain boss.
Even Belle Silva, wife of Thiago Silva, had her say on X during the closing stages of the Wolves defeat, posting: “It’s time to change. If you wait any longer it will be too late.”
Perhaps she was talking about substitutions, or simply relaying something she said to her husband when he was playing computer games as they were about to go out for dinner. The message seemed pretty clear, though.
Pochettino has since said he and Thiago Silva have had a discussion and that their relationship is good, but it was another unwanted distraction in a disappointing campaign so far.
Chelsea had a terrible 2022-23 season, with none of Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and Frank Lampard able to turn things around before they ultimately finished 12th in the Premier League.
Having spent roughly £270 million on new players in January 2023, they shelled out another reported £400m over the summer and hired the highly-rated Pochettino. Blues fans and even some in the media declared Chelsea to have ‘won the transfer window’ heading into the new campaign.
After 23 games of the 2023-24 season, they sit in 11th place.
When Potter arrived last season, the former Brighton boss had a tough task with coming in during the campaign. He was eventually sacked after seven wins and eight defeats from 22 Premier League games (D7) at 1.27 points per game. Pochettino, who had an entire pre-season to prepare his new team, has won nine and lost 10 of his 23 Premier League games so far (D4) at 1.35 points per game.
After their back-to-back defeats to Liverpool and Wolves, Chelsea have conceded four or more goals in four different Premier League games this season, their most in a single league campaign since 1990-91 (also four). They have now conceded 4+ goals in consecutive league games twice under Pochettino; before he arrived Chelsea hadn’t shipped 4+ goals in consecutive games since December 1989.
After their 2-1 defeat at Molineux in the reverse fixture with Wolves on Christmas Eve, Chelsea had started to look like they were beginning to improve. Three wins in a row followed in the league, as well as advancing to the EFL Cup final and the FA Cup fourth round, where they face a replay at Aston Villa on Wednesday.
However, their humbling at Anfield was followed by an insipid surrender to Wolves on home soil that would have made the three little pigs shake their heads in despair. As mentioned, it was Chelsea’s 10th Premier League defeat of the season after 23 games. Only in the 1993-94 season (after 18 games) have they reached 10 defeats in fewer outings in the competition.
So, what on earth is going on? There have been flashes of the potential that was supposed to come with spending so much money on young talent. The 4-1 win at Tottenham (aided by two red cards for Spurs in the first half), the spirited 4-4 draw with Manchester City, and the passage to the EFL Cup final with a 6-1 thrashing of Middlesbrough last month to name a few.
However, there have been too many sprinkles of doom among that, and with the nature of their last two losses, questions will inevitably be asked as to where exactly this tremendously expensively assembled ship is heading.
As we pointed out earlier this season, Chelsea were largely underperforming when you looked at their underlying numbers. In fact, they are still doing so. According to our expected points model, they should be in fifth place and on at least 38 points, rather than 11th on 31.
There is only so long you can give them the benefit of the doubt that it’ll eventually turn around, though.
They have taken the 10th-most shots in the Premier League in 2023-24, but only three teams have accumulated a higher overall expected goals (xG) total than their 44.42. However, they have scored just 38 goals, with seven teams managing more.
Going the other way, they have faced the eighth-fewest shots, but only six teams have conceded more goals than their 39, which is from an xG against of 35.06. Chelsea have often been the cause of their own issues too, with Tottenham (16) the only team to have made more errors leading to shots than their 15 in the Premier League this season.
Pochettino is known for his preference for effective high pressing. At Spurs in the 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons under his guidance, Tottenham were either first or second in the Premier League for PPDA (passes per defensive action), with their average as low as 8.2 in 2015-16 (ranked first). Chelsea currently rank fourth (10.3), behind Liverpool, Arsenal and, of course, Spurs. Interestingly, that is worse than the Blues managed last season, when despite the upheaval of having three different managers, they topped the Premier League for PPDA with 9.7.
Chelsea are joint-fifth for high turnovers, sixth for shot-ending high turnovers and joint-10th for goal-ending high turnovers. Unfortunately for them, they have actually conceded more shots (39) and goals (4) from high turnovers than they’ve scored this season (37 and 3).
It suggests that, while the building blocks might be there for future success, they are not yet performing Pochettino’s football to the level Spurs managed to.
Could the problem be the players, then? On paper, Chelsea’s squad should be the envy of most of Europe. It’s no secret that Arsenal were eager to sign Mykhailo Mudryk last January, while Liverpool ideally wanted Moisés Caicedo and Roméo Lavia to make up a significant chunk of their midfield rebuild last summer. Lavia has barely played so far due to injury, and it would be fair to say that Caicedo has so far not quite lived up to his billing.
Any player would struggle to justify a reported £115m cost, but some of the Ecuadorian’s numbers are slightly down on where they were for Brighton last season. In league games, his average number of passes per 90 is very similar, marginally down to 63.2 from 63.3, while his accuracy is up to 91.7% from 88.8%. However, his recoveries per 90 are down to 5.6 from 7.1, his tackles to 2.3 from 2.9, and his interceptions to 0.9 from 1.6, while his duel success is down to 53.2% from 58.5%.
Those numbers could be partly due to being in a midfield with a different structure to the one he played in under Roberto De Zerbi, and that also includes another man who cost nine figures.
Enzo Fernández was the first big-money arrival under the Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital ownership that made people sit up and take notice. Since his £106m move from Benfica in January 2023, he has shown signs of the player who burst onto the scene in the Primeira Liga in the first half of last season before playing a significant role in Argentina winning the 2022 World Cup.
His involvement has reduced noticeably at club level, though. While the relative strengths of the Primeira Liga and Premier League must be taken into account, Fernández averaged an astonishing 105.7 passes per 90 for Benfica in the league in his 17 games there, which went down to 82.5 in the second half of the 2022-23 season at Chelsea. It has reduced further to just 69.0 this season, not much more than Caicedo and with a worse (though not bad) accuracy rate of 87.7%.
Defensively, his numbers have gone down even from the second half of last season. Fernández is making 2.0 tackles per 90, down from 2.6, 0.76 interceptions per 90, down from 0.93, and 4.6 recoveries per 90, down from 6.9. That could owe to having a more defensive-minded partner in Caicedo this season, though.
Both Caicedo and Fernández are undeniably big talents who are still getting used to playing with one another in Pochettino’s system. At 22 and 23 years old respectively they still have high ceilings, and though it’s fair to say they are yet to look like a duo that cost a combined £220m, the general underperformance of the squad means blame must be shared across the board.
Pochettino was trying to develop Spurs into a team that dominated possession but progressed the ball quickly, so you would assume his aims have been similar at Chelsea. Five teams have averaged more than their 59.2% possession, while four have made more progressive passes and five have made more progressive carries. These aren’t bad when you consider how low they are in the table, but the Argentine coach would likely still want them to be higher for each metric.
Speaking of carries, Nicolas Jackson was signed from Villarreal to presumably help out in that area. He recorded 10 goal involvements from ball carries in La Liga last season, but has just one assist from a carry for Chelsea in the Premier League. The Senegal international has shown some improvement during his first campaign in England, scoring seven goals in 20 games in England’s top flight, but still looks a long way from the player who scored 10 goals in his final 11 league appearances in Spain.
Thiago Silva continues to defy the notion that old people are no good at everything, and at 39 he still remains an important part of Chelsea’s defence. Some of his numbers have reduced in the last year, though, such as tackles per 90 (1.1 from 1.5 last season), interceptions per 90 (1.0 from 1.3) and recoveries per 90 (5.1 from 5.7), but he has also been losing possession less often, doing so just 4.8 times per 90, down from 7.4 last season. That, and his other numbers, could be more down to Pochettino’s style than any change in his own game, though.
One beaming light in this otherwise forgettable campaign for Chelsea has been Cole Palmer. Some questioned the signing of the England international from Manchester City, but he has really flourished under Pochettino. In fact, Palmer became the first Chelsea player aged 21 or under to hit double figures for goals in a Premier League season (10) when he scored the opener in Sunday’s defeat.
If Palmer – who also has four assists in his 20 league games (15 starts) – can thrive in this Chelsea team, the question becomes even greater as to why so few others are.
Injuries haven’t helped, though several other Premier League clubs could claim the same thing. When you have as many players on your books as Chelsea it’s tough to garner sympathy for an injury crisis, but that coupled with Pochettino seemingly wanting to try numerous solutions to solve his problems has led to them making 53 changes to their starting XI in the league this season. Of Premier League teams not competing in Europe, only Nottingham Forest (67) and Sheffield United (59) have made more.
It has been a tough few years for Chelsea, which the Opta Power Rankings show. Shortly after winning the UEFA Champions League in 2021, they sat inside the top five and stayed there until pretty much the start of the 2022-23 season. Since then, they have been as low as 39th. Despite a slight rise since then, they are back outside the top 30, sitting in 33rd spot after their defeat to Wolves on Sunday, below West Ham, Lens, Lazio and Lille.
The Premier League’s Profit and Sustainability Rules seem to be taking their toll on Chelsea’s spending, as evidenced by an unusually quiet January transfer window, so they have little choice but to find a way to get more from the already very talented squad they have.
Will that be with Pochettino, though? He has proven his Premier League credentials in the past when he somewhat overachieved at Tottenham, but this is clearly a different job for a different club, and it’s anyone’s guess how many more chances he will get. The Chelsea hotseat feels more akin to that at PSG than the one across London, and that didn’t end too well for him.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Pochettino told reporters: “Of course, it’s always a tough job. But at the same time it is an exciting project and a project that we know is difficult. In this type of moment, we are living in a situation that is not nice, we can learn. It is a good opportunity to learn.
“I told the players today in the meeting that I trust them more than ever. We really trust the players we have. We are going to face this moment knowing we can move back and win games.”
So far, it isn’t working, though that’s not to say it can’t. There is the possibility of a trophy before the end of this month, after all.
It does go to show, though, that ‘winning the transfer window’ is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be.