Chelsea have won just one of their first five games this season. On the surface, much looks bleak, but in reality there are some causes for optimism.
Stamford Bridge has seen several new eras begin over the last 16 months or so, but as with the other false dawns that followed Todd Boehly’s acquisition of the club in 2022, this latest episode is taking a little longer than many expected to yield excitement for fans.
Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival as head coach was seen as something of a statement, and of course, the club threw money around like it was no object once again in the transfer market. But, after five games of the 2023-24 season, Chelsea are 14th in the Premier League with just one win to show for their efforts.
Sunday’s 0-0 draw away to winless Bournemouth – the first goalless match of the 2023-24 Premier League season – led to boos from the travelling supporters, highlighting how the pressure is already on and fan morale is plummeting fast.
Nevertheless, amid the fury and frustration, there are glimmers of hope.
Chelsea’s biggest problem has been putting the ball in the net – and that’s by no means an issue isolated to 2023-24. In 2022-23, their 38 goals scored was the club’s fewest in a Premier League season. In fact, it was their worst total in a top-flight campaign this century by 20 (58 in 2020-21).
There’s been little to suggest they’ve remedied that yet, managing five goals in as many matches; that’s their fewest after five games of a league season since 1995-96 (5), when they finished 11th, and it’s a better total than just four teams in the Premier League, three of which are in the relegation zone.
And yet, Chelsea are one of just six Premier League teams with over 10 (10.1) expected goals (xG) this term, and they rank joint-fourth for the most shots (81) with Liverpool.
According to our model, this makes Chelsea the second-most wasteful team in the Premier League in 2023-24 with a -5.1 difference between their xG and goals scored. Only Everton (-5.4) are struggling more in front of goal.
Chelsea’s shot conversion of 6.2% is also among the worst records in the top tier; Everton (3%) and Luton Town (4.7%) are the two teams worse off here.
Clearly, it’s not a great situation to be in, but there’s no doubt Chelsea are creating opportunities, and Sunday’s draw was a good example of this; chances, particularly in the first half, flowed for Pochettino’s side, they just weren’t clinical. Obviously not scoring isn’t a ‘good’ thing, but it’s certainly better to be creating decent chances than to not be crafting anything, even if you are ultimately wasting them.
Whether their fortunes in this respect change for the better seemingly depends on the output of one player in particular…
With Romelu Lukaku not trusted (and loaned back to Serie A again), Christopher Nkunku suffering a pre-season injury that ruled him out until December and Armando Broja also crocked, Nicolas Jackson quickly found himself burdened with huge responsibility as Chelsea’s first-choice striker.
It’s another reminder of just how quickly the 22-year-old’s career has progressed. He only made his first start in any of Europe’s top five leagues in August 2022 for Villarreal, and 10 of his 12 La Liga goals last season were scored in 2023. Jackson was still turning out for Villarreal’s reserve team in Spain’s third tier as recently June 2022.
The Gambia-born Senegal international came on leaps and bounds last term, and although still rough around the edges, his form in the second half of the 2022-23 campaign showed real potential. He possessed electric pace, scored goals, was technically impressive and looked very clever with respect to how he linked up with teammates in attack.
Much of that’s been on show at Chelsea, but he is struggling in front of goal. Jackson’s one of eight Chelsea players to start all five league games for the club this season, but he’s scored just a single goal from 3.3 xG (excluding penalties), with that difference of 2.3 being the second worst in the division behind Ollie Watkins. Only Erling Haaland (5.6) has accumulated more non-penalty xG than Jackson.
Unsurprisingly, that also translates to Haaland (13) being the sole Premier League player presented with more big chances – defined as an opportunity a player would be expected to convert – than Jackson (seven). However, the Chelsea man has failed to score six of them (85.7%); among players with at least three big chances this season, only Marcus Rashford (100% of three) and Watkins (100% of five) have been more wasteful from such scenarios.
It’s obviously impossible to know if Jackson will become more clinical, but he’s finding himself in good positions, his teammates are managing to pick him out fairly frequently, and generally his performances have been quite promising. As a link player in attack, he’s often shown real quality. This was on display several times against Bournemouth alone on Sunday, and his 71 off-the-ball runs into the penalty area this season is the most of any player.
He’s lively, persistent and getting into good areas; he now just needs to be consistent. If he can improve in that respect, Chelsea could have a serious talent on their hands.
On the Comeback Trail
Obviously failing to take your chances is a surefire way of failing to meet expectations, but clearly Chelsea’s situation hasn’t been helped by the sheer number of players they have missing.
Pochettino was without 12 players due to injury or illness on Sunday, with several of them being either key players or recent big-money signings (granted, there are plenty of these in the squad!). Among those absent were Reece James, Benoit Badiashile, Moisés Caicedo, Roméo Lavia and Nkunku.
Even though neither Lavia nor Nkunku have played for the club yet, you could make a case that all five of those would start if fit, maybe some of the others as well, such as Wesley Fofana.
“If you don’t win, it’s normal that the fans are not happy, but what I can tell the fans is the circumstance, which we cannot change,” Pochettino told reporters after the Bournemouth game. “The reality, we cannot change. We have too many players [absent]. Of course, we are a team that will be strong if we are all together. Even Manchester City, Arsenal, all the teams; with normal circumstances, with all the squad fit, of course you can compete for everything. Why is it different for us?”
Their list of absentees led to Lesley Ugochukwu making his full debut on Sunday, and that made him the 37th different player to start for Chelsea in the Premier League in 2023 – that’s eight more than any other club who have been in the top tier for the full year to date.
With that and their injury issues in mind, it’s understandable many have identified a lack of cohesion as a major problem at Chelsea, but the flipside is that they have a lot of quality waiting to return.
Whether Pochettino has the clarity and decisiveness to identify a first-choice XI that best fits how he wants the team to play when everyone’s back is another matter. However, with regards to the sheer talent, it’s difficult to imagine them not improving somewhat as their treatment room empties.
Ever since Boehly took the reins from Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s activity in the transfer market has resembled that of a kid playing Football Manager after discovering the in-game editing tool; money’s no longer an object and the possibility of filling a starting line-up with 11 ‘Wonderkids’ becomes very real.
After all, potential is great, and everyone loves to see a young player enjoy a breakthrough at the top level. From Chelsea’s perspective, clearly they feel they can build a squad that will dominate in future seasons, otherwise they’d not be dedicating so much money – and such long contracts – to such a strategy.
Of course, last season was disappointing and the start to 2023-24 has been underwhelming, but it’s a very young squad that’s still being moulded. For instance, the substitute benches with the youngest averages ages this term have both belonged to Chelsea (21y, 54 days versus Bournemouth, and 20y, 318 days versus Luton).
Clearly their injury list had an impact on that, though there’s no doubt it’s a youthful squad; the average age of their starting XI this season is 25 years and four days, making it the fourth youngest in the division; Thiago Silva, who turns 39 on Friday, obviously brings that number up quite a lot.
Among those with younger average ages in 2023-24 are Arsenal (24y, 198d) and Tottenham (24y, 345d), both of whom have started the season well. Being a young team doesn’t have to be a hindrance in itself; at least they’re more likely to show long-term improvement than a side with an average age of 29.