Chelsea have had a mixed start to life under Mauricio Pochettino, but as Sunday’s 4-4 draw with Manchester City showed, they are a very good watch right now.
The madness of Chelsea’s summer transfer business has translated almost perfectly into on-pitch performances. Entertainment is now the name of the game.
Having spent big in the summer on half a new squad, it wasn’t really a surprise that they started this season slowly. With a new manager also in place and so many new players who had to get used to playing together, this was always a project that needed time.
Now, they are 10th in the table, with four wins from their 12 games, and their only victory in the last four games coming against a self-destructive nine-man Tottenham. But more than ever before in the Todd Boehly era, it feels like things are looking up at Stamford Bridge. Even if by “looking up” we simply mean that the fans are now at least getting their money’s worth.
Sunday’s wonderfully entertaining 4-4 draw with Manchester City saw Mauricio Pochettino’s side edge into the top half of the Premier League table for only the third time in his reign (also 10th after three and nine games), and it’s only goal difference that makes their record better than 11th-placed Brentford.
But Chelsea aren’t – right now at least – the all-conquering, trophy-winning machine that they have been for much of the past two decades. Expectations have shifted. Good results would obviously be nice – and the City draw, as well as that win over Spurs and the draw with Arsenal a couple of weeks prior were definitely that – but results aren’t the be-all and end-all right now.
Chelsea have become the best team to watch in the Premier League in recent weeks, and whether they are winning or not, that should be considered a positive for the supporters who endured a rough 2022-23.
We have previously analysed the underlying numbers of Chelsea’s current season on these pages to show that their performances deserved a higher league position than they were actually occupying, and since that piece was written, they have snuck four places up the standings. (They should still be fourth according to our expected points table, by the way.)
Even the most optimistic of Chelsea fans would still see the imperfections in the team, and the best anyone is realistically expecting of Chelsea this season is a cup run and a challenge for the European positions. Already 10 points off the top four, it would be a hell of a recovery if they were to get back into the Champions League (though the possibility of fifth being enough to qualify for the competition raises those chances significantly).
But for the time being, it should all be about enjoying the wild, wild ride that is watching Chelsea play.
Sunday’s classic against City was one of the most exciting matches we have seen in recent years. It was only the fifth game in the entire Premier League era to see four equalising goals scored (along with Everton vs Leeds in October 1999, Charlton vs West Ham in November 2001, Tottenham vs Reading in December 2007, and Liverpool vs Arsenal in April 2009). A match as topsy-turvy as this one hadn’t come along in pushing 15 years.
The game produced more expected goals (5.83) than any other in the Premier League this season, as well as the joint-most actual goals alongside Newcastle’s 8-0 win at Sheffield United, which was entertaining in a rather different, you-want-to-look-away-but-can’t sort of way.
It was a brilliantly entertaining, end-to-end game, which was largely the result of Chelsea looking to go toe-to-toe with superior opposition. Many other teams would prefer to sit back against City, let them have the ball and simply crowd their own defensive third of the pitch so much that City find it hard to break through. It is a tactic that has worked for some teams – see Wolves’ hugely effective sit-back-and-counter approach in their 2-1 win at Molineux in September – but playing City always comes with the very real possibility of getting torn to shreds. When they are at their best, they can put five past anyone without reply.
But Chelsea took inspiration from Arsenal’s 1-0 win over City last month and took the game to Pep Guardiola’s side.
City had a relatively low (for them) 54.8% share of possession, with Chelsea looking to disrupt their passing game by pressing high up the pitch. They made more pressures on the ball (244) than in any of their games so far this season, while their nine high turnovers (regains made within 40m of the opposition’s goal line) were the second most any team has managed against City in 2023-24.
They turned the game into a far more chaotic affair than City would have liked. They prefer to control matches and set the tempo with their passing, but they couldn’t manage that on Sunday. After the game, City midfielder Rodri praised Chelsea for making the match a game of transitions.
“We played what they want,” he said. “They want to play quick transitions and they have better players, the better team in that situation. They have faster players, stronger, we have another type of players. We have to move the game to our sight, try to play our game and I think we will struggle.”
The ball was changing hands so much that City were forced into making more defensive actions (32), more pressures (214) and more pressures in the final third (113) than they have in any Premier League game this season.
Their own passing game suffered, too, as they only managed to piece together 12 passing sequences of 10 or more passes – their fewest in a Premier League game in 2023-24. City just could not dominate the game in the way they usually do, meaning they could not rest while they knocked the ball about at the back, and were much more frantic when in possession. It made for a very different game to the kind we’ve become accustomed to seeing them involved in, and a much more compelling watch, as a result.
The action at either end was relentless. Chelsea had 17 shots, which was two more than City managed and the second-most City have allowed their opponents to have in a Premier League game since the start of the 2021-22 season. The game in which their opponents had more shots than that was a 1-1 draw at Brighton in May at the end of last season, when the title had already been wrapped up and Guardiola rotated his team ahead of their two imminent cup finals.
Chelsea might even have got more than a point from this game. They went ahead at one stage (though they could only hold onto their lead for nine minutes) and beat City in the xG charts (2.95 to 2.88).
There was plenty that Chelsea did wrong at the other end of the pitch, but it all only added to the entertainment. Marc Cucurella might have been more street-smart in dealing with Erling Haaland in the box before giving away the early penalty, and he arguably shouldn’t have been left alone to deal with the Norwegian in the first place.
They were slow to get out to the short corner that led to Manuel Akanji’s free header in the middle of the penalty area from which he scored City’s second, and Thiago Silva’s attempted block of Rodri’s shot was meek, so he wasn’t entirely blameless in deflecting the ball into his own net to make it 4-3 to City.
It all added up to a fantastic spectacle, and the kind of excitement that we have come to expect of this Chelsea team of late. After this result, their last five Premier League games have produced 24 goals – more than any other team in that time, just ahead of City (22).
There are still plenty of problems for Pochettino to fix. Sunday’s result means they have won just one of their seven league games at Stamford Bridge this season, their joint-fewest after seven home matches in a league campaign. Just two weeks before this match, of course, they were losing in embarrassing fashion at home to Brentford.
But it is starting to appear increasingly like those underlying numbers were right: Chelsea really are better than their league position suggests.
And even if results don’t improve much and they stay stuck in mid-table, it’s a hell of a good watch right now. Enjoying the ride is half of the fun, so just sit back, relax and prepare to be entertained.