Well well well, here we are, the Pride of London, languishing in 11th position, fifteen points off Aston Villa in fourth. How did we get here? A mixture of Boehly-Eghbali magic along with a room full of sporting directors who do not seem to be the most competent and a manager who is out of his depth. I will focus on that last aspect.
The signs were there. PSG fans warned us that Mauricio Pochettino’s sides were quite dysfunctional. So were his last few months at Tottenham. We blamed the PSG run of results on their “primadonnas”; we blamed the Tottenham run of results on their lack of spending; and now we are blaming Pochettino’s run of results on our ... un-lack of spending?
But the team is young, blah blah blah. Heard that all before! The issue however is that there are a lot of things wrong with this team that are beyond just young players being, well, young, and inconsistent.
These major issues include:
- Inability to build out properly from the back
- Inability to finish at the front
- Inability to handle opposition press in midfield
- Inability to deal with opposition set pieces
Except for running a lot, Chelsea under Pochettino are not great at anything that can positively affect the end result, certainly not with any sort of consistency.
Inability to build out properly from the back and handle opposition press in midfield
Due to Chelsea’s glaring issues in finishing and defending, what has largely flown under the radar is how our buildup really isn’t where it should be — especially considering that Pochettino had a full preseason and we’re now seven months into the season.
And this isn’t really down to the quality of our players, or the individual mistakes they make make. It’s down to Pochettino’s refusal to use his midfield ... in midfield.
In the image above, we see Caicedo surrounded by four Liverpool players. Palmer is ahead of him in the middle and on the wide left is Chilwell. Where are Enzo and Gallagher? Bombing up the pitch. At 0-0. On Liverpool’s home ground. Why? Ask Pochettino.
We may have more players (6) in that area than Liverpool (5), but Palmer isn’t actually dropping deep nor is Chilwell inverting to act as a second central midfielder a la Zinchenko (and neither is the right back, Disasi in this case). Caicedo is left surrounded by four Liverpool players, so how are we supposed to progress the ball through midfield? We can’t. We don’t. We have to pass out wide, where it becomes easy to block players.
Another thing to notice in that screenshot is that Liverpool’s players are much closer to each other. They hunt in packs while our midfielders are busy going away from Caicedo, and not being an outlet for him.
Pochettino seems perfectly content in giving up this sort of midfield control. Maybe that worked eight years ago, but it doesn’t work now.
Here are a few more instances of it happening again and again.
In fairness, we did try to rectify this in certain parts of the last two games, against Wolves and against Liverpool, with Enzo trying to drop deeper, but we would still end up constantly giving up the ball in our own defensive third. We simply could not make the easy passes at the back. After seven months, those cheap giveaways should not be happening.
Inability to finish
Chelsea have struggled to convert chances, that’s not news. But why have we struggled? I would suggest it’s because under Pochettino, we have no consistent way of creating chances that support the attributes of our players and the team.
Chelsea are one of the most cross-happy teams in the league, and yet we have no striker who could act as a target man, and we even keep experimenting with a false-9 setup.
We create most of our chances in transition through quick counters but teams either play compact and keep us at arm’s length to take away those opportunities, or they simply have enough quality to pose a larger threat of their own with their own attacks, pressing, and counters.
Pochettino’s propensity for playing center backs as conservative, largely defensive fullbacks isn’t helping either. That sort of reduced wide threat allows opposition fullbacks and wingers to often double up on our wingers, and it also neuters our build-up. We don’t pose a threat (or simply ignore) wide areas while our central build-up, as pointed out above, is dysfunctional.
Inability to deal with set pieces
Chelsea may not be the tallest team in the league, as Pochettino loves to keep pointing out, but the real problem is that opposition teams constantly win second balls on set pieces because we keep losing the runners and are not able to reset our shape. And that’s got nothing to do with height (and we really aren’t that short); it’s got everything to do with the players not being coordinated.
And that’s surely a coaching issue, especially as Pochettino has had the same issues at his previous teams. Here is a Spurs fan from nearly ten years ago, for example, talking about a few rather familiar things.
“Whilst there has to be praise from increasing our output from free kicks and corners, we’ve also been conceding from them too. Last season, we allowed 131 shots from set pieces, the eighth highest in the Premier League.
“There have been two problems tactically when we are defending set pieces. The first is the use of both zonal and man-to-man marking. The second has been the lack of players on the posts. Last season we saw several occasions where the combination of these two tactical issues raised their ugly head, especially at corners.
“[...] Our defending at corners needs to be looked at by Mauricio Pochettino and his coaching team. The mixture of zonal and man-to-man marking isn’t working and neither is failing to have a man on one or both posts. There also seems to be confusion about tracking runners. This could well be caused by the mixed nature of the zonal and man-to-man defending within the system.”
-source: Spurs Fanatic
Pochettino has now managed Chelsea for the same number of games as Graham Potter got.— Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) February 4, 2024
GP: P31 W12 D8 L11, 39% win
MP: P31 W14 D6 L11, 45% win
We’ve had to deal with plenty of issues this season, obviously. Like a boat with many holes, when we try to plug one up, another three pop up. When we try to plug those up, another three holes pop up.
But the biggest issue is that Pochettino’s tactics are not working. He’s not utilizing our squad’s strengths, and instead tries to fit them into a preconceived ideal. That’s not what this team and the young players on this team need currently.
There are other managers out there. Just because we want this project to work, it doesn’t mean that we should back a manager at all cost. Pochettino was a breath of fresh air when he first landed at Southampton and then at Spurs. But his ideas are now outdated. His gung-ho brand of football has lost its effectiveness since teams have become way better at pressing and punishing teams who give up midfield control.
We need to cut our losses and not fall into the trap of a sunk-cost fallacy. There are some amazing coaches out there, especially one bearded man out in Germany. Whether we sack Pochettino today, tomorrow, or next week, we need to start making moves now and appoint someone for the summer. Before it is too late and we spend more money for Pochettino’s vision.