Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

In his past life as a Premier League manager, Mauricio Pochettino was not one given to using the significant leverage he held over a club to extract new signings from his chairman. Indeed, the former Tottenham manager almost seemed to take a perverse pride in making do and mending. Perhaps, Pochettino was doing nothing more than reflecting the culture of his club. Spurs’ daring football is best forged in youngsters who have not had years of grim experience to teach them that the worst will inevitably come.

Since new ownership swept into Stamford Bridge, however, everything has been viewed through the medium of trading. Todd Boehly and his crew were going to disrupt the system by doing all sorts of self-consciously clever things with money. From the guys who brought you the eight-year amortizations, here comes the Brink’s truck for Shohei Ohtani, scheduled to arrive in 2034. Perhaps, when you exist in Boehly’s world it is hard to see a problem that cannot be addressed by a transaction.

A meek display against Everton? An injury-addled club captain? A frontline light on goals? Don’t you worry, there’s a signing for all that ails you. The only tool Chelsea have shown an interest in over the past year is recruitment. No wonder every solution seems to lie at someone else’s club.

At this juncture it is fair to note that a great deal ails Chelsea. Of those clubs to have spent all of 2023 in the Premier League, no one has fewer points than the Blues, who have needed one more game than Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest to attain their 39 points. Having accrued them over the same number of games, the Blues are tracking on the sort of form that would just about keep them clear from the drop in a normal year. Take the likes of Luton and Sheffield United, Saturday’s opponents, out of the equation and it would be credible to say that one of world football’s financial superpowers should be looking over their shoulder at the Championship trap door.

Their underlying metrics would suggest Chelsea should be fine. They might be towards the bottom of a 2023 league table, but over the calendar year their expected goal (xG) difference is that of a midtable side. Though, defining “fine” as midtable is itself an indicator of Chelsea’s crisis status. Pochettino’s bright start might have alarmingly tapered out but his side are still ninth in the xG table for 2023-24, standings that put their drubbing at the hands of fifth-placed Everton (yes you read that right) into a rather different context. Only four teams this season have underperformed their non-penalty xG (npxG) by quite as much as the Blues; a bit more shooting luck and the Premier League table might look altogether rosier.


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What it would not have, though, is Chelsea in the sort of position to which they have become accustomed. Pochettino’s side do not look like one ready to compete for the top four, let alone the Premier League title. Then again, that was precisely the point of rebuilds number two and three of the Boehly era, one where the entire timbre of the dressing room changes by the window. For now, at least, Chelsea are pursuing a strategy of snaring players in their early 20s, tying them to long term contracts and trusting that with time they will coalesce into a title contender.

It’s an extremely open questions as to how well that will work. Do any of their center backs flash elite potential? Why does the fit between Enzo Fernandez and Moises Caicedo seem so clunky? Who is going to teach Mykhailo Mudryk to control the ball? But this is only year one of a project that the club have, through their long-term contracts, committed to for the best part of the next decade. In these circumstances it is curious to hear talk from within and without Chelsea that January might bring another cavalcade of activity.

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s visit of Sheffield United, Pochettino did not repeat his suggestion from defeat to Everton that Chelsea “are missing something.” His point had been made in emphatic fashion, on this occasion he chose to offer a more hopeful vision of what is to come at Stamford Bridge. “We will succeed,” he said. “Maybe today you can say, ‘This guy is crazy.’ But I am not crazy.” His bosses are already aware of the head coach’s belief that for this prophecy to become a reality, more signings are required.

High on Chelsea’s list is a striker. Napoli’s Victor Osimhen might be out of the market for January, but the Blues are expected to be among his leading suitors in the summer. They are also admirers of Ivan Toney and Bayer Leverkusen’s Victor Boniface. At this juncture, it is perhaps worth noting that Nicolas Jackson ranks fourth in the Premier League for nonxG, averaging 0.63 per 90, a significantly better mark than Osimhen has hit this season or Toney did last.

Chelsea have spent over $350 million on strengthening their midfield ranks since the takeover, setting the English transfer record with the signature of Fernandez and adding another nine figure recruit in the summer with Caicedo. They are said to want another body to add physicality to the engine room as well as a goalkeeper with Robert Sanchez sidelined “for a few weeks” through injury.

Whether Chelsea will actually get these additions when the specter of Financial Fair Play (FFP) looms is up for debate. Assume they did, however. Pochettino would be getting a new midfielder with Romeo Lavia having played, at best, a month’s worth of football since Southampton got $68 million for him in August. The Blues are looking at renovating their frontline before their one arguably world class forward, Christopher Nkunku, has made his debut. They would be responding to short-term holes in their squad — one Pochettino would note has been ravaged with injuries — with long-term solutions. Gaudily long-term if Chelsea’s recent contracts are anything to go on.

How to fund all this when there is no European revenue for this season and it is highly unlikely there will be much more than a few quid from the Conference League next? It has been suggested that the sale of players brought through the academy is a popular option within Stamford Bridge, the likes of Conor Gallagher representing pure profit in FFP terms. Selling Gallagher would be an impressive wheeze of bookkeeping, only slightly negated by the fact that Pochettino needs him to approximate a functioning midfield. 

No wonder club great Pat Nevin said this week that Chelsea look like they are “put together by an algorithm”. Computer brain might tell you that your homegrown England international midfielder, the one who you cut and he bleeds blue, represents the best way to free up some headroom that can then be reinvested in more signings, a high risk approach given the club’s sketchy recent record of talent identification. An alternative viewpoint on Gallagher might ask why a boyhood supporter, now established as a regular starter and captain, has not yet agreed to a new contract (though it should be noted that he expressed confidence last month that it would eventually be finalized), much like Mason Mount did not before he left.

Gallagher might look good on the spreadsheets, but Fernandez and Caicedo look far better with him on the pitch. That in and of itself is a question for Pochettino to mull — though perhaps the simple reality is that Gallagher has long excelled as the low touch third midfielder whose contributions are predominantly felt around both boxes — but the Argentine’s likely solution to it would not be to cash in.

Chelsea might turn to the market for the answer to their problems like an alcoholic turns to the bottle, but right now it is harder to find ailments that are better addressed by moving players in or out. Will the attack burst into life if they by a new striker or if they take time to build patterns around Jackson, Nkunku, Cole Palmer and Raheem Sterling? Do Caicedo and Fernandez play like an unfamiliar tandem who have started 11 games together because they just don’t fit together, or because they have started 11 games together?

Every solution can’t be found in the player who isn’t at the club yet. Having already invested more than a billion dollars to make this squad, Chelsea can’t afford it and there is no surer sign of problematic behaviour than selling off your valuables so you can afford another few gambles. 

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The post Chelsea transfers: Why the solution to Mauricio Pochettino’s problems does not lie in the January window appeared first on WorldNewsEra.

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