The mood inside Chelsea is calmer than you might imagine. Instead of panicking after another summer of heavy spending with an underwhelming start to the season, they have looked beyond the results, studied the data and concluded that the situation will improve – if they hold their nerve.
There is comfort to be found in numbers indicating that Mauricio Pochettino is pushing this young, expensively assembled squad in the right direction. While Chelsea are stuck in the bottom half of the Premier League table before they meet Fulham on Monday after picking up five points from their first six games, more than one statistical model suggests they should be much higher.
Those paying attention to key performance indicators can see that Pochettino’s side have been tactically sound in and out of possession, and outplayed and outrun their opponents in every game.
The only option is to trust in the process implemented by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital. There has been so much instability under these owners but now is the moment to put emotion to one side. Boehly and Clearlake are already on to their fifth manager and cannot have many complaints about their reckless reputation.
The spending has been wild, a £1bn outlay on new signings in a year inevitably raising doubts over Chelsea’s ability to satisfy financial fair play regulations, and for what? Chelsea are not in Europe this season and have won two league games since firing Graham Potter in April. It is common to hear people on the outside say that the Americans do not know how to run a club.
Some wonder if Pochettino knew what he was getting into when he took over as head coach. Forced to embark on a summer clearout, Chelsea went into overdrive. Fourteen senior players departed and 14 talented youngsters arrived. Pochettino essentially found himself looking after a development side to compete in the Premier League.
A bold approach? Perhaps, though Chelsea decided there was little point in replacing experience with more experience. There was a willingness to absorb some short-term pain in the decision to sign only players under 25. It was not so much official policy not to buy older players, more a determination to put foundations in place for the future.
Inevitably, though, naivety has held Chelsea back. There was a needless red card for Malo Gusto during last week’s defeat to Aston Villa, while Nicolas Jackson is suspended for the trip to Fulham after picking up five bookings in six games. There has been wastefulness in attack – Chelsea’s only goal in September was Jackson’s winner against Brighton in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday – and streetwise opponents have ruthlessly punished occasional lapses in concentration at the back.
The pressure has mounted and the fans have booed at the end of the past three league games. Some see a lack of identity and, while the promising young centre-back Levi Colwill signed a new contract during the summer, eyebrows have been raised over the willingness to sell other academy players. Mason Mount, Lewis Hall and Callum Hudson-Odoi left, while Ian Maatsen, Trevoh Chalobah and Conor Gallagher were available, but the young players who have joined have much to prove. It means the spotlight is turned on the club’s co-sporting directors, Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart.
They will hope their bets pay off. Chelsea have twice broken the British transfer record this year, signing Enzo Fernández for £106.8m and Moisés Caicedo for £115m, but both are yet to produce their best form in midfield. Elsewhere a squad containing three left-backs somehow remains short of a goalscorer. Jackson has raw talent but it is a lot to ask the 22-year-old striker to shoulder the burden every week.
The wide players – Raheem Sterling, Cole Palmer, Noni Madueke and Mykhailo Mudryk – have to offer more incision. Chelsea are understandably impatient and will look for a proven striker in January; Brentford’s Ivan Toney and Napoli’s Victor Osimhen are targets.
Perhaps that is a recognition that Chelsea cannot wait too long before challenging at the top again. For all the talk of amortising transfer fees over long contracts, there are financial realities to dropping out of the Champions League. Chelsea are raising $500m in investment from Ares Management to finance a new stadium, and are open to selling a 10% stake in the club. Financial experts say that investors in Clearlake, a private equity firm, will not want more underachievement.
It is often said that Behdad Eghbali, Clearlake’s co-founder, is the real power at Chelsea. Boehly has become less prominent, though sources roll their eyes at the fuss over Eghbali visiting the dressing room after games. Pochettino has brushed it aside, merely saying that he does not want Boehly and Eghbali doing his speeches for him.
The impression is of a unified camp. Stewart and Winstanley hold daily meetings with Pochettino, who is aligned with the club’s vision. Insiders rave about him. Training is intense under the Argentinian. He commands the respect of the players and has impressed with his attention to detail. The interest Pochettino has taken in Mudryk, the £88.5m winger, has also gone down well.
The next step is obvious: Chelsea need to back up the numbers with goals and wins. Equally allowances have to be made for an extensive injury list. Reece James has been missed at right-back and it summed up Chelsea’s luck when a foul on Ben Chilwell caused the left-back to injure a hamstring against Brighton.
It is important to maintain a sense of perspective. While some fans have grumbled about Colwill playing at left-back and Fernández being used as a No 10, Pochettino is having to improvise. The sense is that Colwill is being used to protect Thiago Silva, whose lack of pace is a problem in central defence, while injuries have hit hard in attacking midfield.
Palmer was ill before the Villa game, Carney Chukwuemeka went down minutes after scoring during August’s defeat at West Ham and Christopher Nkunku, who had a good connection with Jackson during pre-season, had to have knee surgery after being fouled during a friendly against Borussia Dortmund. Nkunku’s absence is a major setback. The France forward was a central part of Pochettino’s plans and Chelsea would probably have won more games with him in the side.
Sometimes it is about luck. Chelsea have restructured their medical department, making further appointments since hiring Bryce Kavanagh as head of performance, but they have not been toppled by the blows. They believe adversity will make the youngsters stronger. The fixture list is daunting after the international break but Chelsea remain confident that better times are on the way under Pochettino.