Mauricio Pochettino has found new Chelsea secret weapon as shock problem solved

Enzo Fernandez celebrates a goal with Marc Cucurella

If you'd told me three months ago that inverting Marc Cucurella of all players would be the move to help save Mauricio Pochettino's job, I would've looked at you and laughed.

The Spaniard, who cost Chelsea a whopping £60m, has often seen his time at Stamford Bridge come under significant criticism, with his play never being the level of which supporters were promised after his award-winning 2021–22 campaign under Graham Potter at Brighton. But there have been flashes of promise.

A period of a few games earlier this season where Pochettino was forced to play him out at right-back, due to Reece James and Malo Gusto both being injured, proved that he could be utilised in ways other than his traditional position. Now the 25-year-old has been handed new life with his inverted full-back role proving to be the perfect foil to a lot of the problems that had plagued the Blues earlier in the season.

Him slotting in as an extra body in midfield has meant an easier time for the likes of Moises Caicedo and Conor Gallagher, who are now able to freely move around without having to worry about the space they've just vacated potentially being exploited as ruthlessly as it was before. The 2-2 draw against top-four contenders Aston Villa was a perfect example, with Cucurella's presence allowing the Blues' double pivot to head further upfield in order to drag themselves back into a game they could've won if not for the questionable VAR decision that ruled out Axel Disasi's winner in the dying seconds.

Since then, it's continued to work perfectly well, with London derby wins over bitter rivals Tottenham and then the 5-0 thrashing of West Ham truly showing his capabilities to the fullest with arguably Chelsea's most complete performance under the Argentine coming against the Hammers. Pochettino even highlighted how impressed he's been with him lately, explaining: "This role we can implement in the future but before that it is because you need to build the belief, the confidence, the trust, the team needs to compete.

"The tactical evolution that we, the coaching staff, have in our heads – yes, we will apply in the future but the most important thing, you cannot sit if you don't have a chair. You need to build the chair. The problem in football is if you don't have a team, you're expected to behave like a team.

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"You are so selfish and after you need to share. The priorities in football, like an engineer who is going to build a building. You want to see quickly the nice furniture, you want to live there. That is why sometimes we make a mistake when we judge the job of the people, the coaching staff and young players."

But with the sudden improvement of results, and the climbing of the table as the Blues sit just six points behind Spurs in fifth, there'll inevitably be finger-pointing. Supporters and the media trying to find someone to blame for the lack of good performances before a certain point in time. And that person is Enzo Fernandez.

Now, on the surface, the argument is quite easy to make - a young player who cost the club a lot of money hasn't had a good season and when he's not in the team due to undergoing surgery, suddenly results start going their way. But once you start to understand the context around the argument, it quickly falls apart.

For one, Fernandez had been playing with a hernia issue since at least early December, with the memorable photos of him crying on the pitch following a brilliant penalty shootout win over Newcastle United in the Carabao Cup quarter-final springing to mind. While he was out injured then, Chelsea managed to lose 2-1 to Wolves at Molineux and just scraped past a poor Crystal Palace side with a last-minute Noni Madueke penalty bailing them out with a 2-1 win.

Then he played through a groin problem which eventually got so bad that he had to go under the knife for it. Even with that groin issue, he's still been an important part of Chelsea's recent upturn in results - which didn't happen over the last few weeks but has actually been happening since the turn of the year.

Since the beginning of 2024, Chelsea have played 16 league games, with Fernandez playing in 12 of those as he helped the team pick up five vital wins for their hopes of qualifying for European football next season, including a goal against Crystal Palace and assists in wins against Newcastle and Manchester United.

Yes, Chelsea have performed better as a team without an injured Fernandez playing a key role in their midfield. But it's ridiculous to entertain the notion that they're worse with a fully fit Fernandez playing at his best in the same role. This is a player who was integral in helping Argentina lift their third World Cup just 18 months ago and he hasn't turned into a bad player overnight, especially having not been given circumstances to perform.

If anything, it's disrespectful to the player that fans lauded after for months under Graham Potter and Frank Lampard toward the end of last season, claiming that he was the only one putting in good performances in a time when Chelsea needed them most. Now, as soon as he's able to be blamed for something that isn't his fault, a section of that same fanbase are berating him - it's utterly embarrassing.

If there is anyone to blame in this scenario, it'd be the manager for not getting as much out of him as his predecessors were, whether he was carrying an injury or not. While Caicedo, Gallagher and Fernandez were all trying to be crammed into that three-man midfield, it's now clear that all three prefer to work in a two-man midfield but that can't simply be put on any of the three players and then thought of as 'case closed'.

Cucurella's almost seamless transition has, however, made Fernandez's place in the team look rather obsolete, especially when only looking at some of the performances he was putting in before his surgery. I don't think there's much doubt that Pochettino will have a place for Fernandez when he eventually returns, the question remains whether or not he can conjure up a way to make all the ingredients blend together properly instead of concocting up a mish-mash of tactical flavours.

We're starting to see something bright coming out of this Boehly-Clearlake-Pochettino project, there's no doubt about that. Chelsea have had problems with consistency all season but player-by-player, piece-by-piece, things are slowly coming together. With Cucurella's improvement in performances, Caicedo finally starting to play like the brilliant Brighton ball-winner he was bought to be, and the Blues slowly rising up the table, there is hope for the future yet.

If European football can be secured, it'll set them up well for next season. Even without any major silverware in his first season, Pochettino has had to navigate a lot of hurdles and at times hasn't covered himself in glory. But suddenly changing the tone, scrapping long-term plans for players like Fernandez and not putting that trust in them won't do them any favours either. Everything will come in time, it's a long, long road.