Moisés Caicedo’s difficult start rooted in Chelsea’s puzzle-piece structure

<span>Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock

When a player joins a club for £115m it is natural to expect instant results. When Moisés Caicedo joined Chelsea, though, he was coming in after a disrupted pre-season and was not slotting into a team with a settled starting XI and a group of experienced characters capable of making it easier for a newcomer to have an immediate impact.

The situation is not equivalent to another midfielder, Declan Rice, making a £105m switch to Arsenal, where everything is far more cohesive. In Chelsea’s case the worry with any player billed as the final piece in the jigsaw is that at some point they end up getting lost down the back of the sofa. This is a puzzle featuring a 23-year-old captain who keeps missing games, a 39-year-old centre-back, a slightly baffled Ukrainian and a striker with as many yellow cards as goals this season. Sometimes the pieces will fit together and everything will look great; sometimes you start Lesley Ugochukwu at Newcastle and lose 4-1.

None of this is a particularly productive environment to enter after your record move. Caicedo is not a flop. He left Brighton after the season had begun and made a slow start at Chelsea, conceding a penalty at West Ham on his debut and losing possession in the buildup to Nottingham Forest’s winner at Stamford Bridge in September, but he has improved. For Chelsea, the challenge is not to put him under too much pressure. “He is an emotional guy, an emotional player,” Mauricio Pochettino says. “We need time. We need to understand he is building to his best.”

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Similar is true for much of Chelsea’s young squad. They impressed in a 2-2 draw with Arsenal, then lost at home to Brentford. They followed up their 4-4 draw with Manchester City with an implosion against Newcastle, a defeat that featured Reece James, the captain, getting himself sent off for two yellow cards, Thiago Silva giving away a comedy goal and Pochettino losing his temper after the final whistle.

That setback means Chelsea are well off the pace in the race to finish in the top four, even after a spend of £1bn on signings. What’s more, they find themselves six points below Brighton before hosting them on Sunday afternoon. Some achievement given Chelsea have taken one manager, one sporting director and three players off Brighton since the summer of 2022.

Perhaps there will come a point when everything clicks. But at the moment we are heading into the winter transfer window with the possibility of Chelsea spending big on Ivan Toney or Victor Osimhen in an attempt to fix their goalscoring problems, assuming Christopher Nkunku’s impending return from a knee injury does not lead to an immediate improvement in the final third.

Either way the mood is uncertain. Chelsea have been hyperactive in the transfer market but there are few obvious leaders. The leading sides in the Premier League have big characters and solid foundations. Pochettino, by contrast, called Chelsea soft after the Newcastle game. There is no guarantee the addition of a top striker would make this side less prone to sudden collapses.

Mauricio Pochettino
Mauricio Pochettino said his Chelsea players were ‘soft’ after their defeat at Newcastle. Photograph: John Walton/PA

Consider the triumphalism that followed the signing of Caicedo. The pursuit went on all summer and Chelsea chortled after going over the odds to derail Liverpool’s decision to enter the race at the last minute, much as they did when they pipped Arsenal to Mykhailo Mudryk. The league table, though, tells a different story. It shows Liverpool pushing for the title and Chelsea trying to climb away from the also-rans.

This is not to say that buying Caicedo was misguided. He is 22, has an eight-year deal and is one of the best young midfielders in the world. He has had to overcome a minor knee injury and is yet to hit top speed, but Chelsea’s best performances have tended to come with the Ecuador international starring in an energetic midfield trio with Enzo Fernández and Conor Gallagher. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Caicedo was on the bench for the defeat at Newcastle.

The statistics are interesting. Caicedo, usually Chelsea’s deepest midfielder, is surprisingly low when it comes to tackles and interceptions in the top flight. Bought for his defensive attributes, his numbers have dipped since last season. He has also been more conservative in possession, although he is attempting more switches of play. One of his most notable moments came when he picked up possession deep against Fulham in October, beat the press and began the move that led to a goal for Mudryk by finding Levi Colwill with a crossfield pass.

This is no one-dimensional destroyer. Although Caicedo’s primary tasks are to shield the defence and act as a foil for Fernández, he is also capable of using the ball intelligently and shooting from distance. He is not the issue. If he is making fewer tackles and interceptions, perhaps it is because Chelsea are a developmental side with collective flaws. If the problem is cultural and structural, even a £115m signing is not going to be a quick fix. Pochettino and Caicedo need time.