The unseen Chelsea change that gives them a fresh Europa League advantage as unwanted record looms

Chelsea players argue with referee
Chelsea have improved their disciplinary record despite being near Premier League record -Credit:Matt McNulty/Getty Images

Discipline can come in many forms, so can maturity. They have not been words that many associate with Chelsea this season either way.

Mauricio Pochettino himself has called out the players - and reading between the lines also those above him in the hierarchy for the way the squad has been put together. He has lamented focus and desire, motivation and concentration. He has made no attempts to hide some of the negative aspects of his group.

Just weeks ago this came in the form of criticising them in the aftermath of a humiliating 5-0 loss to Arsenal. The bounceback since in a second-half turnaround against Aston Villa followed by comfortable wins in differing styles at home to Tottenham and West Ham have subsequently impressed the boss in more ways than one.

Now, with three games to go until the end of the season and a realistic chance to finish inside the top six, the full extent of how Chelsea have developed as a team has come to light. It's not entirely positive to point out, but they are on the brink of breaking a Premier League record this season.

Chelsea are just three bookings away from picking up the most yellow cards for a single team in a season. Their 98 from 35 games is the most in the division. It is double that of Manchester City, who have the least.

On top of this have been three red cards. Two of those were for second yellows and one for a tackle perceived to have been worthy of a red. Reece James has been sent off despite playing less than 500 minutes and eight matches with five starts. He was also banned for a game earlier in the season for a separate incident even though he wasn't in the matchday squad.

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Elsewhere, Conor Gallagher picked up two yellows inside 45 minutes against Brighton with his side 2-0 up. Nicolas Jackson had been a consistent offender in the early weeks of the season too, racking up five in his first six games and missing a match for accumulation before he had scored two league goals.

If one player demonstrates an improvement in the discipline of discipline, it's him. "We were talking about it today because we were in a meeting with him and Enzo [Fernandez]," said Pochettino in September, addressing his booking record.. "I told him for a striker to get four yellow cards only for protesting or talking to the referee, it’s so easy, so cheap, getting yellow cards like that.

"Sometimes you need to get a yellow card in different actions, but not because of that. If it keeps happening and he gets suspended he is going to put the team in a very difficult situation.

"He needs to be clever and not to protest to the referees in this way, but he understood. Jackson is 21 also and he’s young. He needs to learn, needs to improve, needs to settle himself." He added: "‘Maybe because it’s his normal behaviour on the pitch, it’s a thing he maybe needs to improve.

"Maybe because this season they changed the rules, or he came from Spain where it’s different. The relationship with the referees here in England changed and now people are more sensitive about it. It’s all about adapting himself and he’s clever so for sure he will adapt."

It was one of the first scenarios of Pochettino defending his players publicly, going on to call for time for them to develop. Jackson has reversed his fortunes since then, scoring 12 league goals and only getting four yellows in his next 26 games, rewarding his manager's faith. He is currently on a run of 11 without being cautioned and ensured that the 10-yellow threshold wouldn't be met in time for a ban.

Chelsea as a squad are still prone to picking up yellows though, and will do well not to go beyond the 101 set by Leeds United in 2021/22. Along with Jackson's nine, Moises Caicedo has 10 - though once more he hit that mark after the cut-off point for a two-match ban - Marc Cucurella has nine despite playing a bit-part role in the first half of the campaign, and Conor Gallagher has eight.

Fernandez and Cole Palmer - yes, he can do things wrong, apparently - both have seven, whilst three players have six, and another two have five. No first-team players with over 500 minutes played have escaped a yellow.

Along with this has been an unwanted knack of conceding late goals and coming unstuck against opposition battling relegation. They are the hallmarks of a young team going through huge changes. "Watching football, as a 52‑year‑old, you identify very quickly when a team is ready to compete or not," Pochettino explained only last month.

Chelsea head coach Mauricio Pochettino
Mauricio Pochettino during Chelsea's draw with Sheffield United -Credit:James Gill – Danehouse

"Maybe because this group is still not mature enough to compete every single game, every three days, because like you say Sheffield [United] is in the relegation zone. I'm not saying we're not being respectful, but we need to think a little bit more." He added: "For different reasons we are struggling to compete in these type of games [against lesser teams]."

As for discipline, this has slowly improved throughout the year in terms of volume but even three weeks ago two players were booked after full-time for arguments with the referee - though Pochettino and many others will claim that it was justified after Axel Disasi's late goal was controversially ruled out.

He has also asked for his team to be more streetwise. "We were talking in the meeting and I showed the players clips of the yellow cards," he said earlier this season.

"There have been too many. The rules have changed this season. We touch the ball from here to there and get too many yellow cards. That is a tic we need to change. We need to be clever.

"You upset the referee and you get a yellow card, and then in an action that can happen during a game, you can receive another yellow card. We have received too many yellow cards like this.

"We were talking about Nico Jackson and the yellow cards were for complaining to the referee. The opponent made the foul, but didn’t receive a yellow card. You complain why not, and you get a yellow card. We need to be clever in improving this area because we cannot be silly and repeat the same mistakes."

It's not just been the discipline that has started to show signs of turning though. The manner of performances in wins of late have been just as promising as the results. Nothing demonstrates this more than Noni Madueke squaring a pass for Jackson to score a tap-in. Just last month they were two of the players involved in a highly embarrassing penalty spat that enraged the coach.

“The situation with the penalty, if you remember against Everton, we received too many criticisms but a young team always needs to make the mistake," he explained. “Always you need to feel this situation to be able to improve. And we are able to improve, because we are smart and intelligent people.

“I think today was a great, great action for Noni to see how the group starts to live and how it starts to feel. Always it’s a process that takes time. You never know whether it’s going to take one month, six months, one year.

“But the most important thing is they start to settle the principles, to feel and live like a group of players that are creating all the links to compete because that is the reality. I’m so pleased for that, because we are part of this process, helping them to grow and to mature and improve all aspects.

“That is only the first step, a massive step, but a step that we wanted to reach. From there now it’s only to evolve in every aspect, for the facility to go in a tactical evolution and we can improve from there.

“But without principles or without things that we’re starting to show to be competitive in this way it’s impossible to evolve in other aspects.”

As Chelsea now look to make their play for the Europa League it is this type of cohesion that could give them an upper hand, certainly on the disjointed Manchester United side that rival them currently. Producing a level of consistency that matches their gradual development is the next step.

Even if the unwanted yellow card record can't be avoided, the progress behind the scenes in the group is evident.