Chelsea could be poised to make a number of important changes to the ways they operate on and off the pitch under Mauricio Pochettino.
Mauricio Pochettino will take over the reins as the new Chelsea manager on July 1, with the Argentine head coach tasked with turning around the fortunes of an expensively assembled squad ahead of next season.
The 51-year-old has been out of work since being sacked by Paris Saint-Germain last summer. He had been heavily linked with a return to his former club, Tottenham after Antonio Conte was relieved of his duties.
Regardless, he’s the man chosen by Todd Boehly to try and re-establish the Blues among the elite. And he will hope it’s a case of third-time lucky, with neither of the two appointments of his reign going according to plan so far.
Indeed, it has been a truly disastrous campaign for the football club despite over £600 million being spent on new signings over the past couple of transfer windows under the ownership of Boehly and Clearlake Capital.
Chelsea sacked Thomas Tuchel and appointed Graham Potter in early September, following Todd Boehly’s takeover of the club, but just seven months later the former Brighton boss was sacked with Frank Lampard returning to Stamford Bridge in a caretaker capacity, only to finish the season in 12th place, their first bottom-half finish since 1995/96, while their sixteen defeats in a single season is an unwanted club record for Chelsea.
Blues fans will want to forget this past season in a hurry, and failing to even break the 50-point mark is an indication of how much work is needed behind the scenes at Cobham this summer, and they have already set the wheels into motion.
NEW ERA BEGINS 🚨 pic.twitter.com/Vd9Ibu54hg
— Mauricio Pochettino Cam (@MPochettinoCam) May 28, 2023
A new chapter is nearly upon Chelsea, though, with Pochettino hoping to lead an immediate improvement at Stamford Bridge and oversee an improvement in results from the get-go next season. The Hard Tackle now takes a closer look at what the Argentine coach brings to the table and what Blues fans can expect from their new boss.
The job at hand: A mass clear-out and squad loopholes
Pochettino has been spending the last few weeks assessing the Chelsea squad and analysing areas for improvement. Inheriting a bloated squad though, several players are likely to leave before Pochettino can bring players in.
Chelsea’s exorbitant spending in the last two transfer windows is finally catching up to them, as the Blues will need to make sales to balance the books or they risk violating the Financial Fair Play policies. Thankfully, a number of players are edging towards the Stamford Bridge exit door.
To that end, Mateo Kovacic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Mason Mount are all edging towards moves elsewhere. And they will likely be joined by others with doubts also surrounding Romelu Lukaku, Christian Pulisic, and Hakim Ziyech, to name just a few.
First good decision from Mauricio Pochettino to let João Félix go back to Atlético Madrid. A very skilled dribbler but not clinical enough finishing to overlook his lack of physicality. Far too expensive.
— Tactics Journal (@TacticsJournal) May 30, 2023
Recent reports suggest as many as 15 players could leave Chelsea this summer, as Pochettino likes to work with a small squad. Pochettino has made decisions on loanees Joao Felix and Denis Zakaria, with neither player set to be pursued on a permanent basis, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Edouard Mendy are among the high-profile names expected to leave after struggling for favour.
Conor Gallagher, Trevoh Chalobah, and Callum Hudson-Odoi, who spent last season on loan at Bayer Leverkusen, could also be moved on. Chelsea’s clearout is also set to include Cesar Azpilicueta, who has been linked with a free transfer move to Barcelona, and Kalidou Koulibaly. The latter has failed to justify the hype around him since his £33 million move from Napoli last summer.
On the flip side, they are lacking in both numbers and quality in certain crucial areas of the squad. Argentine World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez is arguably more talented and versatile than any central midfielder Pochettino worked with at Spurs. His passing range, vision, ability to receive under pressure, and carrying will allow him to replicate Moussa Dembele’s role as the link between the backline and the attackers.
However, he does not have the same physical presence as Dembele. Instead, he is aggressive and tenacious, ensuring he can still contribute well to the counter-press, and can strike the ball hard. That’s part of the reason Roger Schmidt used him as an attacking weapon rather than an out-and-out holding midfielder.
Not getting Ugarte may be a blessing in disguise, gives us more money for Caicedo who can be the main starter and then we can sign Lavia who will be cheaper and better suited to squad rotation. pic.twitter.com/heZvLXBFGj
— 𝐂𝐡𝐚𝐫𝐥𝐢𝐞 👋🏽 (@cfcsmithy_) June 5, 2023
There’s no obvious midfield partner for him, especially if Pochettino wants a more physically imposing, positionally disciplined player in the Victor Wanyama or Idrissa Gueye mould. This is a simple problem to address. They have been strongly linked with a move for Manuel Ugarte, Moises Caicedo, and Romeo Lavia. Boehly can get any one of the three destroyers and let Pochettino’s double-pivot cook things in the middle of the park.
Up front, there is certainly the biggest gap in the squad. Romelu Lukaku could return from his loan spell at Inter Milan. While there’s a possibility that Pochettino can turn the Belgian’s mind to stay put at Chelsea rather than push for a move to Inter Milan as the Blues look to make use of their enormous investment with no other suitors forthcoming with reasonable offers, Lukaku is a misfit for a system that requires lots of positional versatility and features minimal attacking transitions.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang already looks on his way out, while Armando Broja and David Datro Fofana are unknown quantities to some degree, and may or may not have the necessary quality and skillset to spearhead the attack.
Chelsea will likely need to purchase a focal point for the team unless Pochettino tries to be creative with a workaround or trusts that Broja and Fofana can eventually grow into the role.
What will Pochettino’s tactics look like at Chelsea?
In many respects, Pochettino can offer the best characteristics of previous Chelsea managers. He, like Thomas Tuchel, is a captivating character who projects an engaging and dynamic image to the media and spectators while exuding passion and energy with every action on the pitch.
He, like Graham Potter, is often seen as amiable and easy to deal with by members of a club hierarchy. However, his tactical style is considerably different from both, and that could be the key to maximising the squad’s evident skillset and making Chelsea a more dangerous attacking side.
— Premier League (@premierleague) May 29, 2023
In terms of style, Pochettino is possession-oriented and looks to build out with quick, incisive passes to his central midfielders. However, he is not averse to being more direct with his players, spraying vertical passes to teammates further up the pitch in order to transfer defence into attack quickly.
Whilst Poch’s Tottenham often relied on quick combination play or positional rotations to create space like any other elite side, there was also a stronger emphasis on winning second balls and launching long passes into the channels in order to progress play.
Let’s take a deeper look at Pochettino’s tactical set-up, some of the major principles of his system, and which players could be the beneficiaries of his arrival.
Variety in attack and midfield
Referred to as a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, who scouted Pochettino as a youngster at Newell’s Old Boys before handing him his senior debut aged 17, Pochettino thrives in an energetic system full of attacking players.
Spurs had a variety of options going forward. Their attackers were all comfortable on the ball and had the abilities to operate in spaces centrally or wide, especially with a centre-forward who not only has an amazing skillset but great lateral movement, which meant there was space behind him for runs.
It’s a good thing, then, that Chelsea have spent over £200 million on forwards in the past two transfer windows under co-owner Todd Boehly, with RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku still set to join in the summer.
The Argentine is expected to set up Chelsea in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 diamond, which converts to a 4-4-2 defensively, and will have a plethora of attacking players to select from, with possibly a few more on the way.
Full-backs bursting forward in support of attacks are widely used in Pochettino’s attacks, making them an important part of his system. With full-backs all bombing down the wing, this will allow wide forwards to move infield.
Chelsea have lots of attackers who enjoy operating from out to in, such as Raheem Sterling, Mykhalo Mudryk, Noni Madueke, and Christian Pulisic, and all could exploit spaces in between defences with their sharp movement, as Son, Erik Lamela, and Lucas Moura did under Pochettino at Spurs.
With Mudryk and Madueke still only 22 and 21, respectively, and with a contract at the club until the end of the century, it seems Pochettino’s main task will be to get the best out of the young wingers. While the duo have offered glimpses of his quality during their short time at the club, Pochettino has a proven track record of coaching and developing players. For Mudryk and Madueke, the Argentine’s arrival could be key for their careers.
In midfield, Eriksen was the focal point from which the attack moves at Spurs. He used to drop into space, leaving the trident of Son, Dele, and Kane in advanced positions.
Chelsea’s midfield options (Enzo, Carney Chukwuemeka, N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic, Andrey Santos, and Conor Gallagher) are also generally more technically gifted than the options Pochettino had at Spurs.
That may lead him to make his team more possession-heavy. Instead of relying on the press to retrieve the ball after losing it and sustain pressure, he may trust his midfield’s ability to repeatedly show for the ball, circulate it, and progress it to achieve the same control, something they did well in their final games under Frank Lampard, albeit without any fruit.
Expect Chelsea to sign at least one defensive midfielder in the wake of expected departures and the fact that Poch’s system relies so much on sheer strength and more on aggression and tenacity in his midfield to supplant the press.
Mason Mount would have been a perfect candidate for the number-ten role. He’s a smart presser, can drop deeper to dictate play if required, and has the tactical and technical versatility to interchange with other players; however, he’s more or less out of the door.
With Mount gone, Kai Havertz could be the biggest beneficiary of this appointment given the fact that how Dele Alli strived under the Argentine in the No. 10 role. The German playmaker, who is strongly linked with a move to Real Madrid, can also provide similar proficiency and could benefit from being recast as a supporting attacker who can make late runs into the box in the vein of Alli.
What if Havertz also leaves Chelsea in the coming weeks. Don’t worry, Gallagher has shown proficiency to chip in with goals from midfield at Crystal Palace, and can grow into the role. As an industrious midfielder who has a feel for breaking through the lines, the Blues academy graduate has been a symbol of consistency in the chaos of Chelsea’s season. In a dream scenario for Stamford Bridge faithful, Gallagher converts into their version of Poch’s Dele Alli at Tottenham.
Or else, Pochettino is perfectly capable of tweaking his tactics and formation to 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 to elimate the need of a goal-scoring No. 10 in that scenario. This is not a new thing for the Argentine, who is known to be a flexible coach, but the core values are non-negotiable for him.
Counterpressing, and defending narrow
Out of possession, his teams set to press high up the pitch, both vertically and horizontally, so that they can restrict the opponent’s play and aren’t able to launch attacks themselves. Chelsea fans can expect Pochettino’s team to get the ball back as soon as possible with a well-drilled, efficiently structured, and organised press. The Blues do boast some of the best talents in world football, and it looks like Pochettino’s tactics are tailor-made for this bunch of players.
He can get the best out of players like Kepa, who is good at keeping the ball at his feet, and the defensive quartet of Fofana, Badiashile, Chilwell, and James, who can switch from defence to attack in a split second.
Tottenham’s build-up play was heavily reliant on the use of diagonals. Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen often utilised diagonals to break the lines and create space for their teammates, although their fullbacks occasionally played diagonals in order to progress the ball.
This is a common concept in Pochettino’s teams: the centre-backs consistently receive under pressure before hitting diagonal balls towards the flanks, thus bypassing the opponent and creating chances.
This strategy of switching the play proves to be especially efficient if the player is playing on the side of his strong foot. Tottenham’s defenders effectively used switches of play in order to create more angles to progress the ball and break the lines with long passes.
Badiashile, Wesley Fofana, Thiago Silva, and Levi Colwill are all exceptional ball-playing center-halves and will fit Pochettino’s system like glue, be it a back-three or four-man backline.
Spurs were more effective when pressing with only three attackers, as they didn’t have to push too many players forward. Their three forwards helped them cut passing lanes on the inside while their full-backs were able to press high without exposing the backline, and if they had enough players in wide areas, they could apply pressure in the final third to win the ball back.
Pochettino used to adapt his pressing strategy based on the opponent as well. Against top teams like Manchester City, he told his players to only press high in certain periods of time. These bursts of high-intensity pressing caught the opposition off guard on numerous occasions while not exposing Tottenham too much as they could stay compact between the lines.
The Importance of the Full-Backs
James and Chilwell excited to work under Pochettino | Chelsea full-backs Reece James and Ben Chilwell have both expressed their excitement to get to work under incoming Chelsea head coach Mauricio Pochettino, with the duo eager to improve on last… https://t.co/9q0tognXld pic.twitter.com/kRBEt6uCte
— CFC News ⭐️⭐️ (@CFCnews) June 5, 2023
The full-backs, as briefly touched on before, are vitally competent in Pochettino’s machines, especially when breaking down sides by how they are operated with low blocks, which is usually a common sight against possession-based sides.
During Peak Pochettino’s days at Spurs, many oppositions operated in this way, especially with the aim to clog and congest the middle of the park to nullify space for Kane and Dele. The Argentine was famed for the work he did with full-backs. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose ascended to two of the finest positions in Europe before Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies took their roles and were key to Spurs width.
With full-backs pushing high, Spurs would try to make triangles in possession to constantly keep the ball moving and initiate passing patterns. The same would happen on the left-hand side. This movement also allowed Son and Dele to become narrow and try to overload the middle of the pitch, knowing there was still a balance to their play with the full-backs so wide.
During Pochettino’s tenure at Paris Saint-Germain, it was Achraf Hakimi and youngster Nuno Mendes who thrived under his preferred system. While the former was already a renowned star, the latter arrived from Sporting CP as a teenager and was moulded by Pochettino into one of the finest talents in Europe in his position.
While he might experiment with wing-backs, as he did with Spurs and PSG, Reece James and Ben Chilwell at Chelsea represent the ideal full-back profile for a Pochettino system. Both enjoy marauding forward and hugging the touchline, which would enable forwards to take up more central positions and overload the box. They are known for their tenacious output on both ends of the pitch and will have no problem executing what Pochettino demands of them.
Their constant energy and quality on the ball can cause opponents a lot of problems, especially when given the licence, which James at times wasn’t given consistently under Potter. Even 18-year-old Lewis Hall could have a bright future ahead of him under the former Spurs manager.
The youngster has caught the eye with his combative style, ability to drive with and use the ball well, make things happen, and see a pass to unlock a defence. While by trade he’s a versatile midfielder, many of his qualities translate well to playing as a modern-day full-back. And we haven’t even talked about Marc Cucurella or the incoming Malo Gusto, who is regarded as one of the best young right-backs in Europe.
Chelsea have the perfect players in the full-back department at their disposal for Pochettino to get the best out of, and the Blues are in for a treat.
Pochettino is an adaptable manager who moves between systems depending on the personnel available. He’ll very certainly try the same thing at Chelsea in the initial phase of the rebuild. This makes sense at the moment, especially given the sheer quantity of players in the Londoners’ squad. It’s likely that Pochettino will like to assess his opponents and devise tactics accordingly during the Chelsea stint.
Apart from the usual 4-2-3-1, the Argentine has become known for adapting his tactics based on the opponents that his team faces. Spurs fans were accustomed to seeing his Plan B formation, where out of the blue in the middle of a match, his team switches to a 3-4-3 with ease. This will be music to the ears of Chelsea fans, who have been craving a coach who is not just one-dimensional.
At Spurs, Pochettino played with two main formations: the 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-2-1 with high pressing integral to his team’s style. But at PSG, he had to be pragmatic as he couldn’t employ a decent enough press from his attackers, with a front three featuring Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, and eventually Lionel Messi.
To compensate for the lack of work rate upfront, he utilised a diamond formation with full-backs pushing up front to create width when in possession, an approach designed to foster passing options and open more attacking opportunities, but also to pack the midfield, defend in a mid-block, and make the shape compact to retrieve the ball rather than a high press.
His midfield often featured more industrious, less technically gifted players like Danilo Pereira and Idrissa Gueye to make up for the lack of defensive work by the front line.
Trusting the defensive acumen of the midfield meant they played safer and simpler passes to the front three, who then combined to work the magic to decent effect as they even reached a Champions League semi-final under his tutelage in 2021, where they lost to Manchester City, albeit arguably without their most potent threat in Mbappe.
Having said that, Pochettino’s PSG never quite felt like a team with his tactical imprint. Instead, it was a difficult compromise between the squad at his disposal and the balance of the team rather than his own philosophy, which shows he will remain flexible enough to alter his tactics as needed to achieve the best results at Chelsea.
Being pragmatic is no shame; it’s an attribute of a top-level manager. Just look at Manchester United at the start of the 2022–23 season. New boss Erik ten Hag failed to impose his tactical ideas and possession-based style on a squad more compatible with a counter-attacking style like under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
After hammerings at the hands of Brighton and Brentford, the Dutchman binned everything, tweaked the system around, found a reliable goal-scorer in Marcus Rashford, and bit-by-bit, the Red Devils showed flashes of possession dominance against bottom-half sides.
Another example is Eddie Howe’s relegation-threatened Newcastle side from last season. In fact, the coaches who refuse to change according to the squad to get results suffer the chop sooner rather than later, especially at top clubs. Graham Potter was non-negotiable at Brighton when they transitioned from a defensive side to an attack-minded side, due to which they largely suffered in his first season, but he was never going to get that much time at Chelsea.
Underrated man-management skills
Pochettino worked wonders with the likes of Walker, Alli, Rose, Mendes, and Dembele, helping them reach their potential with intense physical training and clear-cut tactical instructions.
His attractive and high-octane tactics transformed Spurs into one of the Premier League’s most dominant sides, and whilst it’s his footballing philosophy that tends to draw the most praise, the most underrated parts of the Argentine manager’s repertoire is his man-management skills. The importance he places on human interaction is striking. It suits him, and it works.
Tottenham spent nothing on transfers for almost 18 months due to the construction of their new stadium but still managed to generate enough team spirit to reach a Champions League final and the top four of the Premier League. Some may be surprised, but when Pochettino speaks, everything makes sense.
“Why is man-management important? Because players are people. They are not furniture,” Pochettino told Sky Sports back in 2019.
Football is frequently reduced to numbers in positions, monetary value, and expectations based on a Youtube video and a little box on a Wikipedia page. Put them on any team and it is presumed they will perform as their statistics imply.
But happy players make functional and result-oriented teams. Even the most active Premier League star spends just a fraction of their week on a football pitch.
— Matt Law (@Matt_Law_DT) May 27, 2023
The first thing that Pochettino will need to change is the Chelsea players’ mentality. Lampard condemned Chelsea’s fitness levels upon his arrival in April, leading to a poor run of performances in the latter months of the season. This might be attributed to a fragmented preseason and an intense set of games in a season that featured the World Cup.
Chelsea hiring Pochettino now gives the Argentine the chance to plan a full pre-season. He is known to be a demanding coach, with his difficulties at PSG being partly blamed on the squad’s superstars not buying into his methods.
He will have a discipline code for players in place and will look to drill morals and club ethics into the players. His hands-on training methods can help some of the current players to improve and build upon their potential. He will look to make the training ground a happy place with inventive coaching drills, and team-bonding sessions. Pochettino’s this ability could be invaluable.
All in all, Chelsea have a squad that is capable of playing Pochettino’s brand of fluid, vertical possession-based football with an aggressive counter-press. They lack the same obvious physical power as his best Spurs teams but arguably have more technical quality and players with a higher ceiling.
If the squad is trimmed wisely in the summer, which albeit is no guarantee, Pochettino should be able to instill his tactical ideas quite well in the players. He has a proven track record for developing younger players, will have full weeks to work with the players next season given their lack of European football, and, if given time, could feasibly be the long-term project manager Chelsea seemingly desires.
Following his unimpressive time at PSG and Chelsea’s terrible first season under Boehly, the Mauricio Pochettino era will certainly be a telling one for both coach and club.