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Why is Pochettino already under pressure at Chelsea?


Since Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital completed their takeover of Chelsea last May, the club have spent over £1 billion in three transfer windows on some of the world’s top young talent. They have also adopted a blueprint that encourages the players to sign long-term contracts — in many cases of six, seven or eight years in length.

After agreeing to sign Moisés Caicedo for a fee that could reach £115 million from Brighton in August, the midfielder penned terms on an eight-year deal with an option for a ninth season. The likes of Mykhailo Mudryk (£62m, plus £26.5m add-ons) and Enzo Fernández (£106.8m) also have deals extending to 2031, while 24 of the club’s 30-man squad are committed until at least 2027, according to Transfermarkt.

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This approach is unprecedented in football. There have been past instances in isolation — Saúl Ñíguez penned a nine-year deal with Atletico Madrid in 2017, Cesc Fabregas signed up for eight years with Arsenal in 2006 (though he left for Barcelona after five), while Harry Kane’s last contract with Tottenham was a six-year agreement — but there has never been an entire squad assembled overwhelmingly through this method.

Boehly owns a 20% stake in MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers and it is likely that Chelsea’s approach is at least partly informed by baseball, where there is no tight salary cap and contracts nearing a decade in length are more common. The Blues were also stung by losing top players on free transfers — most recently when defenders Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen ran down their deals to join Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively — and wanted to reduce the chances of repetition.

Furthermore, Chelsea’s approach is informed by compliance with UEFA’s financial fair play (FFP) rules, as the total transfer fee can be spread out across the course of a player’s contract in a process known as “amortisation” — meaning Caicedo’s initial £100m fee will go into the books at £12.5m a year over the course of his contract.

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This summer, UEFA implemented a rule restricting amortisation to a maximum of five years, but the Premier League are yet to follow suit. That is expected to happen, although there is almost no chance of the rule being applied retrospectively.

Chelsea have emphatically placed their faith in this crop of players, spending big to cultivate a squad they believe will grow together over the coming seasons to become a powerful force in English football. But the knock-on effect is that it increases the short-term scrutiny on the manager, whose job is to create the required alchemy.

Mauricio Pochettino thrived in moulding young groups at Southampton and then Tottenham, taking the latter to the brink of the Premier League and Champions League titles. He remains one of most highly regarded managers in the game, even if his trophy haul only consists of one Ligue 1 title, Coupe de France and Trophee des Champions from a largely frustrated time at Paris Saint-Germain.

Boehly and Chelsea co-owner Behdad Eghbali are determined to back their manager in the long term, but then that was also true of Pochettino’s permanent predecessor: Graham Potter. The pair spoke privately about being impervious to any immediate turbulence, convinced Potter would ride out any teething problems before taking Chelsea back to the summit of English football. He was sacked seven months later.

Pochettino has had seven games so far, but has already lost three and drawn two of them, with the club sitting 14th in the Premier League, 13 points behind leaders Manchester City. The eighth takes place on Wednesday night in the Carabao Cup, against a Brighton side exhibiting a style of football which is the envy of many despite opting to move on many of their star players for a huge profit.

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In fact, it is tempting to wonder why Boehly and Eghbali didn’t just buy Brighton given the repeated raids on the south-coast club: Caicedo followed goalkeeper Robert Sánchez and left-back Marc Cucurella to Stamford Bridge in a path also trodden by co-sporting director Paul Winstanley, manager Potter, his assistant Billy Reid, coaches Bjorn Hamberg and Bruno Saltor (who left Chelsea on Monday), goalkeeping coach Ben Roberts and analyst Kyle Macaulay.

Pochettino will not be judged on whether he wins the Carabao Cup, but a third-round exit at Stamford Bridge would raise further questions about his impact. The scale of change at Chelsea — across all levels of the club — is so great that the Argentine deserves more time than is standard to cultivate a team. It is, frankly, absurd that there are any murmurings in this direction so early in the season given the Blues are utterly unrecognisable from the team that started the previous campaign.

Yet, Pochettino has two immediate glaring problems that make things particularly awkward for him.

The first is a familiar feel to their current travails. Under Potter, Chelsea underperformed their Expected Goals (xG) by 7.4 during his reign — the worst differential of any side since his appointment in September last year (21 goals from 28.4 xG).

In Chelsea’s six Premier League games this season, they have scored only five goals. Their xG is 11.61. At 66.8%, the Blues have registered a higher amount of possession than any other Premier League team (Manchester City are next on 65.7%; Arsenal third on 63.1%). And, defensively, they have allowed just 22 shots on target — the fourth best in the league after City (14), Arsenal (15) and Crystal Palace (19).

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In short, Chelsea are dominating play but failing to score, while conceding cheap goals at the other end. Optimists would argue they are due a change of luck but this combination is exactly what saw Potter sacked and Pochettino quickly needs to break the cycle.

Secondly, the lack of immediate progress is uncomfortably juxtaposed with what is happening across London at his former club Tottenham.

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0:51

Ogden: Chelsea look a mess

Mark Ogden dissects the problems at Chelsea after their 0-0 draw away vs. Bournemouth.

Ange Postecoglou has not inherited the same level of upheaval but nevertheless, moving on from the £86.4m exit of Harry Kane to Bayern Munich was a mammoth task and in six matches the former Australia and Celtic manager has implemented a markedly different style which has yielded encouraging results — including a 2-0 win over Manchester United and Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Arsenal.

The fixture list offers little respite for Pochettino, particularly after the next international break in October. Beforehand, they face trips to Fulham — where Chelsea lost last season — and Burnley. Afterward, their schedule into early December reads: Arsenal (h), Brentford (h), Tottenham (a), Man City (h), Newcastle (a), Brighton (h), Man Utd (a).

There is a pressing need for more urgent signs of progress. Chelsea have won just one of their opening six games in the league and if that poor run continues — as ridiculous as it is — Boehly and Eghbali will face another early and unwanted test of their commitment to long-term planning.

After all, if something needs to change and you’ve already committed to a squad of players on long-term contracts, while overhauling the backroom staff and the executives as well, where else do you look but the manager?

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