FROM STAMFORD BRIDGE – Chelsea moved back into the top half of the Premier League on Sunday with a gritty 3-2 win at home to Brighton & Hove Albion.
Yeah, therein lies a bit of a problem.
The Blues aren’t used to fighting for position in the middle of the pack. With an expenditure in excess of £1bn since Todd Boehly and BlueCo took control of the club, it’s an even more concerning prospect that they aren’t competing for pole.
The Graham Potter experiment didn’t even last a full season and Mauricio Pochettino is now the man entrusted with trying to mature a team full to the Cobham changing room-brim of young players.
It’s quite a natural fit. Pochettino’s best work in his career has come when guiding youthful sides, his worst when overpowered by a glamour project.
Unfortunately for Pochettino, he’s walked into a situation combining the worst aspects of both. Chelsea have been recklessly spending record sums on unproven players and assembled a squad that is still a long way away from shedding their adolescence. His increasingly fiery philosophy had only added more fuel to that inferno.
That’s been made clear already this season and was best on display on Sunday against Brighton. Conor Gallagher – the stand-in captain for Reece James, who was sent off in last week’s 4-1 drubbing at Newcastle United – received his own marching orders for two silly yellow-card offences.
The Blues were cruising at 2-0 midway through the first half and created another great chance in the short time between Facundo Buonanotte’s goal and Gallagher’s dismissal.
Whatever Pochettino preached to his players at half-time worked. They were a team in desperate need of growing up fast and a dogged second-half display duly followed.
Chelsea dropped off – not into a deep block, but they didn’t exactly play the infamous Ange Postecoglou high-line either – and cut off the spaces for Brighton’s tricky wingers to have much room for manoeuvre, shortened their margin for error.
The lighting-quick pace of Mykhailo Mudryk (or ‘Ukraine Bolt’ as he’s known in some online circles) hurt Roberto De Zerbi’s men on the counter, eventually forcing James Milner into a desperate last-ditch lunge and earning a penalty after a VAR check.
Joao Pedro eventually reduced the goal deficit back to one in added time and Chelsea needed another VAR review to have a penalty against them overturned, but this was a stark contrast to some of their other self-destructive performances in the Pochettino era.
With 11 men, Chelsea also displayed the characteristics of a typical Pochettino team and showed why they have historically competed well with possession-based footballing sides.
Brighton wanted a slow game from the off. They didn’t want to be dragged into chaos. With their injuries, that’s understandable, but even with their key players available it’s merely a design flaw in De Zerbi’s system when they do get drawn into firefights.
Chelsea were happy to cede possession but they were energetic and purposeful when they had it. Pochettino teams are meant to outrun you in fits of frenzy, to dominate you in physical duels. Crash, bang, wallop. Not in a route-one sense. but it’s no surprise they scored two crashing headers from corners.
That is the blueprint for the Blues. If they don’t lose the physical fight, they probably won’t lose the game of football. Now they just need to stop letting their hot hearts turn into hot heads.
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