Mauricio Pochettino

Mauricio Pochettino and Chelsea: Why ex-Spurs and PSG boss is the ideal man for the Blues

The first year under Todd Boehly has been a disaster.

  • Alex Keble (@alexkeble) is a football journalist who specialises in tactical understanding, analysis and predictions of all aspects of the game

Chelsea supporters could never have seen this coming: an extraordinary £500 million binge on players signed to frightening contracts, swelling the dressing room to an unmanageable size in the name of Silicon Valley-esque disruption – all set against the backdrop of two high-profile manager sackings and the club’s lowest league finish since 1996.

But here’s the twist. Chelsea’s new owner might be brash, might throw his weight around without a clear understanding of how the football industry works, but the people tasked with carrying out his demands have been at Chelsea for a while. And they seem to know what they’re doing.

Mauricio Pochettino is the ideal appointment and, though it didn’t work out because the conditions were just too demanding (and too weird), Graham Potter was an interesting choice, too.

Chelsea's 2022/23 signings under Todd Boehly

As for the incoming players, there is a consistency in tactical and technical profile that suggests Boehly’s splurge manifested as giving a highly competent scouting department everything they wanted, as opposed to a billionaire picking his fantasy football team.

Put together it has created the conditions for a modern club built on hard pressing and detailed positional play, giving Pochettino the platform to implement the Bielsa-Guardiola hybrid tactics that defined his best years as Tottenham manager.

The main caveat to all of this is the unwieldy size of the squad and the stench that wafts out of Stamford Bridge of a club teetering on the precipice of crisis. Frank Lampard was never a good choice nor a skilled coach but the total capitulation of the team under his interim management shows how deep the infection goes.

It will take time to turn the ship around and, judging by the sudden departures of Thomas Tuchel and his successor Potter, patience is not one of Boehly’s virtues.

Yet patience is also what the Chelsea chairman will need when it comes to transfer dealings, because he is about to discover the brutal reality of being a seller in the Premier League transfer market. There will be more dark days before there is light again.

But that does not mean Pochettino can’t make a flying start, because despite the cataclysmic mess of Chelsea’s 2022-23 season the underlying numbers tell us they aren’t a millions miles away from the basics of the Poch philosophy.

Their 10.0 PPDA (passes per defensive action - a quantifying indicator of pressing) is the lowest (e.g. best) in the division this season and they are in the top five for high turnovers (202) and pressed sequences (551), plus fifth for average possession (58.5%), fifth for progressive passes (1627), and third for progressive carries (764).

All of this chimes with the new manager’s demands. Although he had to adapt his approach significantly to cope with the peculiarities of the Paris Saint-Germain job, Pochettino seeks to dominate possession and press high, coaching in minute detail the position of each player within the shape to create quick one-touch passing triangles while dominating territory and shielding against counter-attacks.

Mauricio Pochettino has been out of work since leaving PSG last summer
Mauricio Pochettino has been out of work since leaving PSG last summer

It’s all very Guardiola, although with a distinctly Argentinian twist; Bielsa-inspired punishing double training sessions are used to ensure he has ultra-fit players ready to press manically throughout each match.

More than that, Pochettino is inclined towards verticality – possession with piercing purpose – which is generally achieved by overloading one side of the pitch before quickly switching to the other. His full-backs in a 4-2-3-1 tend to provide the width (and get on the end of those switches, arriving from deep) while the rest of the attack is very narrow, again inspired by Bielsa’s interchanges.

Chelsea are a long way off all that, of course, but those intriguing pressing, progressive passing or carrying, and possession numbers highlight just how many individual players at the club have been historically coached to play in a similar style to Pochettino.

That is what we mean by a scouting department that knows what it’s doing. In defence, Benoit Badiashile is in the 93rd percentile among centre-backs across Europe for progressive passes (5.32 per match) while Wesley Fofana is 99th percentile for progressive carries (2.26 per 90), suggesting Pochettino has the urgently line-breaking defenders he needs to set the tempo.

To cover both wings, Ben Chilwell and Reece James can be Pochettino’s equivalent of the English pair Danny Rose and Kyle Walker at Spurs, with James in particular one of the best full-backs in the world.

Chelsea haven’t signed many central midfielders over the last 12 months but that’s partly because they are already well-stocked in this area. N’Golo Kante has all the press-evading skills of Mousa Dembele and could be a perfect partner to Enzo Fernandez, one of the best passers in the game; the Argentine fits exactly with Pochettino’s tactical ideas, averaging more progressive passes per game (9.54) than anyone in the Premier League aside from Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Premier League progressive passes per 90 leaders - Enzo Fernandez second with 9.54

Further up the pitch, Chelsea have almost exclusively looked to sign direct dribblers in the mould of modern Germanic forwards, with Noni Madueke standing out by being in the 99th percentile for successful take-ons (4.34 per game) and 95th percentile for progressive carries (6.04 per game).

Clearly, Pochettino will love Madueke and Raheem Sterling, the sort of forwards constantly bustling to make things happen, and will be able to counter-balance them with intelligent between-the-lines footballers like Kai Havertz and Mason Mount.

Yet, Pochettino is an excellent coach first and foremost, so it would be naïve to solely judge Chelsea’s squad on its current merits. He will find extra levels, and with 14 players aged 24 and under there are plenty of options in this regard.

Indeed there is quality everywhere you look. Romelu Lukaku is set to return and could certainly excel under new leadership, while if Christopher Nkunku joins in the summer he could buzz around the front line like Dele Alli in his prime. That’s before even considering the large amounts of money expected to be spent, again, this coming window, with a goalkeeper, central midfielder, and striker the priorities.

But it’s all theoretical. Boehly has already got rid of multiple people working behind the scenes at Chelsea, from head of transfer business Marina Granovskaia to key advisor Petr Cech, leaving insiders worried about the leadership vacuum outside of an owner with no experience in the game.

Pochettino is a good fit for a talented squad built, against the odds, with intelligence. That is only half the battle, and we cannot even guess how the new manager will perform until the window closes in August. Pochettino could be left with a title-winning squad or a bloated mess. History suggests it will be the latter.

Mauricio Pochettino
ALSO READ: Chelsea appoint Mauricio Pochettino as their new manager - Blues 11/8 for top four

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