Mauricio Pochettino makes worrying Chelsea U-turn with Christopher Nkunku injury expectation


The worst thing about it all was just how predictable it felt. Chelsea's 2-0 loss against Brentford comes at a terrible time as the end of a promising run, the first one in over seven months and much longer in reality. It hadn't been since Graham Potter's first nine games that there was such a good feeling and even that came crashing down all too quickly.

For Mauricio Pochettino there is yet to be a run of games like Potter's opening patch to justify much of his struggles even if context does that for him. With injuries still piled high and a new, young squad that is still growing it was expected that teething pains would emerge. The expectation beyond that, however, was to move on more drastically.

Although many will accept that things are different and the demand is not really to win the league but to simply compete with those above them in the league at minimum, watching games that could largely be dropped into any period between March 2022 and now is not a good sign.

Everton 1-0 Chelsea at Goodison Park towards the end of the 2021/22 campaign, Southampton 2-1 Chelsea at the beginning of last term under Thomas Tuchel, The drab defeats to Fulham and Southampton again under Potter in the second half of 2022/23, they all had a familiar, fatigued feeling.

Pochettino's arrival promised to change much of that and although there are aspects of performance that change - this side have more energy, direction and creativity in the final third - the pattern is the same of controlling possession, missing chances and finding unique ways to concede.

Against Brentford the same was once more true. In the opening 30 minutes Chelsea could and probably should have scored at least twice. xG had them at 0.95 - 0.15 ahead after 15 minutes, just a third of the first half and that has risen to 1.26 by half-time. Chelsea took 10 shots in the first half compared to the visitors' two, seven of those came inside 20 minutes.

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The feeling of knowing just how these wasted chances would make the team pay eventually grows at Stamford Bridge perhaps more than anywhere else though. This is no anomaly. The Blues have had 28 shots inside the opening 15 minutes this season but only scored one goal, they have faced just 10 but conceded two. Once more it is calculated by xG that on average they would have at least three from the attempts taken and let in just one.

In the final period of the game from the 76th minute onwards the story is similarly profligate and exasperating. 23 shots but no goals. It is tough to put up numbers like this without doing quite a lot right but for Pochettino and Chelsea that isn't enough, it hasn't been enough and with the pressure and demands from the fans will never be enough.

The results indicate that the same troubles are awaiting Chelsea once more under new management and patience begins to wear thin. The boss himself has been left relatively speechless by the events but what is clear is just how much these opening months have seen him change tune.

“In football, there is no patience,” he said when speaking for the first time as Blues boss.. “It is difficult to wait, and when you are in Chelsea, I believe it is not about asking for time — you need to deliver from day one. Football is about today, yesterday. You cannot talk too much long-term. We cannot tell people we need six months to create because it seems not good. We need to create the belief from the beginning.

“We have players that can deliver in the short-term. Of course, I can do a good job, play well and in our style and culture but, of course, it’s to win. If you don’t win in a club like Chelsea, for sure, you are going to suffer. I don’t want to make excuses or talk about the past.”

However, few could have predicted that Chelsea would have just 12 points from 10 games, sit 11th in the table and already be 11 points from the top four at this stage. Of the sides to beat them only Aston Villa are above ninth and they are yet to get victory against a side higher than 14th.

This is, in anybody's book, not good enough and cause for concern. The mitigating factors are plentiful - injuries, unprecedented levels of poor finishing and a club overhaul of the likes never seen before - but these are the things Pochettino was essentially hired to bypass.

Potter was no firefighting manager but was put into a burning building. Pochettino entered into the rubble knowing, in plain view, that it was his to rebuild. That does take time, as he rightly says, but there is no patience or sympathy from most to a man that has had over £300million spent on his squad regardless of context.

Now, with pressure ramping up and the boo boys returning to Stamford Bridge, Pochettino's words are less fierce. “This season, I think the team have played well, the team dominate and create chances," he explained in defence of his underperforming side. "It is really disappointing. We were the better team, the better side but, in the end, we conceded two goals.”

It is not quite an excuse but the former Spurs boss has added context to results, clarifying that excuses aren't acceptable in the past. There is a fine line between the two, and not one that fans are ultimately interested in, but it often takes some extreme cognitive dissonance to ignore the reasons behind wayward performances or results.

"You are in Premier League, you need players with experience there," Pochettino said last month before launching into an litany of factors for the poor points total. "Spain and France are different leagues. Here it was different, two days before the start Kepa [Arrizabalaga] left the club. We need to accept there was a project, an idea, but we are going to build something for the future, important but with time. You can destroy in one second but to build and to start to work, the steps are little.

"From outside it is difficult to see you are progressing but from inside we are doing well, we are building a very strong institute and for sure we start to get where we want. You never know. First of all the players need to be settled, feel comfortable, know each other.

"We were talking also when we assess the injuries. Now, we are going to compete with teams that play three, four or five years. Even six months. Our keeper Robert [Sanchez] played with [Axel] Disasi four or fives games, Disasi with Malo Gusto three games, Thiago [Silva] with [Levi] Colwill, three or four games.

"With Lesley Ugochukwu one game, he plays with Enzo [Fernandez], one game. Training sessions between pre-season, national team and the season, not too many to perform under pressure. Nico [Jackson] and [Raheem] Sterling they need time to create the links, with Mischa [Mykhailo Mudryk], with Noni [Madueke], with [Cole] Palmer, he arrived two days before the transfer window finished.

"It's not an excuse but we need to analyse all of these things. Should we win every game because we are Chelsea? Yes. We are not the Chelsea that won the Champions League or Premier League, we are Chelsea in progress, to improve, to find our way to behave and to perform."

The vibe has certainly changed and the manager is now taking a defensive and guarded approach to dealing with his squad rather than demanding instant results. It mirrors the message that Potter himself was putting across last year. Soon enough it is the actions on the pitch that will have to do the talking though as fans have shorter fuses in west London to most places.

Pochettino may well be justified in calling for time to overcome the hurdles in front of him but it is a stark contrast to his start point. This is not a surprise though and should be treated with a pinch of salt. Should the manager have started his reign as manager with statements regarding projects and building it would not have been the way to endear a group of supporters that have an insatiable appetite for success.

For now the demand is to find a balance and whilst the 'excuses' remain valid for the most part there will continue to be very few that truly buy in to the current explanation for the league position. Christopher Nkunku's absence alone is not enough even if the boss did explain that he would predict another eight goals at minimum if the Frenchman was available.

Missing the keystone to the side is no easy thing to overcome, for sure, and it is made worse when it is considered that Nkunku would be one of the oldest players in the squad and is certainly amongst the most proven. Losing out on this when he had been placed in a position to mask early deficiencies is tough to get around but for a manager of Pochettino's calibre it is not a call he can continuously make in public even if there is truth to it.

Things will need to change before Nkunku is back for Chelsea because Pochettino's defensive side might not slide with those that have been watching some of the worst form for the club over the past 18 months. It's hardly Pochettino's fault that this is the case but, as he would say, it is now the reality.

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