LONDON — Success comes in many forms. At Chelsea right now, it can be measured by the absence of boos and jeers at the end of home games, so Wednesday’s 1-0 Carabao Cup win over Brighton & Hove Albion was as good as it got for the team and coach Mauricio. Pochettino this season.
A first win for a month — their last was against EFL League 2 minnows AFC Wimbledon in August — and an end to a 338-minute goal drought thanks to Nicholas Jackson’s second-half winner could be seen as a line for Pochettino to start Chelsea’s nightmare campaign under. But when the former Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain boss celebrated the win at the end of the game, he didn’t overdo it: it was a firm handshake with Brighton counterpart Roberto Di Zarby followed by a sigh of relief.
Pochettino knows his job at Stamford Bridge could be the toughest of his career. He would be fooling himself if he believed that this result signaled a corner being turned.
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“It’s an important win,” Pochettino said in a press conference after the match. “Going to the next round is good for us and I think we deserved our win. I am satisfied with the performance, but we have to keep this momentum going.”
Make no mistake, this Chelsea team is a pale shadow of its successful predecessors. The club’s new owners have poured millions into the squad since buying Roman Abramovich in May 2022, but they seem to have only done some reverse magic trick to make the team worse off as a result of the massive investment.
A win is a win, though, and the fact that it produced cheers at the end is certainly a start. Yet Chelsea could easily have lost the game due to the lack of cohesion in Pochettino’s team.
The owners’ transfer policy has centered on signing some of the game’s brightest young players, usually for inflated transfer fees, with the expectation that they will once again become a formidable team capable of delivering the biggest trophy at Stamford Bridge. It’s a good theory, but promising young players are just that, and not all of them reach them.
Some of Chelsea’s recent signings are already appearing to be so weighed down by the pressure to perform that there is a risk that their potential will be stifled or completely fizzled out when they don the blue shirt. Mykhailo Mudrik is a classic example.
The £88m January signing from Shakhtar Donetsk has now made 23 appearances without scoring and his confidence was shattered even before being substituted in the second half. Add to the personal battles the 22-year-old faces on a daily basis, with his family still in war-torn Ukraine, and it’s hard to see how Pochettino can turn an obvious prospect into a world beater.
Mudrik is just one of the young players Pochettino has to work with. Jackson, whose goal sent Chelsea into round four after a clever pass from 21-year-old Cole Palmer, is still too raw to be relied upon to deliver consistently. Also 22, the £32m signing from Villarreal will need to channel his obvious qualities before he becomes a top-tier Premier League forward.
Pochettino’s side look like a group of kids on their first day at school, all desperate to impress, yet unsure of what to do with themselves. This is a side that cries out for experience and knowledge, but most of the players who could contribute were moved on during the summer, leaving only the injured 39-year-old Thiago Silva and 28-year-old Raheem Sterling to lead by example.
Pochettino demonstrated his ability to build a young team at Tottenham, but he still had senior professionals like Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Hugo Lloris to guide the youngsters. And he has never had a squad as unbalanced as Chelsea, who saw three left-backs – Ben Chilwell, Mark Cukrella and Ian Matsen – in the coach this game. Cucurella was deployed at right-back, while Mattsen spent most of the game as a right winger.
Pochettino has injuries, such as £52m striker Christopher Nkunku and right-back Reece James, but their absences leave big holes in the squad, and their return will not solve Chelsea’s problems.
What the team needs is the confidence that comes with consistency and results, so beating Brighton will help. Having only beaten Luton Town and Wimbledon so far this season, claiming victory against a highly rated Seagulls side could be crucial ahead of visits to Fulham and Burnley next week.
After that, Chelsea once again faced tough battles against Tottenham, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Brighton. They need to pick up at least one win next week to avoid the unthinkable of being dragged down the Premier League table.
The winless run is over though, and that’s a positive for Chelsea and Pochettino. Don’t be fooled into thinking everything will click into gear now.