Chelsea snap skid but don’t be fooled –

  • Mark Ogden, Senior Writer, ESPN FCSep 27, 2023, 05:54 PM ET

LONDON — Success comes in many different forms. At Chelsea right now, it can be measured by the absence of boos and jeers at the end of a home game, so Wednesday’s 1-0 Carabao Cup win against Brighton & Hove Albion was as good as it has been for the team and coach Mauricio Pochettino this season.

A first victory for a month — their last was against EFL League 2 minnows AFC Wimbledon in August — and the end of a 338-minute goal drought thanks to Nicolas Jackson’s second-half winner could be regarded by Pochettino as a line being drawn under Chelsea’s nightmare start to the campaign. But while the former Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain boss celebrated this victory at the end of the game, he didn’t overdo it: it was a firm handshake with Brighton counterpart Roberto De Zerbi followed by a sigh of relief.

Pochettino knows that his job at Stamford Bridge could be the toughest of his career. He would be fooling himself if he believed that this result signalled the turning of a corner.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

“It’s an important victory,” Pochettino said in a news conference after the match. “It is good for us to get through to the next round and I think we deserved our victory. I am pleased with the performance, but we need to keep this momentum.”

Make no mistake, this Chelsea team is a pale shadow of its successful predecessors. Hundreds of millions of have been poured into the squad by the club’s new owners since they bought out Roman Abramovich in May 2022, but they only seem to have performed some kind of reverse magic trick that has resulted in huge investment making the team worse.

A win is a win, though, and the fact that it generated cheers at the end is certainly a start. Yet Chelsea could quite easily have lost the game due to the lack of cohesion in Pochettino’s team.

The owners’ transfer policy has centred on signing some of the game’s brightest young players, usually for inflated transfer fees, with the expectation that they will grow into a formidable team capable of once again delivering the biggest trophies to Stamford Bridge. It’s a good theory, but young players with potential are precisely that, and not all of them reach theirs.

Some of Chelsea’s recent signings are already looking as though they are so weighed down by the pressure of performing that they risk having their potential stifled, or snuffed out completely, while wearing the blue shirt. Mykhailo Mudryk is a classic example.

The £88 million January signing from Shakhtar Donetsk has now made 23 appearances without scoring, and his confidence looked crushed even before he was substituted in the second half. Add in the personal battle the 22-year-old must face every day, with his family still in war-torn Ukraine, and it is difficult to see how Pochettino can turn an obvious prospect into a world beater.

Mudryk is just one young player that Pochettino has to work with, though. Jackson, whose goal sent Chelsea into round four after a clever pass by 21-year-old Cole Palmer, is still too raw to be relied upon to deliver consistently. Also 22, the £32m signing from Villarreal needs to channel his obvious qualities before he becomes a top-level Premier League forward.

Pochettino’s team look like a group of kids on their first day at school, all desperate to impress, yet not knowing what to do with themselves. It is a side crying 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 Raheem Sterling, 28, to lead by example.

Pochettino showcased his ability to mould a young team at Tottenham, but he still had senior pros such as Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Hugo Lloris around to guide the youngsters. And he never had a squad as imbalanced as Chelsea’s, one that saw the coach field three left-backs — Ben Chilwell, Marc Cucurella and Ian Maatsen — in this game. Cucurella was deployed at right-back, while Maatsen spent most of the game playing as a right winger.

Pochettino does have injuries to contend with, namely £52m striker Christopher Nkunku and right-back Reece James, but while their absences leave big holes in the team, their return won’t solve Chelsea’s problems.

What the team needs is the confidence that comes with consistency and results, so beating Brighton will only help. Having only previously defeated Luton Town and Wimbledon so far this season, claiming a win against a highly rated Seagulls side could be crucial ahead of trips to Fulham and Burnley next week.

After that, Chelsea face a daunting run of fixtures against Tottenham, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Brighton again. They simply have to pick up at least one win next week to avoid the unthinkable of being dragged toward the bottom end of the Premier League table.

The winless run has come to an end, though, and that is a positive for Chelsea and Pochettino. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that everything will now click into gear.