Mauricio Pochettino might just be able to see light at the end of a long, dark tunnel at Chelsea, but such is the precarious nature of the progress being made at Stamford Bridge that the manager will be approaching Tuesday’s Carabao Cup semifinal second-leg against Middlesbrough with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
The tie represents a fork in the road for the former Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain coach. With Chelsea 1-0 down from the first leg against Michael Carrick’s team — Boro sit 11th in the EFL Championship table — anything but a win will see Pochettino’s side eliminated. The odds favour Chelsea in their attempt to overturn the one-goal deficit and confirm a place next month’s final, but the only certainty with Pochettino’s young team is their inconsistency, so nobody will making plans for Wembley just yet.
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After the defeat at Middlesbrough earlier this month, Chelsea fans turned on their players at the end of the game with an angry reaction as they walked off the pitch. Pochettino spent the following day trending on social media alongside former Bayern Munich and Germany coach Hansi Flick, who was being cited as his potential replacement. Such is life in Premier League management.
That defeat was a rare blip in a period that has seen Pochettino start to turn things around after a difficult first six months in charge. The noise that the Middlesbrough defeat created, however, drowned out the progress being made on and off the pitch.
Chelsea have won four of their last five games in all competitions — the defeat at Boro their only negative result — and a rare sense of calm has descended over the club during the transfer window. There has been no lavish spending on over-priced new signings, with just a handful of low-key loans in and out instead. The fears of key midfielder Conor Gallagher being offloaded by the club simply to cash in on his status as a homegrown player, to benefit from a pure profit transfer fee, have so far not materialised, and Pochettino’s team are slowly climbing the Premier League table.
For the first time in two years, since former owner Roman Abramovich was forced to sell the club after having his assets frozen following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, normality is beginning return to Stamford Bridge. If Chelsea beat Middlesbrough and reach the final, Pochettino can contemplate winning a trophy in his first season at the club. It would also be his first in English football, having failed to win silverware during five seasons at Tottenham and one with Southampton.
Yet a failure to overcome a team from a lower division in a two-legged semifinal would plunge Pochettino and Chelsea back into turmoil. Considering the owners’ investment in the team, with £910 million spent on 25 players since buying the club, any more setbacks could increase the risk of ownership making another managerial change: Pochettino is already the club’s fourth manager since the May 2022 takeover.
To his credit, Pochettino has identified the frailties within his team, saying after the Middlesbrough defeat: “For us it’s like we need to play well, we need to score goals. We play well, but sometimes we are not clinical enough and sometimes we are punished. That is the process in this moment we are in.”
Against Boro, Chelsea fielded a team with an average age of 24.2 years. However, take out the 39-year-old Thiago Silva, and that average drops to 22.8 years. Throughout this season, Pochettino has been forced to work with a host of young players who are simply not ready for football at the highest level, which is why results have been so unpredictable.
The philosophy of the club’s owners is to sign young players with big potential, but aside from Cole Palmer, the 21-year-old signed for £40m from Manchester City last August, few have come close to playing to their potential. Pochettino cannot escape scrutiny for that, especially having built his reputation at Spurs by developing a team of young talent including Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Ryan Mason and Eric Dier, but that Spurs side also benefited from the presence of experienced figures such as Hugo Lloris, Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen.
There is much less experience within the Chelsea squad. At times, Pochettino’s task has been similar to being asked to build some flatpack furniture without the necessary tools with which to do so — not impossible, but likely to be slow and frustrating. Yet there is progress: team selection is becoming more consistent, and the likes of Enzo Fernández, Nicolas Jackson and Noni Madueke are making positive contributions.
Pochettino has put faith in Gallagher and been rewarded with the 23-year-old’s growing maturity, while Raheem Sterling is beginning to show leadership as a senior player. But the next 90 minutes of Pochettino’s Chelsea career could ultimately define what happens next and whether he will be allowed to see the job through or become another victim of the owners’ impatience.