Mauricio Pochettino is yet to experience the problem that cost Graham Potter his job at Chelsea. Enjoy the injury crisis while it lasts.
With at least ten of his 31-man squad eyeing the exit door amid reports of players having to train in corridors and sit on the floor in team meetings, it is now an accepted caveat that Graham Potter simply had too many players to thrive at Stamford Bridge.
But the tiny violins were out for the former Brighton boss in January when he claimed he had taken on “the hardest job in football”; sympathy was in short supply as fans and pundits looked upon star-studded Chelsea benches as a positive. He was seen as a manager promoted above his station as he failed to get a significant tune out of a very talented group of expensively assembled players.
A lack of goals is an issue that hampered Potter, just as it’s hampering Pochettino, with the football played before the finishing touch as encouraging now as it was – at least in the early days – under Potter, who will empathise with the extraordinary xG stat which sees Chelsea join Manchester City as the only clubs who have had superior chances to their opposition in every Premier League game this season.
Potter’s stock continues to rise as Mauricio Pochettino fails to right the still-sinking ship, and could surge further when Pochettino encounters the problem that ultimately hamstrung Potter: That massive, unmanageable squad. The first signs are starting to emerge.
“It’s about choice, it’s about choice. Election,” Pochettino said, surprising everyone who assumed Noni Madueke had been left out of the matchday squad for their 1-0 win over Brighton due to injury, which is currently the case for eight of his teammates at Chelsea.
That extensive injury list has quite reasonably been used as an excuse for Pochettino’s slow start. Fans are able to convince themselves that they would be scoring goals if Christopher Nkunku was playing, while Reece James swings in perfect crosses, Romeo Lavia sweeps up everything in midfield and Wesley Fofana returns as the Leicester iteration worth £72m, rather than the pale imitation we saw in his debut season for the Blues.
In reality, Potter had similar injury woes in his time at the helm, but complaints were given short shrift given the quality (on paper) he still had at his disposal. And even with a number of players unavailable for selection, he invariably still had two international players to choose between for every position on the pitch.
He made close to 100 changes to his starting XI in the Premier League in his six months in charge, comfortably more than any other manager, and it was that juggling act – as he attempted to contain dressing-room egos and keep players happy – that was ultimately his undoing.
That’s where his reign differs significantly to Pochettino, who has handed starts to the same eight players in all six of his Premier League games thus far, rotating in just three positions, more by default than choice.
Even faced with those few personnel decisions, his team selection has been questioned. Why is Levi Colwill starting at left-back over Ben Chilwell? Why is Enzo Fernandez playing as the No.10 while Conor Gallagher captains the side from a deeper role? If he’s building for the future, why has Thiago Silva played every game?
And crucially, perhaps detrimentally, it won’t just be outsiders questioning Pochettino’s selections. Madueke must now be wondering why he wasn’t included in the squad for the Carabao Cup – having scored in the previous round – while teenage forwards Alex Matos and Deivid Washington take spots he presumed were earmarked for him.
In search of results at Chelsea, Potter tinkered, and was criticised for doing so. But it was either that or stick with an under-performing side, which breeds resentment among the players who cannot understand why they’re not being selected.
Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp can point to the results and performances of their teams to explain bit-part roles to their outcasts, but Pochettino won’t have that luxury unless the return of players from injury coincides with an improvement from those in possession, or they become the players to lift Chelsea from their slump.
Pochettino has six centre-backs for two slots. Three left-backs, none of which he particularly seems to like. Five or six central midfielders. His squad is nowhere near as bloated as Potter’s, but it’s unbalanced in a way that will create similar levels of frustration if his famed man-management is not perfect. His blunt response to Madueke’s lack of involvement on Wednesday does not bode well in that department.
The Chelsea owners were adamant during Potter’s time – as they are now – that he would be given time at Stamford Bridge. They backed him when the results were poor and still did so when the performances matched the bad results.
Things came to a head when the Chelsea crowd turned, with the intensity of their boos increasing in line with the decrease in effort they saw from the players. They were watching a broken group whose respect for the manager had diminished to the point of no return.
Unhappy players at Chelsea this season will, in the main, be frustrated because of the results. But that could soon change for Pochettino, who is yet to deal with selection headaches that caused rifts Potter was unable to patch.
The injured stars will be welcomed back by Chelsea fans and by Pochettino, but their return will see one excuse for poor form disappear for the manager, while adding a problem that will cost him control of the dressing-room if an improvement in results doesn’t quickly follow.