It has felt like a long time since Chelsea fans had no reason to look forward to seeing their team in action.
But there’s nothing like a first pre-season friendly under a new head coach to spark fresh optimism, and the Maurico Pochettino era began with an emphatic 5-0 win over League Two Wrexham at the Kenan Memorial North Carolina Stadium. To put that into perspective, Chelsea didn’t score five against anyone last season.
Chelsea will have much tougher opposition to face on their tour of America (starting with Brighton at the weekend), let alone when the season kicks off. But there were positives for Pochettino to take from the first game.
Faith in youth
It’s hard to remember a club of Chelsea’s stature having such a dramatic change in squad personnel in just 12 months. Just comparing the players selected in the Wrexham game compared to those employed in the pre-season opener against Club America last July really shows how much has changed at Stamford Bridge in such a short space of time.
Of the 22 players used in a 2-1 win against Club America in Las Vegas, a dozen have already left. Then you have to consider that three others, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Hakim Ziyech and Malang Sarr, haven’t even traveled from the UK across the Atlantic and should soon be off the books too.
The average age of the starting eleven for the first half of that game at Club America, which was overseen by former coach Thomas Tuchel, was 25.8; Pochettino’s squad against Wrexham had an average age of just 20.9
Of course, he didn’t field his strongest team from the start, with more experienced players Raheem Sterling, Ben Chilwell and new signing Christopher Nkunku all introduced in the second half. First-choice goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and veteran centre-half Thiago Silva watched the 90 minutes from the sidelines. But the contrast was striking.
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Again, the caveat is “it was only Wrexham”, but two of Chelsea’s summer signings, Nicolas Jackson and Nkunku, look like they can give the team something that has been missing.
Of the two, Jackson impressed the most, although he didn’t have a goal to show for his efforts. The Senegal international, who counts former Chelsea striker Demba Ba as one of his idols, joined from Villarreal for 32 million pounds ($41.4 million) last month.
The 22-year-old led the line in the first half and took less than three minutes to make an impact, slotting past bewildered Wrexham defender Ben Tozer before unselfishly setting up Ian Maatsen to score.
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Jackson’s pace and willingness to run behind was a constant threat. He made life uncomfortable for Wrexham keeper Ben Foster whenever he passed the ball back due to the speed with which he closed it down. On one occasion he chased down a ball where a Wrexham defender had a 15-yard header on him and closed the gap within seconds to compete for possession. There was also a good hold game.
Nkunku, who was bought from RB Leipzig for more than €60m, was much calmer in comparison after replacing Jackson in the second half. But when he needed to be clinical, a skill that so many Chelsea forwards have lacked in recent years, he was.
Christopher Nkunku (Photo: Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
The France international showed great skill and composure to score his first goal for the club. After collecting a good pass from Cesare Casadei, he beat Wrexham keeper Rob Lainton, although the ball was pushed a little further by an outstretched hand. With the Wrexham defenders running back to defend the unguarded net, many Chelsea forwards of the past would have been guilty of missing the chance. It spoke volumes for Nkunku’s confidence that he didn’t panic and drilled a shot into the top corner.
Gusto can ease the tension in James
Chelsea bought Malo Gusto from Lyon for a starter 30 million euros in January with the aim of providing more competition and cover for Reece James.
When fit, no one will dispute that James is one of Chelsea’s most important players. But he has missed many games through injury since breaking into the senior team in 2019. A slight illness has also prevented him from flying out to start this trip, so Gusto had the chance to catch Pochettino’s attention in the debut
The 20-year-old did so in the opening 45 minutes by being comfortable on the ball, joining Chelsea’s attacks at every opportunity and solid in the air. On the rare occasions when Wrexham did hit back, their speed helped negate the danger.
Afterwards, Pochettino confirmed that James will travel soon to join the camp. You may want to catch an even earlier flight.
Taste Bad (Photo: Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
Young people make their claim
Step forward Maatsen and Casadei in particular on this front.
Maatsen was named in the Championship team of the 2022–23 season in recognition of his displays on loan at champions Burnley. With Chelsea stocked with so many left-backs, he was expected to be sold this summer.
They may have to rethink a little as he was named man of the match for his two well-taken goals that gave Chelsea a 2-0 half-time lead. If not, it will certainly make the club even more convinced that they should demand a decent fee for the talented 21-year-old.
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Casadei was one of two players (Bashir Humphreys was the other) to play the entire game. He shone in midfield, in a deeper role during the first half and a more advanced one in the second half. Many clubs, including Leicester (who are pushing hard), want to sign the Italian on loan. But with Chelsea short of numbers in this area of the pitch due to the sale of Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic, Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, they are worthy of another tie in the upcoming friendlies. Andrey Santos, bought from Vasco da Gama in January, also looked good for an hour.
Cesare Casadei (Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, Trevoh Chalobah, who is certain to stay out now that Wesley Fofana has suffered a serious knee injury, proved his worth as captain for 85 minutes. Pochettino revealed that he only came out as a precaution due to discomfort in his Achilles.
Pochettino is understandably making no promises, but he clearly liked what he saw from all the youngsters. “It’s good to get a chance to see all these guys,” he said. “We’ll see what happens in the next few weeks. Then we go back to England and decide the future of these young players. Maybe they have a future here or maybe they can’t make the squad. But there’s definitely a lot of potential for the future of the club”.
Pochettino shows his game face
Buoyed throughout, Pochettino did not treat this as a smooth first outing. He had his game face on. This was particularly evident during a talk on tactics on the sidelines with 18-year-old Diego Moreira during a drink break.
Pochettino also confronted the referee, which was unthinkable under Graham Potter, on the pitch because he had blown the whistle at the end of the first half when Chelsea were three-on-two on the counter. It was clear, at least on social media, that Chelsea fans enjoyed seeing a manager ready to fight back against their corner.
(Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)
Pochettino played with two different formations. There was a 4-2-3-1 for the first 45 minutes and what looked like a 3-4-3 for the second. Unusually for Chelsea, they looked more threatening and comfortable playing with a back four.
“I was happy with the attitude,” Pochettino said. “Now is the time to improve. Part of the process is learning the way we want to play and also being in physical condition. I am happy with the performance. Keep it up.”
(Top photo: David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)