This week marks three months since Marc Cucurella completed a high-profile move to Chelsea, but so far there has been little to celebrate.
To say that things have not gone as well as I would have hoped would be an understatement. Expectations were always going to be high, given Chelsea paid Brighton an initial £56 million ($65 million) with the potential for an additional £7 million in add-ons, but this has been an underwhelming start regardless of the cost.
There have already been a few lows. The 24-year-old was part of the squad that lost in disappointing circumstances to Southampton and Leeds United, and there was the awkward experience of being substituted at half-time against Aston Villa and then just 36 minutes into the 0-0 draw. against Manchester United a week later. But what happened on Saturday was surely the hardest moment yet.
The Spaniard was booed and booed non-stop for more than an hour in his first game at Brighton since his transfer. It must have been quite a shock. Everyone knows that football fans can quickly turn a hero into a villain. But in his only season at Brighton, Cucurella was voted by supporters as their player of the year for the 2021-22 season. He was also named player of the year. He was now vying with Chelsea manager Graham Potter, who also swapped the Amex Stadium for Stamford Bridge last month, for the worst reception of the day.
Potter and his Chelsea staff during the 4-1 defeat by Brighton (Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
The abuse would have been easier to manage if Chelsea and Cucurella had performed well. But Brighton comfortably beat Chelsea 4-1 and Cucurella was withdrawn in the 64th minute, to the delight of the home crowd. According to Whoscored, Cucurella’s defensive outing included no tackles, no interceptions and just one sack.
It was the fourth time in his last five starts that Potter had been shut down early on Cucurella, but this change would have hurt more. The jeers got louder as he left the pitch and the look on his face spoke volumes. Although he wasn’t particularly to blame for the three goals Brighton had scored at that point, his struggles at left-back had contributed to Chelsea’s general restlessness in defence.
Understandably, he looked a little upset. Sensing that Cucurella needed some words of comfort in his ear, Chelsea assistant manager Billy Reid made it a point to come to the touchline to greet him. But he seemed to shrug off Reid’s attempted hug before sitting down behind Potter.
Long after the final whistle, he was seen in better spirits talking warmly, as expected, to some members of the Brighton staff. Clearly there was no ill feeling about the manner of their departure between them and rightly so.
(Photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Cucurella, like Potter, clearly needs time to make his mark at Chelsea. This may be obvious, but there are other things to consider here.
For example, he was not helped by the deal that was completed just before the start of the season. There was no time to establish an understanding with his new teammates and a month later there was the turmoil caused by the dismissal of coach Thomas Tuchel.
Obviously, Potter’s arrival in Tuchel’s place was a good thing because of their previous relationship. But in five of Potter’s seven starts for Chelsea, he has been played in the more alien role of left centre-back rather than left-back/left winger, which is where he made his positive impact at Brighton. . The main reason for this is that Kalidou Koulibaly has an injury and form problems.
Potter has also experimented with his full-backs, sometimes playing more attacking players in the role. Against Brighton, Raheem Sterling operated there and provided very little defensive cover, leaving Cucurella isolated against Solly March.
One of the reasons why Chelsea signed Cucurella was the need to get Ben Chilwell back into the team. The England left-back had barely played football for nine months due to a knee ligament injury, but has started the campaign well, perhaps better than expected under the circumstances. Overall, he has surpassed Cucurella as a left/left back option.
Chilwell has actually completed more 90 minutes under Potter than Cucurella (four times to three) and although the latter has made more appearances overall this season due to replacing Koulibaly (15-12), the number of minutes under Potter is pretty much the same. (477 for Cucurella, 475 for Chilwell). What will happen when Koulibaly is ready to play regularly again? You get the impression that most Chelsea fans would prefer to see Chilwell in the lineup of the two and Potter is certainly not giving Cucurella any preferential treatment.
Importantly, however, Cucurella has the confidence of Potter and his backroom team. This has been communicated privately and publicly. Last week, Potter declared that there was no cause for alarm. He said: “He’s good, he’s ready to fight for the team, he’s ready to play. He is a resilient character, he is a very good person. Sometimes when you move clubs it goes really well, and sometimes it can be an up and down period. Marc is a bit up and down, but he is a top level player and will show his quality.”
Cucurella is also coming back from an illness that made him miss the match at Crystal Palace (left out of the squad) and at home to AC Milan (substitute not used). It caused sudden weight loss and this will always have a detrimental effect on an athlete.
On the eve of the Brighton game, Cucurella said he was “very happy” at Chelsea. It may be a little longer before we see more evidence of this in the field.
(Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)