It has felt like a long time since Chelsea fans had any reason to look forward to seeing their team in action.
But there is nothing like an opening pre-season friendly under a new head coach to spark fresh optimism, and the Maurico Pochettino era kicked off with a convincing 5-0 victory over League Two side Wrexham at the Kenan Memorial Stadium in North Carolina. To put that in perspective, Chelsea did not 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 once the season proper kicks off. But there were positives for Pochettino to take from the opening fixture.
Faith in youth
It is hard to recall a club of Chelsea’s stature having as dramatic a turnaround in squad personnel over the space of just 12 months. Just comparing the players selected in the Wrexham game compared with the ones employed in the opening pre-season game versus Club America last July really hammers home how much change there has been at Stamford Bridge over a short period.
Of the 22 players used in a 2-1 victory against Club America in Las Vegas, a dozen have already left. Then you have to factor in that three more – Callum Hudson-Odoi, Hakim Ziyech and Malang Sarr — have not even travelled from the UK across the Atlantic and should soon be off the books as well.
The average age of the starting XI for the first half of that Club America game, which was overseen by former head coach Thomas Tuchel, was 25.8; Pochettino’s selection against Wrexham had an average age of just 20.9
Granted he did not field his strongest side from the kick-off, with more experienced players Raheem Sterling, Ben Chilwell and new signing Christopher Nkunku being introduced in the second half. First choice keeper Kepa Arrizbalaga and veteran centre half Thiago Silva watched the 90 minutes from the sidelines as well. But the contrast was striking.
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Again the caveat is ‘it was only Wrexham’ but two of Chelsea’s summer recruits, Nicolas Jackson and Nkunku, look like they can give something the team has been missing.
Of the two, Jackson impressed the most, albeit he did not have a goal to show for his efforts. The Senegal international, who counts former Chelsea forward Demba Ba as one of his idols, joined from Villarreal for £32million last month.
The 22-year-old led the line in the first half and took just under three minutes to make an impact, gliding 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 in behind was a constant threat. He made life awkward for Wrexham keeper Ben Foster whenever the ball was passed back because of the speed in which he closed him down. On one occasion he chased a ball where a Wrexham defender had a 15-yard head start on him and closed the gap in seconds to compete for possession. There was good hold-up play as well.
Nkunku, who was bought from Red Bull Leipzig for in excess of €60million (£52.7m, $58.8m), was much quieter in comparison after replacing Jackson in the second half. But when he needed to be clinical, a skill so many Chelsea attackers have lacked in recent years, he was.
The France international showed a lot of skill and composure to score his first goal for the club. After running on to Cesare Casadei’s fine pass, he went round Wrexham keeper Rob Lainton, albeit the ball was pushed slightly wider by an outstretched hand. With Wrexham’s defenders rushing back to defend the unguarded net, many Chelsea strikers of the past would have been guilty of snatching at the chance. It said a lot for Nkunku’s confidence that he did not panic and drilled a shot into the top corner.
Gusto can ease the strain on James
Chelsea bought Malo Gusto from Lyon for an initial €30million (£26.3m) in January with a view to him providing more competition and cover for Reece James.
When fit, no-one will dispute James is one of Chelsea’s most important players. But he has missed a lot of games through injury since breaking into the senior squad in 2019. A minor illness has prevented him from flying out for the start of this trip, too, so Gusto had a chance to catch Pochettino’s eye on debut.
The 20-year-old did just that in the opening 45 minutes by being comfortable on the ball, joining in Chelsea’s attacks at every opportunity and solid in the air. On the rare moments Wrexham counter-attacked, his speed helped negate the danger.
Afterwards Pochettino confirmed James will be travelling to join the camp soon. Perhaps he will want to catch a flight even earlier now.
Youngsters stake their claim
Step forward Maatsen and Casadei in particular on this front.
Maatsen was named in the Championship team of the season in 2022-23 in recognition of his displays on loan at champions Burnley. With Chelsea having so many left-backs, it had been expected he would be sold this summer.
Maybe they will have a little rethink as he was named man-of-the-match for his two well taken goals that gave Chelsea a 2-0 lead at half-time. If not, it will certainly make the club even more convinced 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 full game. He shone in midfield, in a deeper role for the first half and a more advanced one in the second. Many clubs, with Leicester now really pushing, want to sign the Italian on loan. But with Chelsea lacking numbers in this area of the pitch due to Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic, Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek being sold, he is worthy of another run out in the friendlies to come. Andrey Santos, bought from Vasco de Gama in January, looked good for an hour too.
Meanwhile, Trevoh Chalobah – who will surely stay now that Wesley Fofana has sustained a serious knee injury – proved his importance as captain for 85 minutes. Pochettino revealed that he only came off as a precaution due to discomfort in his achilles.
Understandably Pochettino is not making any promises but clearly liked what he saw from all youngsters. “It is good to have the opportunity to see all these guys,” he said. “We will see what happens in the next few weeks. Then we come back to England and decide the future of these young players. Maybe they have a future here or maybe they cannot be part of the squad. But, for sure, there is great potential for the future of the club.”
Pochettino shows his game face
Animated throughout, Pochettino did not treat this as a gentle first run-out. He had his game face on. That was particularly on show during one tactics talk on the sidelines with 18-year-old Diego Moreira at a drinks break.
Pochettino also confronted the referee, something that was unthinkable under Graham Potter, on the pitch because he had blown his whistle for the end of the first half as Chelsea had a three-on-two counter attack going. It was clear, on social media at least, that Chelsea fans enjoyed seeing a head coach be prepared to fight their corner again.
Pochettino played with two different formations. There was a 4-2-3-1 for the opening 45 minutes and what looked like a 3-4-3 for the second. Unusually for Chelsea, they looked more threatening and at ease with playing a back four.
“I was happy with the attitude,” Pochettino said. “Now it is the time to improve. Part of the process is to learn in the way we want to play and to also be in the physical condition. I am happy with the performance. Keep going.”
(Top photo: David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)