It hasn’t taken Mauricio Pochettino long to make an impact at Chelsea.
He and his team left for their pre-season tour of the United States on Monday afternoon, but the groundwork was already laid for the trip to be a positive one.
There is always plenty of scrutiny when a new manager takes over at any club, but arguably even more so at Chelsea given the high turnover of staff over the past two decades. When someone takes over the reins at Stamford Bridge, there is a particular focus on change. Memories of Antonio Conte banning tomato sauce from the players’ canteen back in 2016 still linger. His team was equally astounded to find that seeds suddenly appeared on the menu.
Now it’s Pochettino’s turn to be in the spotlight.
He officially started work a fortnight ago and has had to endure the annual predicament of players returning at different times due to their commitments with their national teams since the end of the last domestic campaign. These staggered arrivals are not ideal for any coach, but especially a new one who wants to get his message across as quickly as possible. Yet what he is trying to do still comes through loud and clear.
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As you would expect at the start of any pre-season, the focus has initially been on fitness. Pochettino has clearly identified it as a major weakness from last season, not only in the way Chelsea performed in the matches, but also with the amount of injuries.
Such is the intensity of his sessions to date that sources close to senior players, who speak anonymously to Athletics to protect relationships, suggests this has already been the toughest pre-season physically for a few years – certainly more so than it experienced under Thomas Tuchel. Standards are said to be significantly higher than what was produced over the past 12 months, not saying too much considering how things went.
On top of the mandatory double sessions, there has been Pochettino’s favorite Gacon test — a challenge involving players initially given 45 seconds to run 150 metres. They are given a 15 second rest before being asked to do it again with the distance increased by 6.25 meters. The process is repeated with the same amount of rest and an increase of 6.25 meters each time until no one can complete the course.
Every training session has been filmed with cameras installed on the training pitch. It allows staff to review recordings of everything that has been done and, if necessary, go over it with a person and highlight anything that needs to be worked on, or conversely give praise if something has been done particularly well.
Another aspect that is now being taken more seriously is what people do in the gym.
The level of exercise is monitored more closely now. Staff had been aware that there had been instances in the past where some players, when asked to work in the gym, made a token appearance before leaving prematurely. Nobody leaves early now. Rather, everyone trains fully. The level of training out on the pitches and inside the building has not only helped ensure people are fit, but also given an indication of who is on board with Pochettino’s demands.
Improving everyone physically is only one aspect of the job.
Arguably, the biggest issue Pochettino has needed to address is the mood in the camp in the wake of the worst Premier League season in Chelsea’s history – their 44 points tally in 2022-23 is their fewest since the competition began in 1992-93 . He has been charged with restoring confidence and rebuilding the team spirit that was particularly lacking last term.
Selling players and reducing the size of the squad has helped. There is a real onus now to build an environment of people who really want to be in the club.
To help build stronger bonds, team members have been instructed not to sit in the same group every day. It is designed to prevent cliques from forming and everyone doing more together.
It is also part of the thinking behind the much talked about staff barbecue Pochettino held on his first day. Everyone in the senior team building was invited. Pochettino and his backroom staff mingled and got to know everyone. Again, the thought process from the start was to bring the group together. There will be occasions when players will have moments alone with staff not attached to the senior staff. Obviously, if they feel happy and included, it will lead to a much better atmosphere and interaction than if they feel marginalized.
Communication has been another focal point.
Pochettino has held several one-on-one talks with players to explain what he thinks of them and expects from them. But he has also asked for their opinions on how they feel things have gone and what they think went wrong last season. Players have been made to feel they can trust Pochettino and are able to speak freely.
There is great optimism that this is a man with a plan – and one that he will stick to. The way he came across in his first internal interview and then in his press conference with external media also went down very well. The upbeat mantra that emphasized the need to win from day one, with no excuses, was battle talk to inspire a response.
Individuals feel that there is a clean slate and now they have gotten everything off their chest regarding last season, it can be put in the past and everyone can look forward to the future.
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Tactical work has begun, albeit minimally, because the squad are at different stages of their fitness work. However, Pochettino is looking to play with a 4-2-3-1 formation this season. This includes pushing the full-backs high, just as he employed Kyle Walker and Danny Rose during his time in charge of Tottenham. He also wants to employ a creative No. 10 behind the main striker.
Another reason for the intense fitness work is that Pochettino wants Chelsea to play with high pressure, aiming to win back possession at the top end of the pitch, starting with the centre-forward.
There has been a concerted effort to keep the size of the pre-season tour squad at the same number as last year’s 29 and not have too many players whose futures lie elsewhere. There was a reason why Romelu Lukaku, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Hakim Ziyech were all asked to delay their return to training at the club’s base in Cobham until today. The trio aren’t part of the plans, so why have them around the footballers who are?
Slightly different is the omission of academy duo Harvey Vale and Omari Hutchinson from the traveling party. Although extremely talented, they have been left to arrange loan moves with the aim of improving their development.
But Pochettino is not ignoring youth completely, as evidenced by the inclusion of returning loanees Ian Maatsen and Bashir Humphreys. There is still a possibility that they will secure transfers when they return from the United States, but their inclusion in the squad is a reward for impressing Pochettino so far. Other academy players include Mason Burstow, Alfie Gilchrist, Cesare Casadei and Lewis Hall.
Of course, all this should come with notes of caution: Chelsea have yet to play a game; the squad is far from complete and needs at least two midfielders to replace N’Golo Kante, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, who have all left in the past six months. Then there is the reality that any permanent appointment would be seen as a blessing after the sackings of Graham Potter and Tuchel last season, plus the use of Bruno Saltor (one game) and Frank Lampard (last 11 games) on a temporary basis.
There also appeared to be a similar feel-good factor in the early weeks of pre-season 12 months ago, but it quickly became apparent that things were not as good as they initially appeared on the surface. Tuchel’s sacking came in the first week of September.
Pochettino will be sure to make a better impression on his employers and Chelsea owners, the Todd Boehly-Clearlake consortium. The club have five friendlies, starting with Wrexham on Wednesday night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, before facing Liverpool in their Premier League opener on August 13. There is still much to do.
But so far, so good.
(Top photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)