CHAPEL HILL, N.C — Mauricio Pochettino’s balancing act has begun.
Chelsea‘s new manager arrived in North Carolina this week to begin a preseason tour of the United States that will create fanfare around a team craving stability. The 50,000-capacity Kenan Memorial Stadium is sold out for Wednesday’s game, with fascinated locals eager to catch a glimpse of one of European football’s powerhouses taking on Wrexham — a League Two side whose Hollywood owners (Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney) carry a star power that still effortlessly dwarfs their team.
Chelsea’s co-controlling owners, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital executive Behdad Eghbali, have generated a lot of their own headlines in recent months with a £625 million ($808m) spending spree and a revolving door of four managers (including Pochettino) during their tenure. And while no English team have won more trophies than Chelsea in the past two decades, they finished last season in 12th place after losing a staggering 16 Premier League games to miss out on European football by 18 points.
Pochettino, then, could be forgiven for being a little uncertain as to what to expect given all the upheaval. The 51-year-old sat down with ESPN for his first exclusive interview just 18 days after taking the Chelsea job, and the 29-man squad on this U.S. tour is reflective of the challenge he has inherited.
Striker Romelu Lukaku sits back in London awaiting a transfer after the end of his loan at Inter Milan. Midfield target Moises Caicedo remains a Brighton player as Chelsea continue to try to prise him away for upwards of £70m. And hours after landing in the States, Pochettino was told £70m centre-back Wesley Fofana would be sidelined for a lengthy period after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury that required reconstructive surgery.
There are just six players in the travelling party officially listed as midfielders — highlighting the importance of the pursuit of Caicedo — while, after the departure of Kai Havertz to Arsenal, the forward line that takes to the field against Wrexham on Wednesday is anyone’s guess. As, in fact, is much of Pochettino’s first lineup.
The owners will surely expect an improvement on last year, but Pochettino insisted no specific targets have been set.
“No, it is for us to put the pressure [on],” he told ESPN. “[The owners] don’t say nothing about that because I think when you are in Chelsea, it is about winning. It is to win trophies. It is not to put targets from the owners, from the people, the fans, or from the media. When we signed for Chelsea, we knew that everyone is going to expect us to win, even if last season wasn’t the way everyone expected. For us, it is not an important season, it is about moving on and thinking we can win. We are going to try to win, why not?”
There are a few reasons. Manchester City‘s pre-eminence is well-established, but Arsenal have upgraded their squad promptly and expensively — including the £67.5m acquisition of Havertz — while Manchester United are slowly progressing in the transfer market and Newcastle United are quietly aiming to consolidate last term’s top-four finish.
Chelsea have been active, too, with Christopher Nkunku (£53m) and Nicolas Jackson (£30m) strengthening their forward options alongside signings with potential, most notably 16-year-old Kendry Paez from Independiente del Valle (a £17.2m signing, though he won’t arrive until 2025), Santos 18-year-old forward Angelo (£12m) and Benfica 18-year-old winger Diego Moreira (free). But holes remain and Chelsea’s priority has been trimming a bloated squad, partly to escape the pressures of compliance with UEFA Financial Fair Play rules, but also to cut down a frankly unmanageable first-team squad comprising 31 players even before those out on loan returned.
Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante, Kalidou Koulibaly, Mateo Kovacic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Cesar Azpilicueta, Edouard Mendy, Havertz and Tiemoue Bakayoko have all left, raising over £200m in funds, while Pochettino confirmed he expects Lukaku to depart and both striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and winger Hakim Ziyech could be close behind.
The sheer scale of this turnover leaves Pochettino with something akin to a blank canvas. There have been Chelsea managers in years past who have struggled to impose themselves on a deep-rooted dressing room hierarchy. This group doesn’t even have a captain after Azpilicueta left to join Atletico Madrid.
So, has Pochettino chosen a new skipper? “No, not yet,” he replied. “We need to evaluate, we need to see the players and have more contact, to see the evolution over the next few weeks. Then for sure we will decide the best for the squad, for the team.”
Pochettino did not rule out a players’ vote in the coming weeks. And his task is to instill a sense of identity to a group of players thrown together in the last 12 months.
“I am not affected by the past because I wasn’t here,” he said. “I started July 1. Of course, for us with the people that we met and the players, we try to create a good atmosphere and work hard to try to reach the level that we want, and then altogether to create the philosophy that we believe it is possible to create together, and to try to bring this football club back to what people expect.
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“Chelsea Football Club is about winning, to lift trophies; this is what we want for the future. We are working really hard because we need to prepare all the players to be ready to compete in the first game in the Premier League [against Liverpool on Aug. 13]. Then we see what happens. There are too many things going on, not only with us but with different clubs like Liverpool also.
“What we try to do now is to try to take the best from our players. All the players involved in the squad need to think they can be involved in the first game against Liverpool.”
Pochettino says he believes he is a better manager since being sacked by Tottenham Hotspur in November 2019. Spurs improved immeasurably during his tenure, the apotheosis of which was a 2019 Champions League final appearance (a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool), in addition to top-four finishes in four of the five seasons he was in charge.
A stint at Paris Saint-Germain followed, winning the 2021 Coupe de France before sealing a Ligue 1 title in 2021-22, although insufficient progress in the Champions League cost him his job. The Argentine was linked with a number of clubs including Manchester United and a return to Spurs earlier this year — although sources told ESPN he was never formally approached — before he agreed to a two-year deal to move to Stamford Bridge, with the option of a third year.
“I hope [I’m better now],” he said. “Because it is experience, in the way that we learn things. I think we have more intuition, more capacity to read situations. I think with experience we are improving, the coaching staff.
“Man management, I think in everything. Also, tactics, yes, but that is not the most important thing today in football because the knowledge of tactics you can find from the internet. Today, you can learn. It is more about all the areas that are important.”
Pochettino also may have to win over a section of Chelsea supporters who find it difficult to disassociate him from their bitter London rivals, Tottenham.
“I don’t think in the past,” he said in response to that suggestion. “I am looking forward to see the future. Fans need to trust in us. What I want is to build this confidence and this trust, working hard and of course playing well and winning games. If not, it is impossible to build a good relationship if you don’t play well or win.”
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Wrexham offer a curious first examination, even by preseason standards. The two sides — hopelessly mismatched on paper — travelled 30 minutes across North Carolina to the WakeMed Soccer Park to hold an opening training session whose evening scheduling did little to curtail stifling humidity and 86 F (30 C) temperatures. Music blared out as the two sides took turns to train on the pitch in front of several thousand interested observers, many posing for pictures with cardboard cutouts of Reynolds and McElhenney.
For Pochettino, with American owners of his own to satisfy, the topic of two U.S.-owned British clubs facing off Stateside prompts an interesting answer. Particularly when you consider the accusations that Boehly and Eghbali got a little too close to his (permanent) predecessor Graham Potter, attending training sessions and entering the dressing room to address the squad on multiple occasions.
“It is good to have a mix, no? Culturally, in the U.K., football is really strong,” he said. “America is different with other sports. To share the cultures, I think it is important to get the best benefit.
“It is important to mix and be clear in the way that we are going to mix, no? People from the U.S. and the culture of football in England. But all this is about experience and learning. People like us, we have the knowledge of football in England to help the people who came from America and to guide them, to not make the mistakes, no? And of course, to help, to try to add all the good things that for sure they have in the U.S.”
There’s that balancing act again.