Three wins from 10 games and just 13 goals scored. Rewind almost a month and the Premier League campaign had started in bleak fashion for Chelsea; the criticism was loud from some sections over Mauricio Pochettino’s lack of a quick impact, highlighted all the more by Ange Postecoglou doing exactly that a few miles further north.
Yet even with a misfiring front line there had occasionally been hints of what this team could be: the beginnings of partnerships, a few players starting to settle, standing out, finding their form. In a team which has been ripped up and effectively started anew over the last year, cohesion between individuals is everything to rebuilding a style and a successful approach. Pochettino has been hampered there, too, by injuries and absences, imbalances and those who arrived before him not reaching the level hoped of them.
Now, two matches later and with eight goals scored across them – including four in that chaotic, eternally watchable draw with Man City just prior to the international break – there is not just intangible reason for optimism, but quite clear on-pitch alterations which show Chelsea should be far higher than the 10th place they currently occupy.
Nicolas Jackson’s confidence has been boosted by his hat-trick at Tottenham. Raheem Sterling – in perhaps the best way of hitting back at being left out continually by England – has been electric, leading Chelsea’s attack by example and producing crucial final-third contributions. And then there’s Cole Palmer, who cost up to £42m and has played only 28 top-flight matches, but who has already forced his way into the Three Lions squad, Pochettino’s best XI and the forefront of Chelsea fans’ minds when considering how they’ll return to the top.
Yet the best is unquestionably still ahead and the player who might be Chelsea’s best link, spearhead and quite possibly best player overall has yet to play a single minute – but Christopher Nkunku’s English adventure is about to begin.
Quite aside from his fitness and sharpness levels after almost four months on the sidelines, there are a couple of questions about how Pochettino will fit the former RB Leipzig man into his lineup. An all-round attacker, he played everywhere from an offensive midfielder to an in-from-out wide man and a central No 9 in the Bundesliga, while his time with the French national team has also been across the width of the front line.
Where he looked at his best was perhaps as a free-roving centre-forward, able to be a box presence but also contribute enormously to the team’s build-up play, but one doesn’t necessarily directly translate to the other given the differences between Leipzig’s at times chaotic and fully-committed transition attacking play, and Pochettino aiming to give Chelsea’s approach more structure, more consistency, more dominance.
Jackson’s purple patch and ability to lead the line could mean that as well as reducing how quickly Nkunku is called upon, he will act best as part of a two-man attack when opposition quality allows. From Pochettino’s current team, that most likely means that one of the midfield triumvirate of Conor Gallagher, Enzo Fernandez or Moises Caicedo is removed from the fold. But if it’s unlikely that happens too often, too soon, then Nkunku’s versatility may quickly make him Chelsea’s biggest tactical weapon as well as possibly their most potent one. His ability to attack from all areas of the final third means the manager can pick and choose how to play him, whether it’s a game for midfield solidity, for Palmer’s impetuous creativity or for Jackson’s constant foraging behind the defensive line.
Occasionally it may be a game for all three, of course. But Nkunku’s combination of ball-carrying, ability to pick a pass and propensity for finding the back of the net – with 16 goals he joint-top scored in the Bundesliga last term – means that, once fit, he’ll almost certainly be the man for all solutions, all gameplans, all opponents.
Chelsea may find that his return is a timely one.
Of course, the team as a whole finding more form and cohesion, and more of the self-belief which comes from these, could itself lead to an upturn in fortunes. But so too might their upcoming fixture list, despite looking relatively tough on the face of things.
Newcastle, Brighton, Manchester United and Everton – with only the Seagulls visiting Stamford Bridge in that run – looks a difficult three weeks or so to navigate.
But the Magpies will head into Saturday’s game short due to injuries and with just two wins in six, plus a crucial trip to PSG following three days later. Minds, as well as team selections, might not be 100 per cent geared towards the league encounter. Brighton have themselves struggled for fluency of late, with just two wins in 10 dating back to late September, while the less said about consistency and cohesion the better regarding Erik ten Hag’s team this season. There are chances here, then, for Pochettino to pick up not just points but positivity and progression – up the table and with regards to finding his most favoured regular team.
Chelsea’s squad and spending alike should insist upon a much higher position in the table. They’ve improved enough in recent weeks to show they’ll certainly start to move up; how quickly Nkunku is integrated and how fast he rediscovers his best level will almost certainly dictate just how much higher they go.