Mauricio Pochettino is ready to fight at Chelsea – these 7mins and 23secs proved it – The Athletic

By Liam TwomeyFeb 28, 2024

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“Look, we need to put it all in context.”

A handful of questions into his scheduled press conference at Cobham on Tuesday, Mauricio Pochettino was asked if he felt some of his Chelsea players are feeling more pressure as a result of their large price tags — but the real trigger for his response was another reference, two days on, to Gary Neville’s “blue billion-pound bottle jobs” line that instantly became the unifying slogan for anyone revelling in the ridicule of his team after their Carabao Cup final defeat against a heavily depleted Liverpool.

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In the seven minutes and 23 seconds that followed, without any further prompting from the assembled journalists, Chelsea’s head coach laid it all out: Neville’s comment was unfair; his team deserved to win in 90 minutes; he made attacking substitutions and did not instruct his players to wait for penalties; extra time might have been different with a fully fit Christopher Nkunku; Liverpool were rewarded for the patience they showed Jurgen Klopp early in his reign; many Chelsea players were contesting their first final and will be stronger for the experience.

This is what it looks like when Pochettino comes out fighting: defiance delivered with a smile and polite passion underpinned by a steely resolve. It is clear that the extraordinary fallout from the Wembley loss — which prompted questions about the courage of Chelsea’s players and, by extension, their head coach — has eaten away at him. He used the word “brave” nine times across the broadcast and daily newspaper sections of the press conference in reference to himself, his staff and his squad.

There are coaches from recent Chelsea history who might have chosen to publicly call out players after the manner of Sunday’s loss, torching relationships with the dressing room in the process. Pochettino’s instinct remained what it had been in almost every previous low point of this difficult season: to shield everyone under his authority. It was a compelling indicator that he still wants to do this job, at least for the remainder of the season.

Mauricio Pochettino is still smarting from his Wembley defeat (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Do the club’s owners feel the same way? Footage that appeared to show Pochettino blanking Todd Boehly as he went to collect his medal at Wembley became a source of fresh memes and social media conspiracy theories, but Chelsea’s head coach recounted a different version of events.

“I feel the support from them,” Pochettino insisted when the broadcast cameras were switched off. “I cannot lie to you. When I went up the steps at Wembley, I was so upset. Nearly crying. When I arrived there, it was so difficult to stop myself. But when I saw Behdad (Eghbali), I saw Todd (Boehly) and I shook hands with both of them, one of them with one hand, the other with my other hand. Then I got a text later, a very, very nice text (from Boehly) which I can show.

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“Then I met Behdad two hours later, away from Wembley in London. He was really, really good and was disappointed like everyone but happy with the performance in 90 minutes but knew we couldn’t keep that energy in extra time. I think people are clever enough to understand.”

But the source of Pochettino’s frustration is that he has felt little by way of understanding outside Chelsea — both from a media fascinated by the ongoing struggles of the Boehly-Clearlake investment project and a fanbase that encompasses apathy at the post-Roman Abramovich era and loud fury at the sharp decline in standards at Stamford Bridge — for the challenges he has faced this season, attempting to turn a flawed, hastily-assembled squad of young footballers plagued by an endless injury crisis into consistent winners.

“The problem which is so annoying is after eight months people always talk about this £1billion (figure),” he added. “I don’t know. It’s, I feel, unfair. It’s my view from here. When Chelsea lose it is always because of (spending too much). No, the circumstances of Chelsea are the circumstances of Chelsea.”

Pochettino cited countryman Enzo Fernandez as a classic example of the gulf that exists between external expectations and internal reality at Stamford Bridge. “Enzo played in a World Cup final (with Argentina), yes but when he started the competition, he was on the bench,” he said. “And he appeared like a young guy, because two players got injured, and this explosion was Enzo.

“He didn’t have all the responsibility. The focus was on (Lionel) Messi and he was playing free, but now because of this type of amount (£106million) you are telling me, people say ‘Now you have got to win the game’. But for him, it was the first time he had played a final at Wembley, feeling that ‘I am the main guy here’, and that is something he has to learn. Because of the amount of money — people say too much money — it is going to reduce the amount of time he has to learn and become a better player and deal with this type of pressure.”

Pochettino said that Enzo Fernandez suffers from high expectations (Adrian Dennis /AFP via Getty Images)

Modern football convention dictates that Fernandez’s huge transfer fee will ensure he — along with the other flagship Boehly-Clearlake signings — gets considerably more time and patience from the Chelsea hierarchy than will be afforded to Pochettino himself. They are the major investments, the long-term assets on whose individual fortunes this unprecedented project will stand or fall.

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“For me, they have an amazing quality, but they need time,” Pochettino said. “It’s not an excuse for me. Whether I am here or not — it depends on my job, and I think we are doing an amazing job — we cannot see greater results (right now) but I think with time we are going to have an amazing team because we are young, we are learning, and we create something that is starting to appear on the training ground.”

GO DEEPER

Chelsea can begin to close the gap by not ripping it all up and starting again

Pochettino has around three months to translate the promise he sees on the pitches at Cobham more regularly to a competitive environment before a summer evaluation of his job performance is led by co-sporting directors Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart with the active engagement of Eghbali and Boehly. That begins against Leeds United in the FA Cup fifth round on Wednesday, in a Stamford Bridge that will need very little encouragement to turn openly hostile.

“The problem is that we need time and patience to win games,” Pochettino insisted, before signing off his public defence with what sounded like a plea: “And we need the patience from the owners to give the possibility to keep going.”

(Top photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

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Liam is a Staff Writer for The Athletic, covering Chelsea. He previously worked for Goal covering the Premier League before becoming the Chelsea correspondent for ESPN in 2015, witnessing the unravelling of Jose Mourinho, the rise and fall of Antonio Conte, the brilliance of Eden Hazard and the madness of Diego Costa. He has also contributed to The Independent and ITV Sport. Follow Liam on Twitter @liam_twomey

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