Chelsea have now lost a second successive away game against Southampton. Gelling may take time, and that’s the one commodity they don’t have.
Thomas Tuchel – and this should go without saying, really, but here we all are – is not stupid. Speaking after his Chelsea team had meekly surrendered the lead at Southampton and then been unable to recover in the second half, he identified that the key theme of this particular loss was defensive skittishness rather than their much-discussed lack of a number nine.
Chelsea had started their evening relatively successfully, a Raheem Sterling goal midway through the first half coming on top of a couple of decent chances. But not for the first time this season, the cogs in their engine started to seize. Southampton were leading by half-time, and while Chelsea’s second-half performance left no doubt about their commitment, their execution of Tuchel’s plan felt discombobulated and incoherent.
There was none of that feeling of delayed destiny that so frequently comes when a Big Club is chasing a goal to rescue a game, none of that suffocating pressure that makes the score being flipped start to feel inevitable. By the end of the evening Chelsea hadn’t just lost, but they’d deserved to lose it too. And it felt like an evening that wouldn’t be resolved by throwing yet more money around in the last 48 hours of the transfer window.
And what is clear is that this wasn’t some sort of isolated off night. Chelsea have won two of their five Premier League matches this season – against Everton and Leicester – and weren’t especially impressive in either of those matches, while their other three matches were against Spurs, in which their high press was impressive but they ultimately ended up being more heat than light, and now two straight away defeats at Leeds and Southampton, which are exactly the sort of matches that they need to be winning if they’re to challenge in the way that their spending this summer suggests they should.
Might Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang be the answer? Or Anthony Gordon? Well, either could be, although a broken jaw would mean that Aubameyang wouldn’t be appearing for a few weeks even if Chelsea can reach agreement with Barcelona. In a game of fine margins, the arrival of one player can be a catalyst for considerable change around an entire team.
But Chelsea have spent heavily this summer, and there comes a point at which you have to stop looking to the future and start looking at the present.
There are mitigating factors. N’Golo Kante is a big loss in midfield, while the absence of Reece James – their best player so far this season – at St Mary’s didn’t help either. But Kante’s injury record is well-known and surely has to be factored into their plans. You simply can’t plan a season around him being fit for 38 games. And while James’ injury is an obvious blow, the sort of spending that Todd Boehly has undertaken this summer should be able to account for individual absences.
Thomas Tuchel has a significant amount of goodwill at Stamford Bridge. He took the club to their second Champions League win in 2021 and was a credit to his club throughout the first half of this year, when the sudden change in their circumstances – and the reasons for it – made for a period during which how the coach expressed himself when speaking publicly mattered. There was little surprise when the new owners gave him a more pro-active role in their summer transfer policy.
And it’s absolutely too early to say that this policy has failed. They have certainly spent a lot of money, but whether it turns out to have been ‘too much’ is a question that will only be answered with the benefit of hindsight. The roster of names brought into Stamford Bridge this summer is as impressive as we should expect from a club that expects to be in the top three or four in the Premier League and the latter stages of the Champions League.
But change doesn’t usually happen overnight. It can take time for a substantially altered squad to gel, and Chelsea’s recent performances have suggested that this remains an issue. The bluntness in attacking positions could be because they’re still missing an Auba or a Gordon, or it might just be a matter of a midfield and attack that aren’t quite linking as well as they could – or likely will – do in the future yet.
The same goes for their defence. Kalidou Koulibaly, Wesley Fofana and Marc Cucurella are all talented players, but Chelsea’s need for defensive reorganisation has been obvious since the end of last season, with the departures of Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen for Real Madrid and Barcelona well signposted.
The problem is that modern football doesn’t have time for the patience required for such reorganisation. The schedule has been squeezed and squeezed to the point where there is barely even a lengthy break in the midsummer any more, and once the season starts, a 38-game league season, the Champions League group stages and the Carabao Cup mean that whatever the Chelsea players need to learn, they’ll have to do at least in part on the job.
All the money in the world can’t buy time. It’s the one commodity that Chelsea don’t have. And while there is no need for panic alarms to be sounded right now, the expenditure that has been put into the club this summer means that they cannot really afford a transitional season. Newcastle United and Arsenal both seem obviously improved. Manchester United have started winning games. Spurs are winning ugly. This season looks like it is going to be highly competitive and Chelsea still look a little parboiled, and that’s a place they can’t really afford to be.
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