In defeat, Ten Hag offers Chelsea cause for optimism

When you have a season as bad as Chelsea’s, trying to keep finding reasons to remain optimistic about the future can be in short supply. So perhaps they should start looking at the opposition instead.

Chelsea’s fanbase provided another indication of just how downbeat they are about what has transpired in 2022-23 on Thursday night. As the team crumbled 4-1 at Old Trafford in front of a jubilant Manchester United crowd, a chant of ‘you’re nothing special, we lose every week’ came booming out from the away end. It was sung more as a statement of fact than with any great humour.

But it was only 12 months ago that Manchester United supporters were feeling pretty much the same as their Chelsea counterparts are now. Okay, unlike this sorry Chelsea outfit, Manchester United at least minimised the damage by qualifying for the Europa League, although they had to rely on West Ham picking up one point from their last two games to avoid dropping into the UEFA Conference League.

Manchester United had three coaches last season in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Michael Carrick (caretaker) and Ralf Rangnick (interim). It is only one less than Chelsea’s quartet this time around in Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter, Bruno Saltor and Frank Lampard.

They finished 16 points behind third-placed Chelsea and 35 behind champions Manchester City in 2022. They were in a mess just as Chelsea find themselves now. What has changed? Much of the credit surely has to go to finding the right coach in Erik Ten Hag and the Dutchman having a full pre-season to put plans in place.

Now could history repeat itself at Stamford Bridge? Mauricio Pochettino, who will be officially announced as Chelsea’s next permanent head coach soon, is highly regarded in the game too. He is not sitting around twiddling his thumbs. The former Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain coach has already begun discussing ideas, transfer targets and player sales with club staff.

Now given how poor Chelsea have been and the fact confidence among the players is at rock bottom, no one should be under any illusion that this is a quick fix. But it has not been the case for Ten Hag during this campaign either. The Dutchman has experienced many bumps along the way including losing his first two games, getting hammered 6-3 and 7-0 by rivals Manchester City and Liverpool respectively, as well as being knocked out of the Europa League by Sevilla.

But he always found a way to bounce back. The list of positives far outweighs the negatives. There is an EFL Cup trophy in the cabinet, plus the chance to add an FA Cup alongside it on June 3. Victory over Chelsea also secured a top-four finish and qualification for the Champions League.

No one will dispute Ten Hag’s first year on the job has been a success.

Lampard was wary, when asked by The Athletic, to make it sound as if Pochettino can resurrect Chelsea in the same way Ten Hag has Manchester United from the outset. He said: “I think it’s really difficult to compare. They’ve got fantastic players. (Marcus) Rashford must have scored 30 goals this year or something, Raphael Varane’s experience at the back, Bruno Fernandes who has been here and we know the level of player he is. You can go through their team and find a real stability still within their team. You can bring Casemiro in for his instant experience. There are a lot of factors and not just the manager the club.

“Of course we should be optimistic, we should look for pluses, we should look for the future being more positive than what it’s been this season, that’s clear. I don’t think it’s one to compare because every situation is different and I think we have to go step by step to look at the big picture rather than just a new manager will change this.”

Lampard is right to flag the player comparison and the level of experience Ten Hag has been able to call upon. But Pochettino is still inheriting a group of highly fancied internationals and/or some diamonds in the rough to work with already.

Chelsea’s starting XI at Old Trafford was an example of that. It was their youngest to appear in a Premier League game at an average of 23 years and 238 days per player. Those that shone included Enzo Fernandez, Lewis Hall, Noni Madueke and Carney Chukwuemeka, good young talent for Pochettino to work with.

Ten Hag showed with strong man-management, which included the bold call to first drop and then offload Cristiano Ronaldo, that you can change the dynamic and mood at a club, something Lampard acknowledges.

He continued: “I’m not taking anything away from the job that Erik has done, or any top manager because you know that is part of it. At the same time there has to be basics, there has to be fundamentals. I remember when Ten Hag came at the start of the season, people were talking about his discipline, his fines, his laws, Ronaldo and this situation.

“He set the standard and the tone of how you go forward. That has nothing to do with the individual, that comes after the event. I think those things are probably where the club had a positive upturn and then sometimes the players and a good structure will do the rest for you.”

Chelsea still have one fixture to play before writing off this season, to forget it once and for all. There is a possibility they will suffer the ignominy of dropping to 14th and finishing the bottom London club in the top division.

Whatever happens, there will certainly be a long way back regardless. But Ten Hag’s level of impact at Manchester United should provide hope for all those connected to Chelsea that Pochettino can do the same.

(Photo: Chris Lee – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

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