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Chelsea: What’s top of Enzo Maresca’s in-tray with Leicester boss set to replace

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Many will point to Chelsea’s unbeaten final six games of the season as showing significant signs of life. Just when rivals began dropping off – Tottenham lost five of their last eight fixtures – the Blues finally started to click.

Things were not perfect. A 5-0 thrashing at Arsenal in mid-April confirmed that, but there were small tokens of progress, enough to forgive a few of Mauricio Pochettino’s missteps in the hope that better times were to follow.

But a mere 48 hours after Chelsea beat Bournemouth on the final day to finish sixth, restoring European football and a bit of pride to west London, Pochettino was gone.

The split was reported as amicable, maintaining a level of mutual respect and regard – very Gwyneth Paltrow. When the actress split from Coldplay singer Chris Martin in 2014, she famously called it a “conscious uncoupling” – and this had all the same hallmarks.

But the idea of a happy divorce exists much less in reality than it does in Hollywood.

Kaveh On Chelsea/ Mauricio Pochettino
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Mauricio Pochettino left Chelsea by mutual consent after 12 months in charge

Issues between Pochettino and the hierarchy at Stamford Bridge had been bubbling beneath the surface for months, and tensions were more fraught than they outwardly appeared. While the separation might have been mutually agreed, it was rooted in a fundamental misalignment of values.

Pochettino had his own methods and they did not fit within the framework of a club-imposed structure, one that insisted upon the use of a set-piece specialist and a midfield pairing of Moises Caicedo and Enzo Fernandez – two of Chelsea’s serial under-performers for much of the season.

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A year on, the club is intent on championing a ‘project’ manager, the kind where patience and perseverance is required – some might argue that Pochettino was, for all intents and purposes, exactly that.

Nevertheless, the man in the recently vacated hot seat is now set to be Enzo Maresca, an ambitious young coach built in the Pep Guardiola mould – albeit with no Premier League (or any top league) experience as a head coach.

Having made the bold, if a little rash, decision to step Pochettino down, though, Chelsea are ripe for a restart, and what better pool to pluck from than the up-and-coming class of Guardiola graduates. Clearly, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal rebrand has not gone unnoticed.

Enzo Maresca
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Leicester won the Championship under Enzo Maresca last season, earning promotion to the Premier League

Maresca will become the sixth manager, if you count a brief engagement with Bruno Saltor, to be appointed in the Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital era. And so the cycle starts again. Question is, why should the selection of unproven Maresca be any different from those that have gone before him?

Sky Sports analyses the key areas of focus for the incoming Italian…

Top transfer targets – and a goalkeeper

Head coach almost in the bag, Chelsea’s attention now turns to improving Maresca’s squad. Despite signing two goalkeepers last summer, the Blues want a new No 1 – unsurprising given Djordje Petrovic’s frailties.

The departure of Thiago Silva necessitates the signing of a new centre-back. Tosin Adarabioyo, who is out of contract at Fulham, has been offered a deal but is also wanted by Newcastle.

Reece James and Ben Chilwell’s never-ending injury issues could lead Chelsea to target new full-backs, while their search for a proven No 9 continues – despite spending a combined £84m on forwards Nicolas Jackson and Christopher Nkunku last summer.

Jackson showed flashes of promise during his debut season – scoring 14 goals in 31 starts – but is not the dependable target man Chelsea have craved since the departure of Diego Costa back in 2017.

The Boehly-Clearlake ownership has sanctioned more than £1bn of transfer spending since arriving two years ago. Expect that to continue.

More money, more problems?

The owners have successfully jettisoned many of the expensive contracts they inherited but two remain unresolved – Romelu Lukaku and Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Lukaku is under contract until 2026 and Arrizabalaga has just 12 months remaining. Both spent the entirety of last season on loan at Roma and Real Madrid respectively, but have now returned to Stamford Bridge, where they will be drawing vast wages. Finding a buyer for either will be tough.

Also coming back to west London are Ian Maatsen and Armando Broja. Borussia Dortmund are said to be keen to retain Maatsen, who is set to feature in the Champions League final on Saturday, but Broja struggled to make an impact at Fulham.

As homegrown players, selling either would raise valuable funds to comply with Profitability and Sustainability Rules (PSR).

Romelu Lukaku Takes On John Stones
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Romelu Lukaku returns to Chelsea this summer – but will he play for the club again?

The future of Omari Hutchinson also remains in the balance. After helping Ipswich to promotion to the Premier League, Chelsea could cash in on reported interest in the winger from around Europe.

While Chelsea are not understood to be under pressure to raise funds before the June 30 PSR deadline, Conor Gallagher’s future still needs addressing. Despite captaining the side more than any other player this season, the midfielder shows no signs of extending a contract that has just one year left to run.

Questions over whether Gallagher fits into Maresca’s possession-obsessed style also remain.

Address the youth imbalance

Immaturity undermined Pochettino’s authority during his time in charge.

The final three months of his reign – losing only one of their final 15 league games – was indicative of potential but it’s clear such a young squad requires an injection of experience and leadership.

One of Pochettino’s tetchier press conferences came after a 6-0 home win over Everton, when the head coach had to deal with the fall-out of an on-pitch row between players after Jackson and Noni Madueke clashed over a penalty.

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Highlights from the Premier League match between Chelsea and Everton, with Cole Palmer’s four-goal haul overshadowed by a penalty row between his team-mates

“I’m so upset,” Pochettino told Sky Sports, despite seeing his side record the biggest win of his tenure. “I’m not going to accept this kind of situation. I will be very strong. I promise it’s not going to happen again. It’s a shame and unacceptable.”

The Blues had the youngest average starting XI in the division this season – despite 39-year-old Thiago Silva starting 27 games. Replacing him will be key – they conceded eight more goals than in any previous Premier League campaign.

And yet, reliance on youth is no accident. Since the takeover, Chelsea have signed 33 players. Only three have been over the age of 25 – and of them, only Raheem Sterling remains at the club.

The strategy is clear: invest in a group of young players that will mature and improve together. The hope is they will eventually form the basis of the next great Chelsea side. Maresca will know he must buy into this approach.

Will Maresca get a say?

Pochettino was never completely comfortable operating within Chelsea’s rigid structure – one that requires the head coach to cede power to Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart, the co-sporting directors, who led the process to terminate Pochettino and pursue Maresca in double-quick time.

Pochettino spoke in veiled terms about a perceived lack of scrutiny placed upon those above him in April, saying: “I don’t have the key of the club. I don’t take all the decisions here.

“If this is not my decision you need to judge me and judge him in his job, no? Because it’s not my direct responsibility.”

That effusion contributed significantly to the Argentine’s downfall.

Ultimately, though, big decisions are taken by the owners – Boehly, plus Behdad Eghbali and Jose Feliciano of Clearlake.

Despite Boehly appointing himself interim sporting director during their first transfer window, Eghbali has emerged as the club’s controlling force, the one who holds the power, while Winstanley and Stewart have been entrusted with the day-to-day.

The co-sporting directors have now placed their faith in Maresca to deliver results, but if, like Pochettino and Potter, he falls by the wayside, the spotlight is likely to be thrust on their strategic decision-making like never before.