When Mauricio Pochettino signs his contract to become the new Chelsea manager this week, his first task will be to assess the playing staff and see whether they are good enough to challenge for honours next season.
Spoiler alert – they are not.
It has been a chaotic year at Stamford Bridge, starting with UK government sanctions against Roman Abramovich, which led to a takeover by a Todd Boehly-led consortium, then a summer of extravagent spending followed by even more madness in the transfer market in January.
Two full-time managers, Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter have been sacked, the interim boss Frank Lampard has failed to get a tune out of this dysfunctional unit, and now a team that were European and World Champions two years ago are on course to finish in the bottom half of the Premier League.
It is a mess. The squad is too large to manage effectively, most of the multiple new arrivals have failed to settle in, and there is a lot of deadwood that needs to be cut adrift.
When Pochettino took over at Tottenham in 2014, he had also inherited a bloated, underperforming squad and it took him a season before he settled on a group that could challenge for the Premier League and Champions League, ending up runners-up in each competition.
Two years earlier, Tottenham had sold Gareth Bale for almost £100 million and bought a bunch of big names who mostly failed. Pochettino’s masterstroke was to offload the likes of Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue and Vlad Chiriches, and bring through hungry young players such as Dele Alli, Ryan Mason and Harry Kane.
Can he do the same at Chelsea? They certainly have plenty of big names that have proved to be expensive mistakes, including Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Romelu Lukaku.
They also have invested heavily in their academy over the years, and ought to have a production line of brilliant young talent ready to step in with a point to prove, as Kane and Co did at Spurs.
But there are problems in that area. Mason Mount and Reece James have been the standout stars of the academy in recent years, but both are injury-prone and Mount is in a contract dispute. He may be one of many youngsters to be sold in order to facilitate new signings.
Lewis Hall is another young star in the making and was drafted in to face Nottingham Forest, the 18-year-old central midfielder deployed at left-back because of injuries to Ben Chilwell and Marc Cucurella. Trevoh Chalobah played on the right, and was Chelsea’s best player in a 2-2 draw which brought more booing from home supporters.
Afterwards a downbeat Lampard bemoaned his side’s sloppy defending but spoke positively about Hall and Chalobah, suggesting he would like to give more of his young players a chance in the final three games of the season. The problem is that they are against Manchester City, United and Newcastle, all top four sides who could humiliate Chelsea on current form.
“Those younger players might be looked at for a few games but I have to put out a strong side and get results. They have to compete to earn their chance, show it in training, which is what Lewis did,” Lampard said.
“Trevoh is a delight to work with, he’s low maintenance and comes in every day with enthusiasm and a willingness to do what you want. He’s one of the ‘wins’ since I came back here. He’s a hig level player who is going to get better.”
By contrast, Lampard hinted that some of his more experienced players do not show the same attitude. “It comes back to how people sometimes train through the week and what they show you.
“I don’t think you can hold your head up among the squad if people are not training (well enough) to make you put them in the team. If you put them in it’s not a gift. Players have to earn it.”
Pochettino may also be without N’Golo Kante, one of the world’s best midfielders over the past seven years but an injury-prone player whose contract expires next month. Kante returned from long-term injury only last month but is crocked again and Lampard says Boehly and Behdad Egbahli have to decide on his future. “That is a club question.”