Pochettino looks past James mistake and stakes future on his ‘Chelsea DNA’ | Chelsea
It was the moment when Reece James simply could not handle the frustration. Named by Mauricio Pochettino as the Chelsea captain, James had not played since the opening weekend draw with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge when he injured a hamstring. Now, he seethed from the sideline as his team lost 1-0 at home to Aston Villa, a game in which his replacement, Malo Gusto, was controversially sent off.
It was 24 September, Chelsea’s second home Premier League defeat on the spin after the one against Nottingham Forest and they were booed off again. James would lose his cool with an official in the tunnel and, when a Football Association charge was announced three days later for abusive conduct, it felt like only a matter of time before he was given a one-match ban.
It did not come in time for Chelsea’s visit to Fulham on 2 October, when James was still injured. That would have been too simple. Rather for their next game at Burnley on 7 October when, according to Pochettino, James was back in contention for selection.
The 23-year-old was not called up by England for the internationals over this past window and the idea was that he would work to be ready for Saturday’s home derby against Arsenal. And yet there have been stories of an injury setback, even that he may need surgery to get to the root of his hamstring issues.
Pochettino bustled his way through those questions on Friday and the best read on James’s status was that he would be back in the squad for Arsenal, most likely as a substitute. Gusto is available again after his own suspension. “It [James’s hamstring] is much better,” Pochettino said. “He is progressing well, still not at his best, 100%. But maybe to help the team at some point …. maybe, he is close to be there.”
It has not been straightforward and it seems to remain that way. Yet there were two takeaways from Pochettino on James – with a common thread running through them. First, James could be like a coiled spring when he finally returns to action. And second, Pochettino was in no mood to criticise him for his indiscipline. On the contrary. He was happier to talk up James’s passion.
“It’s part of the business,” Pochettino said. “He was upset about the situation [against Villa] and then you need to understand that he is so committed to this project from the beginning. He feels really bad because he cannot help the team [because of his injury].
“He made a mistake, we all make them and he was really sorry about it. I think he’s not going to repeat the situation. This is a young guy that wants to play football. He was frustrated and he made a mistake. That’s it. Finish.”
Pochettino made James his captain because of “his personality, his leadership, the respect he has from the club and his teammates … he has Chelsea DNA”. He described him as an appointment “for the present and the future – we cannot change captain every season, every six months”.
It is also easy to imagine that Pochettino sees something of himself in James; the self-belief, the running on the emotions of a match day. Pochettino made the point that he had got himself booked for dissent during the Burnley game. And then there is his connection with the Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta; there are similarities, albeit this relationship is rather deeper, going back to their time together as players at Paris Saint-Germain.
There is a reason why Pochettino calls Arteta “family”. They joined PSG at the same time, early 2001; Pochettino was 28, Arteta 18. They hit it off immediately, Pochettino wowed by Arteta’s charisma and his reading of the game. “Already, he was a coach,” Pochettino said, and he has no qualms with what some perceive as Arteta’s histrionic touchline behaviour.
“It’s how you are and about your character,” Pochettino said. “He feels football. I am 51 and still sometimes I feel that decisions are no good or unfair. You are competitive. Like with Mikel or myself or other coaches that played football, in our minds, we still believe we can play. Still, we have the animal instinct. We cannot be thinkers.”
For Pochettino, it must be about channeling the emotion in the right way and not suppressing it. More broadly, he is in a better place after the wins at Fulham and Burnley, which followed the Carabao Cup victory over Brighton on the day that James was charged.
Arsenal represent an acid test of the progress and the start of a daunting run in the league; after them, Chelsea face Brentford, Tottenham, Manchester City, Newcastle, Brighton and Manchester United. Pochettino, though, pushed back against the notion that he was seeking a first statement win at the club, something to ignite his tenure. All he wants are points to drive his team up from 11th in the table.
Pochettino has appeared mired in a selection crisis since his arrival at Chelsea; James only one element of it and he will be without seven others through injury against Arsenal.
“The moment we have all the squad at a high level and fit, we can say: ‘OK, we are going to Arsenal, Manchester City and we are going to beat you.’ At the moment, with the circumstances, I don’t think this game is going to be a statement to say: ‘Be careful, Chelsea is coming,’ or something like this.”