Mauricio Pochettino was able to celebrate his first game in charge of Chelsea with a victory after watching his youthful side thrash Wrexham 5-0 at the Kenan Memorial Stadium. The Argentinian boss named his first starting lineup for their pre-season opener against the newly-promoted League Two side, who have increased their following in North America due to the popularity of owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, and it proved to be a positive display from his young side.
Many would have expected Pochettino to line up with his star names in North Carolina after taking a strong squad Stateside. Instead, he opted to give the youth a chance to shine, with his first Chelsea starting XI boasting an average age of just 19. Goalkeeper Jamie Cumming, at 23, was the third-oldest player on the pitch from the start in the blue shirt.
And the kids proved to be just the ticket for the west London side as they strolled to a comfortable victory Stateside over the League Two new boys, as Ian Maatsen, Conor Gallagher, Christopher Nkunku and Ben Chilwell scored in an easy win.
Express Sport looks at which four Chelsea players impressed Pochettino in their first pre-season outing…
It took just three minutes for the Blues to take the lead in Chapel Hill and while some players started sluggishly in the sizzling 30-degree temperatures, Ian Maatsen raced out of the blocks. The full-back, deployed as a winger in the 4-2-3-1 setup, ran onto a pass from new signing Nicolas Jackson and slid the ball underneath Ben Foster.
If this was the football that Pochettino had demanded from his players, he would have been happy with the end product. His young crop were zipping passes into the feet, forming triangles to retain possession and producing one-touch football in tight areas of the pitch.
Minutes before half-time, Chelsea doubled their lead and it was the same combination again, with Maatsen exchanging a slick one-two with the target man Jackson, before the 21-year-old placed his finish into the bottom corner. He looked confident and assured on the ball, as well as defensively solid.
On this form, it’s no wonder Vincent Kompany is desperate to bring the 21-year-old back to Turf Moor next season. Chelsea are blessed with left-backs, but further forward, Maatsen could be troubling the likes of Mykhaylo Mudryk with more lethal displays of this kind.
Just three minutes into his debut, the Senegalese picked the ball up from Diego Moreira and burst through the middle, beating one man before unselfishly laying off to Ian Maatsen, who tucked away underneath Ben Foster.
Throughout the half, the 21-year-old made some well-timed and intelligent runs in behind Ben Tozer but he wasn’t spotted by his team-mates. But Pochettino would have noticed – and appreciated – the work put in by the £35million signing from Villarreal.
As the half went on, it became evident exactly why Chelsea scouts were impressed with Jackson. A striker with height, power and precision, his blistering pace nearly caught the Wrexham defence out on a number of occasions – and with more match sharpness, there will be some Premier League defenders fearing the worst going up against the promising striker.
While his midfield partner Andrey Santos was happy to sit and keep the ball moving in the holding role, Cesare Casadei – the player of the tournament at the Under-20 World Cup – was keen to make an impression and his prolonged presence on the pitch suggested he had.
Despite his lanky frame, the Italian was able to glide past the opposition with close dribbling and played his way out of trouble on a number of occasions. At other times, he was the man who became the third centre-back as Malo Gusto surged forward down the right flank in the style of Reece James.
With four midfielders departing the club this summer, Pochettino might have been looking for one of his youngsters to step up. And Casadei proved he is not afraid to be trusted to carry out his gameplan, dropping deep between the centre-backs in the ‘quarterback’ role to dictate the tempo. And that will give Pochettino a boost as the club continue their talks to sign Moises Caicedo, knowing he has an able youngster ready to step in.
Is it any wonder Chelsea paid the best part of £26m to land Gusto when there are valid question marks about Reece James’ long-term fitness? Either way, it looks like a smart buy if the 20-year-old can regularly deliver energetic performances of this kind.
Even this early in pre-season, the Frenchman showed a willingness to run up and down the flank, as well as the odd jink inside the midfield areas. In some ways, Chelsea have a carbon copy of their Cobham favourite.
With James facing a spell out due to a flare up of his knee problem, Gusto could be the starting right-back under Pochettino against Liverpool. There will be tougher tests than Wrexham to come, but his display would have earned the plaudits from his boss after an all-action display.