The World Cup arrived at an opportune moment for Chelsea and Graham Potter. It meant the 2022/23 club campaign was put on pause and the Blues would have five weeks to refresh and regroup after a concerning and disappointing run of results in the Premier League.
“We have to use it as a positive,” said Potter of the break following Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United. “We’ll get a couple of players back [from injury] and we can use the time to refocus, reflect and get ready for the second half of the season. There’s a lot of football to play, and a lot of learning has happened over the last eight weeks. So we’ll have to use the break as positively as we can.”
Given the vast number of Chelsea players selected to represent their countries at the tournament in Qatar, there was little point in Potter spending hours and hours on the training pitches at Cobham. It’s why those players who didn’t receive international call-ups – and who weren’t undertaking recovery work – were given a couple of weeks off to recharge.
It will be later this week that a makeshift Chelsea first-team group returns to Cobham. The Blues will then fly out to Abu Dhabi on Sunday for a warm-weather training camp, which will include a friendly match against Premier League rivals Aston Villa for the CBF | Al Wahda Challenge Cup on December 11.
That game will provide several players with an opportunity to rebuild match sharpness and – hopefully for those of a Chelsea persuasion – a much-needed confidence boost. And here, we pick out four players who will be looking to make a point in the dessert sun against Villa.
After two years as deputy to Edouard Mendy, Kepa regained his starting role in the Chelsea goal and produced a string of impressive performances. The standout was undoubtedly against Aston Villa in October, a game in which the Spaniard made two outlandishly good saves to ensure the Blues kept a clean sheet.
But just at the point that Kepa had seemingly reasserted himself as Chelsea’s No.1 goalkeeper, he suffered an injury against Brighton and Hove Albion and missed the final four games prior to the World Cup break. “He’s got to take it day by day,” said Potter. “It’s a tear in his plantar fascia, so depending on how he responds to pain and how comfortable he feels. At the moment, it’s not so positive.”
Such is the unpredictable nature of Kepa’s injury, no return date was set. However, the World Cup break will have at least given him an opportunity to undertake recovery work and if he is able to return to match action in Abu Dhabi against Aston Villa, he will want to reproduce his heroics from Villa Park and send a timely reminder to Potter.
Chelsea spent big money to bring in Cucurella from Brighton in the summer, although the £62million fee was somewhat inflated by the late decision to only allow Levi Colwill to join the Seagulls on loan rather than permanently as previously discussed during the negotiations.
With Ben Chilwell still returning from a knee ligament injury, competition at left wing-back was required and Cucurella started well with a strong cameo against Everton and then an impressive full debut at home to Tottenham Hotspur. His form has steadily declined since, however.
Part of the reason for that is the role Cucurella has been asked to play under Potter, who he spent last season working under at the Amex Stadium. With Wesley Fofana a long-term absentee and Kalidou Koulibaly also absent for a spell due to injury, the Spaniard filled in regularly on the left of Chelsea’s back three.
It’s a role Cucurella played on occasion at Brighton but one he has struggled in with Chelsea. He will hope that come to the restart of the campaign, the Blues’ injury woes will have eased and he can begin to reassert himself as a genuine option at full-back or wing-back.
The winger was the Development Squad’s standout performer during the first half of the season. Hutchinson arrived from Arsenal in the summer transfer window and was expected to leave on loan. However, a switch to Championship club Reading didn’t come to fruition and he remained at Cobham.
That has benefitted Chelsea as the 19-year-old has proved himself a cut above Premier League 2 level. Hutchinson has netted five times and claimed a further four assists in eleven matches. And in the EFL Trophy, he scored and created two goals in the 3-2 victory over Leyton Orient.
Hutchinson’s form has resulted in first-team exposure: he was an unused substitute for the disappointing defeat to Brighton in the Premier League and also the Carabao Cup loss against Man City. The teenager is expected to remain part of the senior group for the trip to Abu Dhabi.
And with Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz, Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling all at the World Cup, Hutchinson will have an opportunity to catch the eye of Potter and his staff and make an impression in the friendly against Aston Villa.
The decision to sign Aubameyang, who celebrated his 33rd birthday in June, felt like one to appease Thomas Tuchel in the final hours of the summer transfer window. Yet that theory quickly went out of the window with the German coach parting ways with Chelsea less than a week after deadline day.
“It’s always sad when someone leaves the club and obviously, I only saw him for a few days,” Aubameyang explained in September soon after arriving at Stamford Bridge. “But when you play football, you have to adapt very quickly to some moments in the season, this can happen.”
Any fears as to how Aubameyang would react to Tuchel’s sacking were assuaged with his early form under Potter; the forward struck three times in as many games and appeared to have added a clinical edge to the Chelsea frontline. However, the goals subsequently dried up and Aubameyang became a peripheral figure in games.
That culminated in the former Gabon international having just eight touches in 64 minutes against former club Arsenal, who defeated Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge shortly before the World Cup break. Aubameyang didn’t feature in either of the two following matches and will want to rediscover his goalscoring touch against Villa.