NEWCASTLE — Football has a short memory if any at all. The atmosphere around Chelsea has been refreshingly abuzz the past few weeks after wild, frenetic games against Tottenham and Manchester City, but Saturday’s punishing 4-1 defeat at Newcastle United’s fortress, St. James’ Park, made clear who Chelsea really are: A team still very much in progress; a team still lacking much of the desired mettle.
“We were soft in every single challenge,” a raging Mauricio Pochettino said. We did not compete in every single challenge. We did not show we were playing for something important.
“That is what makes me angry and disappointed. We need to learn in these games, which makes me very, very, very, very angry because we have to show more personality and character.”
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Pochettino, himself suspended for this match, watched from high in the stands and saw his reservations about his Chelsea side laid bare as this latest test of maturity delivered a resounding answer.
On an almost weekly basis, the Argentine manager has challenged his young team to grow up this season, to show the kind of resoluteness and ruthlessness that defines trophy-winning sides. He has spoken about the need for patience and consistency. And yet, in a game where Chelsea conceded four, failed to dictate the game, and saw their captain Reece James sent off, the match quickly became a week to forget.
“We cannot miss this kind of opportunity to show our best. We came from Tottenham and City, and all around the world people praise Chelsea,” Pochettino said.
“[This] was our worst game of the season. It was tough to be in the stands. We cannot complain about the result, we did not read the game from the beginning,” he added.
This was always going to be a stiff test. One of Eddie Howe’s signature achievements since arriving at Newcastle in November 2021 has been transforming the club’s home form, where only Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City have beaten them in the Premier League since then, and where Newcastle have now won five on the bounce — the four previous coming without conceding.
Pochettino would have shook his head, then, when he saw Newcastle striker Alexander Isak open the scoring after 15 minutes when he found a gaping pocket of space in the Chelsea box before slotting home. The fact that defender Marc Cucurella allowed it to happen by being caught playing Isak onside was a sign of things to come.
Chelsea showed discipline but little fight, and other errors were evident and were fortunate to go unpunished. Thiago Silva — who set a new record as Chelsea’s oldest-ever outfield player on Saturday — tried to scoop-turn opposing winger Anthony Gordon from his own corner flag before comically slipping over and, as he did so, gifted Newcastle a corner that Joelinton should have converted.
Conor Gallagher was gifted the ball on the edge of the box after a mistake from goalkeeper Nick Pope, but he lost his composure and dragged a feeble shot wide. And there was James, who had a small verbal spat with one of the Newcastle coaching staff at a free kick next to the touchline before sloppily passing straight to Gordon, who kickstarted a move that could easily have ended in a Newcastle goal. The signs were all there at half-time, even if the score line did not reflect it.
It was a stroke of magic from Raheem Sterling from a beautifully floated free-kick that meant the scores remained level at the break. The test was still on.
If the first half left questions remaining, though, then the second half answered them. Soon, Pochettino was pictured in the stands with his head in his hands as Chelsea went behind again on the hour mark from a Jamaal Lascelles header. Chelsea’s task then called for a cool head, but, seconds after the restart, Silva miss-controlled a soft backpass and allowed Joelinton in to easily add Newcastle’s third.
“It’s about being mature,” Pochettino said. “You cannot care about the opponent. You need to go and compete at your best. Today, we did not show it.”
A red card for Chelsea captain James 10 minutes later ended any doubt over the result. He was dismissed with a second yellow card for carelessly tripping Gordon, who gleefully netted Newcastle’s fourth late on. Game over.
Chelsea now find themselves in familiar territory, potentially facing another season spent in the middle of the Premier League as they slip to 10th place.
Newcastle, in comparison, will take heart from the result. The club has faced something of an injury crisis with 13 players registered as unavailable which pushed Eddie Howe to name three goalkeepers on the bench. However, the win and the message it sends will give them confidence they can secure the fifth-place finish they will (likely) need to secure Champions League football for another season.
Saturday’s result won’t give a lasting feeling, though. Newcastle need only look at their opponents Chelsea to know football has a short memory.