Mauricio Pochettino urged his Chelsea players to free themselves of the burden of needing to reach the Carabao Cup final and instead prioritise enjoying Tuesday’s semi-final first leg against Middlesbrough.
The game at the Riverside could see Pochettino’s team put one foot in the club’s first major final since 2021 and place them on course to crown the manager’s first season in charge with silverware.
Chelsea have endured a disjointed six months since the Argentinian was appointed, with an expensively-assembled squad taking longer than hoped to acclimatise to new surroundings.
Pochettino fielded the club’s youngest-ever Premier League starting XI during the 2-1 home win against Crystal Palace in December, with an average age of just over 23, and a lack of senior experience has seemingly been a factor in the team being slow to find its groove.
Michael Carrick’s Boro are currently 12th in the Championship, two places above Preston who lost 4-0 at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup third round on Saturday.
Chelsea were slow to ignite against second-tier opposition, taking until the 58th minute to break the deadlock after a solid first half that yielded few chances.
Pochettino warned against a similarly languid start on Tuesday night, but gave his young side licence to find the joy in the occasion.
“The most important thing is we need to enjoy the semi-final, not to feel like it’s compulsory for us to be in the final,” he said. “Football is not about that. You cannot play if you feel pressure and you don’t feel fresh in your mind.
“If you feel it’s compulsory (to win), always with some restriction – you need to take the semi-final as a great opportunity to enjoy playing football, performing well, running, being aggressive, being all together. Not to feel it’s compulsory to go to the final. You start to limit yourself.”
Chelsea have won four of their last five games in all competitions including the penalty shoot-out victory against Newcastle in December that set up Tuesday’s meeting on Teesside.
Pochettino hopes victory in the Carabao Cup final on February 25 could help engineer the chemistry the club need in order to succeed.
“One of the most important things is to create this chemistry between us (club staff),” he said. “We are maybe 120 people (at the club) seeing us every single day, it’s so important to work well together.
“And then the players, they need to trust. Always it’s a process. When there are so many new players on the team, in some ways it’s good, but it’s also about creating a chemistry. That is not easy. We need time.
“We don’t know if it’s two or three months, or six months or one season.
“We need to feel the trust, feel the confidence, to care for your team-mate. You are going to be there if something goes wrong.”
Pochettino added he does not see his apparent lack of aggression in the dugout or before the media as a problem as he seeks to improve his team’s competitiveness.
“One (important) thing is to be polite, empathise with people,” he said. “I don’t need to be aggressive. Why do I need to be aggressive? I don’t need to act.
“How you are as a coach, you translate your stamina, translate the way you want to play, you are aggressive during training sessions, in the way you approach players in the meetings. It doesn’t mean that after, outside, you have to be the same way.”