Chelsea’s scattergun transfer strategy under Todd Boehly’s ownership has yielded more misses than hits so far but one man is proving to be a success.
Malo Gusto may not have anticipated getting so much game time in his first season in west London but Reece James’s ongoing injury problems have given the £30m signing from Lyon ample opportunities. On the whole he has acquitted himself extremely well.
Had Conor Gallagher not popped up with a dramatic added-time winner at Selhurst Park on Monday night, Mauricio Pochettino would probably have considered Gusto’s performance to be the main positive to take from what would have been another disappointing Premier League result.
Chelsea had 80 per cent of the ball in the first half against Crystal Palace but didn’t seem to have too many ideas as to what to do with it, other than funnel it out to Gusto on the right wing and hope he could pick someone out. Gusto had 79 touches in the first-half, more than any other player. Ben Chilwell on the opposite side had 28 touches fewer.
Gusto ended up with 132 touches in total (second only to Enzo Fernandez), completed 92 per cent of his passes, won all four of his attempted tackles and created two chances in an eye-catching all-round display.
Perhaps Chelsea’s gameplan was to take advantage of Marc Guehi’s absence in the Palace backline by slinging crosses into the box. Having set up Nicolas Jackson to score at Villa Park last week with a sumptuous ball in, Gusto was the obvious player to take on such responsibility.
In the first-half Gusto’s dangerous deliveries were comfortably dealt with by Palace’s backline with Chelsea’s forwards too often caught on their heels.
Evidently, Pochettino had a word with them at half-time. From their first attack of the second half Chelsea drew level with Gallagher finishing smartly from Gusto’s intelligent cut-back.
It was a cross pitched into a position of maximum opportunity with Gallagher one of three players, along with Jackson and Christopher Nkunku darting towards the penalty spot, as Cole Palmer and Chilwell also filled the box.
This kind of goal is prominent in the Pochettino playbook. At Spurs he earned the nickname “the full-back whisperer” for revitalising the stalling careers of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose and unlocking their attacking potential. Plenty of goals scored by Harry Kane and Dele Alli in the peak Pochettino years came from situations like the one above.
Clearly for that strategy to work Pochettino’s full-backs need to be fit enough to rampage up and down the wing and have the composure and technical quality to create chances in the final third. Gusto certainly appears to tick both boxes, although Pochettino acknowledged that he was substituted late on due to fatigue.
Gusto’s assist for Gallagher was his fourth in the Premier League this season which puts him fifth among all defenders in the division and each of those above him have played at least 500 minutes more. Meanwhile, only Cole Palmer has set up more goals (with six) among Chelsea’s players and two of those came in added time at Selhurst Park.
Considering Gusto won’t turn 21 until mid-May, Pochettino will be extremely encouraged by his work in the final third, although there is plenty still to work on in his own third. The Frenchman is prone to making rash decisions and reckless challenges, picking up five yellow cards and one red in 17 Premier League appearances.
Pochettino will be confident that he can iron out those kinks in Gusto’s game, though, given his track record at improving young full-backs, with Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier others to benefit from his coaching.
His speedy adaptation at Stamford Bridge is timely given James’s fitness issues have been a major problem for Chelsea over the past couple of years. The influential right-back, who was appointed club captain by Pochettino last summer, has only managed to play 33 of the club’s 83 matches since the start of last season due to various injuries.
The 24-year-old has been particularly plagued by hamstring issues and will hope that the surgery he had at the end of December will help him come back stronger than before.
Previously, James has been rushed back too soon given the lack of comparable alternatives in the squad, but Gusto’s development means he can be eased back in more gently next time.
At long last Chelsea have not only an adequate replacement for their club captain when he’s not available but a genuine rival when he is. Boehly and co have received plenty of criticism for many of their signings since 2022, but it appears as though they struck gold with Gusto.