Rehabilitation Process FC: Chelsea’s never-ending injury woes have made them a laughing stock

The Blues' season has been derailed by fitness issues, and Mauricio Pochettino is at a loss at how to resolve the crisis

When all is said and done, Chelsea will reflect on 2023-24 as a(nother) lost season. Although the Blues should doubtless sit higher than 12th in the Premier League table, even with the diminished tools head coach Mauricio Pochettino has had at his disposal, no fewer than 49 separate injuries have put paid to any semblance of a top-four challenge.

It has been a season-defining crisis, and even as we enter the final weeks of the campaign there is no end in sight, with the club rocked by the news that Romeo Lavia will play no further part having seen just 32 minutes of action, while there is still no timeline for the respective returns of Reece James and Christopher Nkunku - players who would have made a genuine difference to Chelsea's fortunes.

The Blues' injury woes have made them the butt of the joke, and their status as a laughing stock is set to be compounded by another mid-table finish. Something has to change, and fast.

Missing key men

Chelsea's troubles in the medical department this season started well before a ball was kicked in competitive action. With centre-back Benoit Badiashile already sidelined with a serious hamstring problem from the end of 2022-23, injury-plagued compatriot Wesley Fofana suffered dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) damage early in pre-season and was forced to undergo surgery.

Statement £52 million ($66m) summer signing Nkunku then damaged his knee ligaments on a questionable pitch in Chicago in early August during the summer tour of the United States, before a similar hamstring problem to Badiashile's befell defender Trevoh Chalobah.

Lavia - for whom Chelsea paid £58m ($74m) to relegated Southampton in August - arrived with an ankle injury, and there was no defined timeline for his return to action. Then, on the opening day of the season proper at home to Liverpool, newly-appointed captain James was forced off as Pochettino's best-laid plans crumbled before his eyes on day one of the new campaign.

Bad to worse

The latest updates on Lavia, James and Nkunku are a damning indictment of the situation and the club's apparent inability to find a solution.

Having seen just 32 minutes of action all season, which came in his long-awaited debut against Crystal Palace in December, Lavia - who played the most minutes of any Premier League player aged 20 or under the previous year - will not play again in 2023-24. The Belgian midfielder arrived with an injury before hurting his ankle in his recovery. Having finally returned to fitness during the festive period, he suffered what the club described as "a significant thigh injury" after coming off the bench to make his debut. Three months later, Chelsea confirmed in March that Lavia's season was over after a setback in his rehabilitation.

To compound Chelsea's misery, three days later, Pochettino revealed he was uncertain James would feature again this term following hamstring surgery in December, and he was also ambiguous about Nkunku's status. Like Lavia, the Frenchman had to wait until December to make his debut following that knee issue before suffering subsequent hip and hamstring problems.

When asked in a press conference whether James would be available again in 2023-24, the Argentine said: "No, I don’t know. It’s difficult to say something because I don’t want you to go ‘but, oh, [you said this]'. We will assess it week by week and we will see. We hope yes, we hope that he will be available for the end of the season." He added: "Christopher Nkunku, we don’t have precise game for return yet."

The list goes on

As if that raft of early, long-term losses was not enough, those absentees have been joined on the sidelines by a constant rotation of team-mates across the course of the season, with at least seven first-team players unavailable for every matchday so far.

Indeed, Chelsea are closing in on 50 separate injuries in 2023-24. With six weeks still to go, they seem destined to surpass their total of 48 for the entirety of the 2022-23 campaign, which was comfortably the worst record in the Premier League.

Left-backs Ben Chilwell and Marc Cucurella have seemingly taken it in turns to be injured; Carney Chukwuemeka has suffered a setback almost every time he has returned to action; Lesley Ugochukwu is yet to play a game in 2024; even goalkeeper Robert Sanchez is struggling to stay fit.

At the time of writing, Chelsea have no fewer than nine players out, with James, Lavia, Nkunku, Ugochukwu, Chukwuemeka, Chalobah, Fofana, Sanchez and Levi Colwill all sharing a crowded treatment room. Malo Gusto looks likely to join that lengthy list, having pulled up in the draw with Burnley. The situation has become farcical.

'Undergoing rehabilitation programme'

It is unfortunate, then, that Chelsea's season-long injury crisis has coincided with the internal decision to share brief updates on the fitness of the squad ahead of every matchday. They have made for pretty bleak reading each time, with fans growing increasingly frustrated that those out are ambiguously listed as "undergoing their rehabilitation programme", rather than disclosing the nature of the injury or a defined timeline for their return.

The regular 'injury update' is now greeted with dread by the Blues faithful, and of course it has become an obvious means for rival fans to ridicule Chelsea's never-ending woes - especially with the club wallowing in mid-table despite the £1 billion ($1.25bn) that the Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital ownership has spent on incoming transfers.

'We cannot explain it'

Rather alarmingly, Pochettino is apparently at a loss to explain the situation, and his habit of speaking in riddles leaves room for unhelpful ambiguity. Asked whether the unrelenting injury problems are being investigated ahead of the draw with Burnley, the coach said: "Yes but it’s not the moment to talk; we are professionals. No one can underestimate this organisation. We know why we have so many injuries, but we cannot explain it.

"We will maybe never be able to explain it, or maybe one day. But, at the moment, we have to be calm and strong. We have a really good organisation, and we are trying to fix all the problems and, of course, get the players back to being available."

Training methods under scrutiny

However, despite his defensiveness, the manager himself has come under scrutiny for his high-intensity approach to training. There is no doubt the Chelsea players needed whipping into shape in the summer, with fitness levels dipping alarmingly as a result of the bloated squad last season as Graham Potter and Frank Lampard failed to engage the whole group in sessions.

However, even though the club's fitness issues predate him, Pochettino's notoriously gruelling methods behind the scenes have been called into question as a possible root cause amid the current raft of absentees.

Asked recently whether Lavia's slow rehabilitation and setbacks could be a result of his regime, the head coach snapped back: "I don't know, you showed me, 'the methods of Pochettino are so hard', no? But he didn't train with me."

The manager will probably feel he is stuck in a vicious cycle, with players overloaded as they cover for those who are sidelined and then suffering injuries themselves.

Medical department upheaval

While Pochettino certainly cannot be above reproach, it seems there must be something amiss behind the scenes in terms of conditioning and rehabilitation. Chelsea's recurrent injury troubles last season prompted an overhaul of the medical department following an internal review, with 60 percent of the staff turned over in a ruthless move to find a solution, per Si Phillips.

At management level, their long-serving head of department and lead physio were relieved of their duties not long after the Boehly-Clearlake takeover the previous year, while the Blues' medical director stepped down of his own accord in January 2024. They are now hiring a new head of performance medicine to replace him.

The Blues' continued and indeed worsening woes reflect that those personnel changes have not gotten to the root of the issue, and it was reported in 2023 that some players were disappointed that medical professionals they trusted with their health had been axed.

The upheaval has clearly done little to help Chelsea's injury curse, nor their form. As is the case with so many other elements of their current predicament, significant blame must be attributed to the ownership group.

Something has to change

Speaking about irradicating the club's ongoing injury mess in the future, Pochettino said: "Of course that is the challenge. Next season, we want to be in a better position and not have too many injuries, to try to anticipate problems, and to start with a whole squad that is ready to compete and to train."

But, as Potter and others will attest to, this is a problem that transcends the manager, and as the situation gets gradually worse year on year, confidence will be dwindling that there is a solution on the horizon.

The new head of performance medicine will shoulder the bulk of the responsibility and will be expected to deliver on a reported wage of £250,000 per year, but as another season lies to waste with injuries to blame in no small part, Chelsea's powers that be must put their heads together or risk it becoming an inescapable cycle.

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