Chelsea just about squeezed three points from their festive fixture against Crystal Palace to leave the club perhaps able to start looking up, towards the teams in European qualification places, rather than back down the Premier League table.
They have a favourable run between now and the end of January — Luton away and Fulham at home in the league, Middlesbrough home and away in the League Cup, Preston at home in the FA Cup — that could propel the team into a run of form that enables them to salvage a frustrating season.
But early 2024 will be a defining period where key decisions will determine whether it is a second successive season of disappointment for the Todd Boehly reign, or whether it ends up displaying the promising signs of what is to come under manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Earlier in the season, Pochettino had to come out and warn his young squad that they needed to grow up and cut out the needless bookings so he could add some kind of consistency and stability to his erratic team’s performances.
Chelsea have the worst disciplinary record in the Premier League this season: 59 yellow cards only behind Sheffield United’s 60 as a league worse, their three red cards behind only Tottenham and Liverpool’s four.
But Pochettino could start by setting an example himself — the Chelsea head coach picked up yet another yellow card from his technical area late on in the win against Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.
It is a fine line between maintaining the fire in the belly to keep his players motivated and losing players who are too fired up to suspensions. Pochettino is entertainingly emotional on the touchline, but with a young squad looking up to him – and looking to him for how to act – he may need to consider controlling them a touch.
Resist urge to spend
In the heat of the moment after defeat to Everton a few weeks ago Pochettino hinted that the club may need to delve into the transfer market in January to add aggression and fight to his side. But Chelsea could well be better served to stick largely with what they have.
The recent debuts for long-term absentees Christopher Nkunku and Romeo Lavia represent virtually new signings, anyway. And there are so many players, some new and some established, that Pochettino has been unable to utilise since he arrived.
The major decision will be around a central striker. There is clearly raw talent inside Nicolas Jackson but, still only 22, is he yet good enough to lead the line?
Armando Broja, also 22, has shown flashes but injuries have prevented him showing whether he is cut out for a Champions League chasing side.
Chelsea are only expected to go for a major signing if a golden opportunity presents itself and that could materialise in Ivan Toney, if there is a sniff that the striker can be prised from Brentford.
Beyond that Pochettino should keep faith with what he’s got — much of which will return in 2024. There is a strong squad beneath all the injuries and lack of cohesion.
Go for the League Cup
Reaching the semi-finals of the League Cup represents a real opportunity of silverware in Pochettino’s first season in charge that would serve multiple purposes: curry him favour, buy him time, give his players vital experience.
Facing mid-table Championship side Middlesbrough twice in January for a place in the final at Wembley, Pochettino could be tempted not to field a full-strength side, with an eye on Premier League games and the opportunity to climb the table. But Pochettino should approach both legs like they were against Big Six opposition, not a second-tier side.
Simply making the final will be a huge boost the whole squad. Winning it will be transformational.