CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Marc Cucurella lived the difficulties of Chelsea's 2022-23 Premier League campaign more than most. Signed for an initial £56 million from Brighton & Hove Albion last August, the left-back struggled to produce his best form. That's despite being unexpectedly reunited with his former boss Graham Potter, before being booed by some Blues supporters during a 1-1 draw at West Ham United in February.
After over £500m of investment, Chelsea finished in a dismal 12th place and Cucurella ended the season out of the team with a quad injury. And since Mauricio Pochettino was announced as the club's new manager, there has been speculation the 24-year-old could depart after less than a year at Stamford Bridge. But the man himself thinks differently.
"I read a lot of things [about a transfer], but I am happy here," Cucurella said in an exclusive interview with ESPN. "I came here for the project. Obviously the first season was not easy, but not only for me, for all the players, it is not easy because when you don't win, you don't stay happy.
"When you don't play good, it is difficult to stay happy. But this is the past, so if the manager says they want me to stay and be part of the squad, I am very happy and I try to do my best for the team. And as well, to show the fans and my teammates what is my level."
Cucurella is acutely aware of the need to win over those supporters who focused their frustrations in his direction. There were mitigating circumstances, however. Some believe Chelsea overpaid to sign the Spain international, given Manchester City withdrew from a deal once the fee went beyond £40m. But no player can be held responsible for his market value -- in fact Cucurella handed in a transfer request in an attempt to force through a move to City -- and his house was broken into shortly after his transfer to Chelsea, as Potter alluded to a difficult time "family-wise," which affected his form.
"I understand [the criticism] because they want to try if you don't play good, the people are angry with you and the manager," he said. "But as well, people need to understand we are persons like you. We are humans and sometimes we have a private life and we have problems outside of football.
"Sometimes you try to do your best, but maybe your head is not good. Obviously it is not easy when people speak bad things about you, but this is the past. I am really happy with this preseason; I am very focused on doing good this season. I have a lot of energy because I know my quality and if I focus on what I am going to do, I can show my best. I came here not only for one year. I like the project, the ideas, the team."
Cucurella is frank when discussing the challenges of playing for an elite club.
"I play all my career in a [smaller] club so we don't have this pressure," he said. "When you come to these big clubs, you feel this pressure and sometimes it is not easy to play with this pressure because you know you need to win every game. Sometimes you need to adapt as well to these situations, but this is part of life. Sometimes you have good years, bad years, but the most important thing is to learn and have energy to improve."
So does he feel better equipped to cope with it now? "Yeah, for sure," he continued. "Last season for me was very difficult because normally in my career, I always play a lot and this season I play, but not where I like and I don't find my level.
"All these things are better for me because I feel strong now, I learn a lot. I live different situations that in my past I never lived. It is a lesson in my life and sometimes in the moment it is not good but then in the future it is better because you feel strong and you know what is the next step."
Cucurella made 21 Premier League starts last season and 33 appearances in all competitions, many operating as a left-sided centre-back or as a wing-back. He has made no secret of his preference to play as a left-back in a four-man defence, something he got the opportunity to do in Chelsea's opening preseason match against Wrexham on Wednesday night here in North Carolina.
In fact, he was in the unusual position of being given two chances to impress: an opening 45-minute stint combined with a surprise return as a late substitute for centre-back Trevoh Chalobah, who was withdrawn as a precaution having felt a twinge in his Achilles. Ben Chilwell, who scored with the final kick of Chelsea's 5-0 win, will provide stern competition at left-back but Cucurella will be encouraged by Pochettino using a 4-3-3 shape which plays to his strengths.
"Always in my career, my position is left-back," he said. "Sometimes I play different positions but I feel more comfortable at left-back. If Mauricio plays four at the back, I am happy but I try always to do the best for my team. He is a great manager. I think we work hard in these two weeks. He tried to show his ideas. We explain what we need to do to play good, to stay together and I think we have good players, a young team."
"Staying together" becomes a theme the more Cucurella speaks. Chelsea endured a torrid campaign last season as Potter was hired in September, then sacked in March, before a dismal end to the season under interim boss Frank Lampard, who has since said he could see upon his arrival that "the team spirit and togetherness was not there." Cucurella believes the players have learned some harsh lessons.
"The first one is, OK in my opinion we play in Chelsea but if you don't do your best, if you don't run, if you don't stick together, it is very difficult now in this level to win any game," he said. "We suffered a lot in the last two months. It was so difficult for us because we tried, we put everything, but we don't have this good preparation or this motivation to win the games and for us it is for us it is maybe one of the worst seasons I ever had in my professional career.
"We don't have regularity. We all the time stay up and down; we don't have this stability which is very important in football. We have a lot of changes, as well as lot of players and always it is difficult because all the players want to play.
"We have a lot of players but maybe it is difficult to keep all the squad happy, and then if you don't win you don't have the same energy or the same motivation. So we have maybe a lot of bad decisions and we don't have our best in the season but I think the last season is past, we are now focused on this season."
Pochettino's task is to engender a fresh team spirit with a radically altered squad still containing several players with uncertain futures. Both the new manager and his squad are reluctant to name specific targets given the magnitude of last season's slump.
"Obviously it is hard now," Cucurella said. "I don't say last season we finished 12th and this season we win the Premier League because it is not realistic. Hopefully we try to do but it is difficult to do this big step. We need to go step by step. If we stay focused, stick together and have a lot of energy, we try to do a good season and we try to win some trophies."