The aim was to assess the role of the composition changes in the pericellular matrix (PCM) for the chondrocyte deformation. For that, a three-dimensional finite element model with depth-dependent collagen density, fluid fraction, fixed charge density and collagen architecture, including parallel planes representing the split-lines, was created to model the extracellular matrix (ECM). The PCM was constructed similarly as the ECM, but the collagen fibrils were oriented parallel to the chondrocyte surfaces. The chondrocytes were modelled as poroelastic with swelling properties. Deformation behaviour of the cells was studied under 15% static compression. Due to the depth-dependent structure and composition of cartilage, axial cell strains were highly depth-dependent. An increase in the collagen content and fluid fraction in the PCMs increased the lateral cell strains, while an increase in the fixed charge density induced an inverse behaviour. Axial cell strains were only slightly affected by the changes in PCM composition. We conclude that the PCM composition plays a significant role in the deformation behaviour of chondrocytes, possibly modulating cartilage development, adaptation and degeneration. The development of cartilage repair materials could benefit from this information. © 2009 The Author(s).