It would be no great shock if west London’s third-best team tumble out of the FA Cup on Sunday afternoon. Chelsea, whose stuttering Premier League form has left them in the unfamiliar position of peering up at Brentford and Fulham, are not in a good place before facing Manchester City for the second time in four days.
An extensive injury list is pushing an unbalanced squad to the limit, hopes of Champions League qualification are slipping away and, as Graham Potter pointed out after losing to City on Thursday night, some “extreme challenges” are on the way for a club forging a new identity after the tumult of the past 12 months
With the Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital ownership still finding its feet in English football, it is probably worth forgetting what once held true of Chelsea. In previous times a run of one win in eight league games, plus defeat to City in the third round of the Carabao Cup, would have been enough for a manager to expect an ultimatum from Roman Abramovich. There would have been talk of dressing room unrest, of players going to their Russian owner to voice their feelings, of Guus Hiddink coming to the rescue in an interim role. With Chelsea languishing in 10th place, the pressure on Potter would have been intolerable.
Now, though, patience is the aim. Sacking Thomas Tuchel seven games into the new season may suggest otherwise but Boehly and Clearlake want to take a long-term view. “There’s a completely different ownership,” Potter argued. “This is hard for people to get their head around as Chelsea for 20 years has been one thing and now all of a sudden it’s different.”
So different, of course, that when Chelsea fired Tuchel their response was not to appoint one of Europe’s elite managers but to approach Brighton for permission to talk to a coach with a history of building successful teams from scratch.
“The reason for me to take the job was because you’ve got a chance to shape a club that is in a massive transitional period,” Potter said. “It’s not like I was jumping at the first opportunity to leave Brighton. This one felt right because of the owners, because of the support that they would give. They have been fantastic.”
Chelsea’s American owners have been in London this week. They have held talks with Shakhtar Donetsk about their rapid winger Mykhailo Mudryk, who is wanted by Arsenal, and bolstered their defence by signing Benoît Badiashile from Monaco. Money is available. Chelsea, who have annoyed Benfica with their pursuit of their Argentina midfielder Enzo Fernández, spent £200m last summer and are aware that the various weaknesses in their squad have nothing to do with Potter, who was right to say that he continues to enjoy “total support” from the club’s hierarchy.
“I understand what’s needed,” Potter said. “I’ve been here four months. If people are going to judge me in that time period, when you consider the challenges we’ve had, that’s fine. I can give you a counterargument in terms of my career and people in the game who would consider my quality.”
Potter was unusually animated. The 47-year-old is renowned for his calm on the touchline but he wanted it to be known that he is different in private. “This isn’t actually me all the time,” he said. “Of course there are times where you get angry.” He looked down at the table and picked up a can of water. “It’s not like I’m some robot just speaking to this can all the time.”
There was some nervous laughter as Potter talked of dealing respectfully with “stupid questions”. The idea that he could have worked his way up in an industry as ruthless as football without being tough enough to handle a dressing room full of big egos is absurd.
Potter knows that Chelsea, who are set to buy the France striker Christopher Nkunku from RB Leipzig in the summer, need a rebuild. The ageing César Azpilicueta is unsuitable cover for the injured Reece James at right-back. N’Golo Kanté’s hamstring injury has left a void in central midfield, even if Denis Zakaria is playing well, and it is surely time to let Jorginho go when his contract expires.
This is not an easy job. In central defence Wesley Fofana is injured, Thiago Silva is 38 and Kalidou Koulibaly has struggled since joining from Napoli. The absence of the wing-backs, James and Ben Chilwell, is taking a toll. Marc Cucurella has filled in for Chilwell on the left but the former Brighton defender does not look like a £60m player.
There are too many passengers. Kepa Arrizabalaga still makes too many errors in goal and Kai Havertz remains inconsistent up front. Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic, who is injured, do not produce enough. Raheem Sterling, another absentee, has done little to suggest that City were wrong to sell him. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has one league goal and was subbed on and off against Pep Guardiola’s side.
The point is not to make excuses, even though Potter was reduced to bringing on kids against City. His errors include the use of Sterling as a wing-back, which was made to look ridiculous when Chelsea lost 4-1 at Brighton. No Premier League side has earned fewer wins or scored fewer goals across their last eight games than Chelsea, who are yet to develop an identity under Potter.
“I’m not sitting here as some egomaniac who has all the answers and gets everything right,” he said. “There are some margins in the Premier League that are difficult. But it’s sort of blah, blah, blah, isn’t it? People want to see results – ‘Shut up, Graham. What are you talking about? We need to win.’”
The tone was realistic. While Potter’s job does not hinge on finishing in the top four this season, Boehly and Clearlake will not be patient for ever. The owners are under pressure to deliver, particularly as supporters were so enamoured with Tuchel.
Equally Chelsea are paying the price for the shortsighted approach adopted by the previous regime. It is worth remembering that City were nothing special during Guardiola’s first season. What the champions have created, though, is a perfect structure around their manager, ensuring that everything works smoothly on and off the pitch. Chelsea, who have been busy making key hires in their recruitment department, need a similar approach.
“The owners are billionaires, so they are quite smart,” Potter said. “Smarter than me, for sure. They understand the direction we want to go in. I’ve been here four months and five or six weeks of that have been lost to international football. Pep was [at City] a year before they won anything.”
Potter thought about Jürgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta taking time to establish themselves at Liverpool and Arsenal, respectively. “It’s maybe different for me for some reason,” he said, noting the criticism coming his way. “But I don’t put a timescale on it. I know that I am capable. I know the quality I have.”
It was fighting talk at last. Chelsea’s fans have been waiting to see some spikiness from Potter. The next part is producing similar defiance on the pitch.