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Graham Potter’s Chelsea lack spirit and fight as fan mutiny emphasises decline

Fans at the Etihad lauded former manager Thomas Tuchel as the Blues exited the FA Cup in the third round after a 4-0 defeat to Man City

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 09 January 2023 13:21 GMT
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"We're suffering" - Potter on Chelsea's woes following 4-0 rout by Man City

The Chelsea supporters decided to salute their manager. Not their current manager, admittedly. The chant of “there’s only one Graham Potter” came from their Manchester City counterparts. The travelling Londoners, their numbers diminished by half-time departures, had chorused: “We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel”. They don’t anymore. They just wish they still did.

As Chelsea exited the FA Cup, eviscerated by City when Pep Guardiola did not even bother to deploy Erling Haaland or Kevin de Bruyne, a comparison could explain why their fans felt nostalgic. Thomas Tuchel got three wins in six weeks over Guardiola’s City. Potter has three defeats in six games. Tuchel reached five finals with Chelsea. Potter has had two knockout games and lost both, without scoring. The German has the Champions League winner’s medal but also the charisma that endeared him to the Chelsea faithful. They could boast they had him.

If it is harsh to blame Potter for not being someone else, the mutiny in Manchester felt instructive nonetheless. The Chelsea public have not turned directly on him, but it could be the next step. Potter is already in the awkward position of being unable to criticise his critics in the stands. “We understand the supporters’ frustration,” he said. “We respect that.”

There have been points over the last two decades when Chelsea supporters have not had time to turn on the manager; they have been gone before they could register much dissent. Now Potter has said he has “total support” from the board, but those owners went from offering Tuchel a new contract to sacking him in a matter of weeks. They can talk of long-termism, but their increasingly random transfer-market business scarcely suggests a group equipped with patience and a strategy. Their season can be presented as transition but, increasingly, it looks like decline.

Potter may see this as a break from the recent past. In a way, it is: just not the right way. “We are not in a great moment,” he said. That was underselling it: this is a historically bad run. Chelsea’s first third-round defeat in the FA Cup for 25 years means that they have lost six of their last eight games against Premier League clubs, scoring four goals and conceding 14. Take it back further and they have won just one in 10. This is shaping up as their worst campaign for three decades; worse even than “the Mourinho season,” as Antonio Conte christened the traumatic times of 2015-16.

Potter sought to put his four Premier League defeats into context: 1-0 losses to Newcastle, without nine injured players, Arsenal and City, plus “a bad day” at Brighton. “You can make excuses and look for reasons or say it isn’t good enough,” he said. “Both of those answers are correct.”

It is a moot point where excuses end and reasons begin but, cumulatively, this is underachievement. Chelsea’s injury list is huge, but so is their squad. It has included N’Golo Kante and Reece James, arguably their two most important players, but their resources and talent ought to have equipped them to fare better. Few have played to anything like their potential under Potter: even those who have done better, such as Thiago Silva, Mateo Kovacic, Mason Mount and James, would probably reach reasonable standards whoever was in the dugout. A number, from Marc Cucurella to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Raheem Sterling to Jorginho, have struggled in the new regime. Potter has been through a host of formations, selected players in a variety of positions, and given little indication he has any indication of his preferred team or shape. Chelsea are 10th in the Premier League, 10 points off the top four and, unless they win the Champions League, already out of the hunt for trophies. Too often, Chelsea lack spirit, personality and fight, along with much of an attacking threat.

Graham Potter and Pep Guardiola embrace before Sunday’s match (Reuters)

“Clearly we are suffering as a football club and it’s not nice at all,” he added. “When you look at the results and team performance today it is so far away from Manchester City.” Whereas, of course, Tuchel found three ways of beating City.

He made an immediate impact. Maybe that is not the Potter way: his first season at Swansea ended in 10th, his debut campaign at Brighton in 15th; the revolution came in the style of play, but not the results. Guardiola reflected on his own troubled start at City and mounted a more eloquent case for the defence of Potter than the Englishman mustered himself.

“I would say to [owner] Todd Boehly it was a pleasure to meet him, so give him time. I know in the big clubs the results are important,” he said. “In my first season in Barcelona, it wasn’t the same, because I had [Lionel] Messi there. That’s why I didn’t need two seasons, only one season. Everyone is an idiot.”

A dejected Conor Gallagher and Kai Havertz after conceding a third goal at the Etihad (Reuters)

That may have been a strange aside but if Boehly, who has doubled up as one of the worst sporting directors in Premier League history, did Potter few favours with his summer spending drive, the manager’s fate may eventually lie with him. But as the supporters signalled their lack of faith in the current ownership by singing Roman Abramovich’s name, it showed their dissatisfaction with the new faces at Stamford Bridge. If the supporters are turning against Potter, even boardroom backing can only protect him for so long. And so far, he is a dour downgrade on Tuchel with a dreadful record.

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