Graham Potter: not yet able to square the circle at Chelsea
Chelsea’s dismal defeat away to Brighton was the ‘two steps back’ following the encouraging step forward against Salzburg in midweek. It showed, again, Chelsea’s poor squad construction posing a riddle for any manager trying to get consistent high performances out of the current roster.
Let’s look at some of the squad issues Graham Potter (and Frank Lampard, and Thomas Tuchel before him) must grapple with, and highlight the very difficult choices he has to make.
In defence, Chelsea have a ‘John Terry’ problem
Cards on the table: overall, I prefer to see Chelsea line up with a back three.
I understand the allure of a back four, not least because it allows for six midfielders and attackers — and the proliferation of 8s/10s/wingers in the current Chelsea squad gives Potter a huge number of options with 4–3–3s, 4–4–2s and so on.
But I lean towards the back three because Thiago Silva is Chelsea’s most accomplished defender and I prefer to see a set up that plays to his strengths.
Silva poses the Chelsea coach what you might term ‘The John Terry Problem’: how do you get your most effective penalty box defender on the pitch when he no longer has the mobility to play in a high line, front foot set up?
With Terry, different managers tried different things — notably Rafa Benitez left him out and second-coming Jose Mourinho played a more reactive style — and , of course, Antonio Conte played a back three in Terry’s last season at Stamford Bridge (noting Terry wasn’t a regular starter that year).
The same calculation must seemingly be made with Silva too. He remains an imperious box defender and remains better than late-era Terry in a higher line; he retains the ability to chase and close down effectively. However, deployed in a back four Chelsea would be asking him to defend much larger spaces than in a back three, often requiring him to step out into wider positions and defend 1-v-1.
Thiago Silva is still a great defender and although he wouldn’t be actively bad in these situations we have to accept this is no longer his game. Indeed, opposition managers would be looking to engineer situations where he is asked to defend against fleet-footed attackers in open spaces. It would, in short, be a bad way to use him and likely to be exploited by Chelsea’s opponents.
So: my preference — and, surely, Graham Potter’s — is to keep Thiago Silva in the side and that means a back three.
Not all wingbacks are wingbacks
A back three naturally suggests wingbacks. If you close your eyes and picture a wingback: what are they doing?
Most likely haring up and down the wing playing essentially as a full back and a winger at the same time. Possibly the hardest positions in the modern game as you have to be two-players-in-one.
Of course, different players are better or worse at one of the other discipline; Chelsea are absolutely blessed to have Reece James who is a dangerous attacking outlet, a terrific crosser and a canny, physical defender. But most players are markedly better at one end of the pitch than the other (yes, I mean you: Marcos Alonso).
So a manager selecting wingbacks has a balancing act to pull off — and I think Potter’s use of Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic as wingbacks makes sense in this regard.
He’s definitely asking them to focus on the attacking side of the role. Out of possession, Potter is not asking Sterling and Pulisic to drop in and make a five. Indeed in his Brighton post-match press conference, talking about them, he said:
“The responsibility of those two wasn’t to defend against their wing-backs”
This is not as gung-ho as it sounds and it very much depends on the way the rest of the team is set up to respond once possession has been conceded.
Against Salzburg, Potter attempted to solve both the Thiago Silva and wingback problems by asking Jorginho to drop back between Trevoh Chalobah and Silva. This had the effect of asking Chalobah and Marc Cucurella — as the out-of-possession ‘outside’ defenders — to deal with attacks down the wing.
Thus Silva was not being routinely asked to defend wide and Sterling and Pulisic were not required to sprint back to make a back five outside the three centre backs. Instead they worked in the midfield spaces — although in some phases of play, where Salzburg held on to possession for a period, it did see them dragged back to the full back areas. This wasn’t their primary responsibility as they were more often asked to be an outlet ahead of the ball once possession was regained — easier from higher (midfield) starting positions.
So how come Chelsea got battered in Brighton, then?
Potter chose not to set up the same way in Brighton as he had in Salzburg. The main difference was the absence of Jorginho from the starting line up.
His positional discipline and, I would say, somewhat underappreciated ability to make defensive actions was sorely missed. Asking Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to play as the deepest midfielders was asking two guys who do not have the positional discipline required for the ‘Jorginho role’ to somehow find it in themselves to drop in and defend when anyone who has seen Chelsea at any point in the last few years would know this is neither of their strongest suits.
Kovacic, in particular, has been playing very well for the last two season; a massive change from his ‘loan’ year under Maurizio Sarri where he shared minutes with Ross Barkley and rarely looked like a regular starter in an upwardly mobile team. But in this extended purple patch, Kovacic has shone driving forward with the ball at his feet; his close control dribbling the eight wonder of the world. But, good as that is, you’d still never confuse him for a straight up defensive midfielder.
So it was a particularly (let’s be kind) hopeful selection by Graham Potter with the upshot being Chelsea deserved to concede three times before Brighton’s fifth minute opener and actually did concede three times by about the half an hour mark. Granted two own goals is unlucky by any yardstick — but 3–0 was, sadly, a reasonable reflection of the balance of play at half time.
What’s the solution?
If the Brighton defeat must surely have convinced Potter of anything, it’s that the Chelsea squad has a massive defensive midfielder-shaped hole in it. Even a fully fit N’Golo Kante would struggle to solidify this Chelsea side — and this is a point of difference from every comparable squad in the Premier League.
Arsenal have Thomas Partey, Manchester is home to Rodri and Casemiro, Liverpool have the oddly-rarely-booked Fabinho; Spurs have Hjoj…Hoje….Hje….Bentancur. Even Newcastle have a slightly more all-purpose but nonetheless effective Bruno Guimaraes.
Yes, Chelsea have Jorginho but we’ve seen him physically targeted in the past meaning, although he copes much better now than he used to, he usually needs two other midfielders around him to help him with the midfield work. Again, it’s a question of how much space we want to ask Jorginho to cover. The correct answer is: as little as possible (and then he’s genuinely very good). But never, ever leave him on an island and ask him to cope.
Fitting these pieces together and it seems that in order to get Thiago Silva on the pitch, Chelsea go three at the back, which in turn means wingbacks, meaning Jorginho needs to play. And if he needs to play then that’s a midfield five, leaving us just two in the more out-and-out attacking positions.
This makes Potter’s recent selections all the more understandable, even though there was a collective intake of breath from Chelsea fans when we saw the ultra attacking selection on Saturday.
Personally, I can live with this until after the World Cup. Jorginho will get a rest during the World Cup anyway, so keep him out there (sorry Jorgi). Whether Potter now reverts to Cesar Azpilicueta and Ben Chilwell as his wingbacks remains to be seen — but either way the absence of a truly mobile defensive midfielder plus a desire to ensure Silva plays yet isn’t exposed surely means continuing with a back three and midfield five until we can repurpose the squad.
This might not be too pretty this side of the World Cup, but overall it is probably Potter’s best hope of positive results in the short term. That said a rampant Arsenal and dander-up Newcastle will prove to be huge tests.
Mikel Arteta has got Arsenal playing well, though has a thin squad in key areas so will do well to sustain this standard all season. Up in the North East, Eddie Howe is doing a better coaching job than was probably expected, though I still expect him to be ‘Geordio Ranieri’ and find himself replaced once investment increases to the point Newcastle have a squad that genuinely looks like a contender for serious silverware (sorry Eddie).
But, as it stands, Chelsea go into these two league matches very much second favourites. Yikes.
Action in January?
Chelsea may be able to move in the January transfer window, with Ajax’s Edson Alvarez seemingly within Chelsea’s reach. Wesley Sneijder’s somewhat snide (sniejd?) comments about him this week possibly suggests the Ajax hierarchy are preparing the ground for him to move on.
He’d certainly be a better bet for Chelsea than a “he had a good World Cup, let’s sign him” transfer that clubs can often get suckered into. Let’s hope Chelsea’s collective approach to recruitment — where, by January, the voices of Potter, Kyle Macaulay, Joe Shields, Laurence Stewart, Paul Winstanley, Christopher Vivell and Todd Boehly will probably all be in the mix — leads to symphony of smart thinking and not a cacophony of confusion when it comes to doing the business in the market.
The irony, of course, is that a midfielder such as Alvarez not only fixes the ‘attacking wingbacks’ issue but it also makes it easier for Chelsea to play a 4–3–3. Maybe a true defensive midfielder can be deployed such that Thiago Silva doesn’t get asked to patrol wide open spaces in back four? After all: Brazil manage. That would unlock the plethora of attacking players Chelsea have on the books to, more often than not, play in their preferred positions. It would certainly give Potter those options.
Into the summer and Chelsea may well try and scratch the Declan Rice itch and this time really mean it. He is both who Chelsea want and what Chelsea need. He has, surely, to be the number one priority in the summer irrespective of any January moves.
The risk, of course, is that Chelsea miss out on Champions League football next season giving Rice — and every other top drawer player — a stonking great entry in the ‘Cons’ column when they’re considering what move to make. It would be just the wrong time for Chelsea to slip behind Manchester United in the desirability stakes.
An about-to-hit prime Declan Rice is the answer irrespective of whether Potter wants to move forward with or without Thiago Silva and irrespective of how many defenders are nominally in the line up. Rice will make it work.
What does this tell us about Potter?
In all fairness, Potter is wrestling with the same fundamental issues that Tuchel and Lampard found as their undoing.
Both of Potter’s predecessors resorted to an extreme possession game that tilted the risk/reward dilemma so far towards risk-aversion the players became stuck down a mineshaft of safety-first ball circulation and, ultimately, stagnation. Potter is at least trying a bolder approach and he may yet see the cavalry coming over the hill in January if Boehly is happy to spend again.
More interestingly will be how (indeed: if) Potter has been able to keep the players onside through this difficult period. How he spoke and acted at half time in Brighton will have been important. What he does now will be important. He’s built his career on his managerial skills and one hopes he is leaning on them now.
The biggest risk to Potter at Chelsea was always the potential for a “show us yer medals” mentality in a dressing room full of winners of every trophy going. How he manages the dressing room in this period may well be make-or-break.
Let’s hope the signs are good over this side of the World Cup; any tremors in the dressing room at this stage may well herald an earthquake to come. If so, it could be that Potter’s tenure ends up as a well-meant misstep in Boehly-Clearlake’s plans for world domination.
Let’s hope not. Nobody at Chelsea wants it not to work out for Graham Potter. We’ve seen now he doesn’t have a magic solution to Chelsea’s longstanding squad/roster issues, and we should respect the attempt he’s made at getting round that with a bold, attacking plan. Let’s just hope he is learning enough about the squad to find a selection balance to see us through to January.