Thoughts after Chelsea - Arsenal
Chelsea's performance in the flagship London derby was below par. Arsenal - excellent without the ball, not much more than average on the ball - were comfortable winners. Saliba won the man of the match award but, in truth, he and Gabriel were given such a light workload by the Chelsea attack they probably didn't need to have a post match bath.
Insult was added to injury for Chelsea fans when, post match, Graham Potter, described the performance as "huffing and puffing" and suggested Arsenal were a model for Chelsea to look to for inspiration.
So what's happening at Chelsea?
Potter's tactical bagatelle
One defining feature of Chelsea under Potter has been the variety of tactical set ups used. Not just three or four at the back, but also midfield pairs and diamonds; false nines and not-wingbacks.
As such, seeing the line up on Sunday morning there were at least three different ways the side could have set up. In theory, this makes it hard for the opposition to know what to expect.
In practice, Sunday saw yet another way of playing foisted on the Chelsea squad - and the confusion was all theirs.
Although a chunk of credit must go to Arsenal for their excellent out of possession organisation, there were many instances where players on the ball in deeper positions had zero passing options as, collectively, no-one seemed to know what the plan was to progress the ball - other than try and hit Kai Havertz with a long ball (which lasted about half an hour, with the upshot that Jorginho had about ten touches in that time).
This smacked of an underprepared team and an absence of understood patterns of play.
How did this happen?
Potter is now eight weeks into his tenure so he's new but not that new; there's been enough time to familiarise the players with some principles. However, the continual - often in-game - shifting about from one set up to another has mitigated against a build up of familiar patterns and on-pitch relationships, with the upshot that Chelsea are actually getting worse rather than better.
Indeed, the warning signs were here with Potter from his first game where he tried a 4-2-2-2 formation - a difficult assignment off the ball for a number of players - when it seemed more sensible to be a little easier on the chalkboard first time out.
My own preference is for a back three, with Jorginho and a defensive-first midfielder paired just ahead of them. The wingbacks can be as funky or orthodox as you like. But, having seen the incoherence on display today I'd settle for a commitment to any one way of setting up.
A back four scares me as I think we will see Thiago Silva frequently asked to defend large spaces, and we also know Jorginho needs cover in the six role or he too gets isolated on an island without the engine to cover big spaces.
However, at this point, I'd accept all that in return for some continuity and a chance for the players to build up some familiar patterns.
Potter is also making some bold selection calls - and he appears not to reward good performances with selection.
Although the opposition in Dinamo Zagreb was modest, Denis Zakaria took his opportunity and looked the part. Indeed, his physicality seems to give Jorginho the confidence to play a number of very un-Jorginho like progressive passes and generally gave us handy platform in midfield.
Zakaria got zero minutes against Arsenal.
Given the step up in quality, playing Zakaria would have been a risk, but - goodness - so was how Potter set up anyway.
He took a big risk pairing Jorginho with Loftus-Cheek; he took a risk when he played Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek versus Brighton; he took a risk with his set up against Manchester United.....so its hardly a safety first mindset, which makes some of his selections so hard to fathom.
Of course Potter has been hampered by injuries. For Chelsea that usually means a title tilt is out of the question. Right now it feels like the absence of James and Kante in particular will lead to Europa Conference football at best.
Whether it is a function of the absentees or not, it seems Potter is continuing to try and eke out performances from players they are not able to give whilst not selecting those who could do it. He seems to do this so he has as much in-game flexibility as possible. It means he's squinting and seeing players fitting into roles that just won't work.
Potter is also talking himself into trouble
Potter is unfortunate in following Thomas Tuchel in that the German's post match comments were usually insightful and honest. He could see where things had gone wrong, and said so (until the very end, he also rarely threw his players under the bus).
However, Potter takes the more traditional 'say little' approach - but what he does say is beginning to jar.
After the Arsenal game, Potter said Chelsea had "huffed and puffed". What? Sorry Graham but it's your job to make sure they play a match with a bit more guile and organisation than that.
That felt, sorry to say, like the words of a lower mid table side's manager who had put his team out to cling on to the coattails of a top six side. Having followed a performance where Chelsea looked like a lower mid table side trying to cling on to Arsenal's coattails, it suggested what we'd seen had been kind of what he'd been going for.
You're not in Sussex now, mate. That is absolutely not the way Chelsea should approach any game against the other bigger sides. Never.
I think most Chelsea fans can see that there's work to do. But this should be work to do to become genuine challengers not work to do to become vaguely competent. The notion Chelsea have to have a period of being actively bad sounds rather like a manager who isn't sure what he's doing buying himself some time.
To compound this, Potter also suggested Arsenal - with their acceptance of 120 games of mediocrity under Arteta before being decent - is a model to follow.
This is incredibly tin-eared. Potter has a dressing room full of players who have, individually and collectively, achieved much more than the Arsenal dressing room. What is he thinking?
Again, it sounds like a narrative to buy Potter time rather than being a necessary part of the process.
Where does this leave us?
I think it is safe to say Potter's start at Chelsea has been underwhelming.
He is giving the impression that he is trying to work out what to do. If he'd been trying to ingrain a style of play, or give a set of (younger) players their head to get experience and ask us to take the rough with the smooth then: ok, we get it; there's a clear outline of a project to get behind.
But at present, the ill-considered selections - the dogs in the street could see the midfield selections against Brighton and Arsenal were paper-thin - and the chopping and changing of tactics doesn't say 'project' as much as 'panic'. It doesn't give fans anything much to rally behind.
By his own post-match admission, Chelsea aren't as coherent as he'd hoped by now - and I'm afraid the causes are obvious.
It's a big call but this feels to me a little like the Big Phil Scolari era: he remains a good, winning manager but his flaw was he didn't get the Premier League and seemed to get caught by the intensity and physicality. His players didn't look conditioned to compete and it was absolutely right to call his reign quickly to an end.
Does this mean I'm calling for Potter to go? Potter obviously 'gets' the league and the issues are different. But vibe is the same.
I don't want to go there, and certainly don't want to be one of those fickle fanboys who demand change at every dropped point - however, his decision not to instil a basic set of playing patterns, his myopic team selections and the increasing signs that he doesn't quite get how to be a Chelsea manager are all quite fundamental.
Maybe one of these flaws could be worked through, two of them would be an act of incredible faith - but all three feels too much. I think it would be almost a kindness for Boehly-Clearlake to use the World Cup break to find a way to move on.
Potter can take his project to Southampton, perhaps. They don't seem to mind a project that takes a while to deliver not very much.
In my mind I can see the chap at Old Trafford with the "Ta ra Fergie" sign who, history tells us, was made to look a right mug.
I'd happily trade being made to look a mug by Graham Potter. I don't want him to fail but, sadly, I think he may have done so already.