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HomeWorld Cup 2022Chelsea's Graham Potter prioritizing results over style

Chelsea’s Graham Potter prioritizing results over style

Much like corporations, clubs love to talk about vision, philosophy, values and identity. Who are we? Where do we want to be? It’s the kind of stuff that keeps motivational speakers steadily employed and MBA programs in business.

You presume the current incarnation of Chelsea are no different. There’s a “project” — no, better yet, a “roadmap” to success — and it involved hiring manager Graham Potter, as well as a bunch of new scouts and recruitment guys and making hefty investments in January. (Of course, they made hefty investments in the summer transfer window before that, but that probably wasn’t part of the grand vision, since the only guys making the decisions were club chairman Todd Boehly, co-owner Behdad Eghbali and manager Thomas Tuchel, with the latter quickly fired by the other two.)

The problem with the roadmap — and not just Chelsea’s, but that of any football club — is that it can clash with the reality of results.

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Depending on the club and the wisdom and patience of both fans and those in charge, there is always some latitude in terms of results. You’ll sacrifice results in exchange for growth and development, whether that means generating chemistry, developing young players or helping newcomers settle. But there’s only so much sacrificing that you can do, partly because, at some point, players get restless, fans get angry and those revenues that you get from home gates and prize money get smaller.

Chelsea have won their past two games, Saturday at home against Leeds United in the Premier League and Tuesday in the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund, securing a place in the final eight. That’s good in terms of placating the supporters and bringing in some extra cash.

Is the way they attained it part of the “project?” Probably not. Does it matter? Probably, yes.

Potter was hired — at great expense, lest we forget, the $25 million (£22m) paid to Brighton in compensation is second only to the fee Bayern paid RB Leipzig for Julian Nagelsmann’s services — on the back of his track record with Brighton, where he played a brand of attractive, modern football and attained excellent results relative to the team’s resources, avoiding relegation on a shoestring budget in his first two seasons and then taking them into the top 10 last year.

– Potter: “I’m still here” despite Chelsea pressure

Potter is a thoughtful, intelligent guy. He’s perhaps not like the traditional English football men of yesteryear, the sort that are distrustful of articulate ex-players like Potter with university degrees — let alone master’s degrees in “Leaderships, Personal and Professional Development” — which may explain why he had to go to the Swedish fourth tier to get his first coaching gig 12 years ago. But he could certainly talk a good game to private equity types like Boehly and Eghbali, who will have been looking for an edge, and Potter’s continuous rise through the managerial food chain suggested he did not just have a “growth mindset,” but that he was actually growing in stature.

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Here’s the thing: when we’ve seen Potter’s football at Chelsea, meaning the sort that impressed at Brighton, results ranged from mediocre to poor, especially when in possession. In the past two victories, we saw little of it — though there’s nothing wrong with that — and yet, their results have been good.

It’s not as if both the Leeds and Dortmund games played out exactly the same way, but there are some eerie parallels.

Chelsea started brightly against both, creating plenty of chances, but failing to convert. Against Leeds, this lasted roughly half an hour. They then dropped the pace, took the lead early in the second half with Wesley Fofana‘s set-piece header in the 53rd minute, and then made defensive substitutions to preserve the lead. After Chelsea took the lead, they managed just two shots on goal for an xG of 0.07; Leeds had eight, for an xG of 0.76.

As for Dortmund? Chelsea took the lead on aggregate with Kai Havertz‘s penalty in the 53rd minute — exactly like against Leeds — and after that, they made defensive substitutions to protect it. In the final 37 minutes, Chelsea managed just one shot on goal (Havertz from close to the touchline) for an xG of 0.01. Dortmund managed 11 shots on goal, with an xG of 0.86.

The difference was that on Saturday, against a relegation-threatened opponent under a new manager, they had the ball plenty of time (58%) whereas against Dortmund, league leaders in the Bundesliga, had a lot less of it: just 39%. To some degree, that’s understandable: Leeds were happy to concede possession away from home against a better team while Dortmund, on a high thanks to nine straight wins in the Bundesliga, demanded the ball.

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Either way, 39% possession at home in a must-win game is not very Potter-esque. Not when you consider that in his three full seasons at Brighton, his team averaged 52% possession. When a side with a limited budget has that much of the ball in the Premier League, you can be sure of one thing: it’s by design.

Even without the numbers, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Potter’s Chelsea doesn’t play like his Brighton team did, only with better players, as the owners hoped he would. There are tons of reasons for this — new coach, far less time on the training pitch given Chelsea’s European commitments, no preseason, a whole new posse of newcomers showing up in January — but put that to one side for now.

If you’re Potter and you want to keep your job, what do you do? Do you try to play the way you did with Brighton, which is what got you hired? Or do you prioritise results by doing the textbook things more traditional managers do, like shutting up shop after taking the lead and implementing a game plan that basically consists of Enzo Fernandez trying to hit through balls and waiting for Joao Felix to create something out of nothing?

I genuinely don’t know the answer, and it’s obviously not a binary choice; there are shades of grey, and results also bestow authority and credibility, things Potter also needs. But what’s pretty obvious is that Chelsea’s mini-turnaround has little to do with what got him the job in the first place or with the football which he’ll attempt to play next season … assuming he’s not sacked first.

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