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EPL TALK: Potter looking out of his depth at Chelsea

Chelsea manager Graham Potter is under pressure after a bad run of results that left them languishing in 10th spot in the Premier League.
Chelsea manager Graham Potter is under pressure after a bad run of results that left them languishing in 10th spot in the Premier League. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley)

STAMFORD Bridge is not so much a football stadium as it is a Bond villain’s lair, with a foreign megalomaniac plotting world domination by spending millions of dollars, Dr Evil-style, on one ingenious plan after another.

Countless minions are sacrificed along the way, on the pitch, in the dugout, as Chelsea Football Club moves from one escapade to another, like the Bond franchise moving from Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig, without missing a tailored step.

Graham Potter is not Daniel Craig, or Pierce Brosnan, or even Roger Moore. In fairness, he’s not George Lazenby either, an industry rookie with no experience of his chosen profession. He’s probably Timothy Dalton, a rising, respected and clearly talented individual, with a decent resume, but no obvious blockbuster to his name.

Dalton lasted two Bond movies. Potter may last two more games, if results against Fulham and then Crystal Palace do not go his way. Patience is rarely a virtue among megalomaniacs and Todd Boehly appears to be no exception.

The new owner’s masterplan at Chelsea has so far made Dr Evil look like Mini-Me, spending £300 million on a Champions League-winning squad and inexplicably making the line-up weaker and more fragile than a Sixties Bond Girl.

Boehly fired Thomas Tuchel after a shambolic recruitment exercise. He will not hesitate in removing Potter before the current transfer window closes, if results do not improve quickly.

There are mitigating circumstances for the beleaguered Chelsea manager. Potter inherited that shambolic squad. The World Cup didn’t help either, piling on the fixtures and the injuries – there are 10 senior players missing – and the 47-year-old manager must also contend with the curious cases of Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech. Reliable for their respective countries, irrelevant at club level, they are really not helping matters.

Ziyech's inconsistency is particularly baffling. Morocco seemed to get Batman, while Chelsea are stuck with Robin.

But Eddie Howe inherited Miguel Almirón and Callum Wilson and turned them into Newcastle United’s star men. Erik ten Hag has transformed Marcus Rashford at Manchester United with the very public use of both stick and carrot. Mikel Arteta seems to think the kids are all right at Arsenal and a couple of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City winners against Chelsea in the FA Cup are still negotiating the latter stages of puberty.

In stark contrast, the Blues are all over the place. Failing to reach the FA Cup fourth round for the first time in 25 seasons is arguably less significant than an uglier sequence of events. Chelsea have lost five of their last seven games – and didn’t score in five of those encounters either. The FA Cup was their last serious shot at silverware – another Champions League miracle notwithstanding. Their season is effectively over in January.

Against Manchester City, their performance resembled an event organised by the Social Development Network, an awkward gathering of strangers looking to make an elusive connection. Blind dates enjoy better communication.

Chelsea’s display was not only insipid, especially in the first half, but worryingly risk-averse. Passes went sideways or backwards, a noticeable trend in recent weeks and one typical of a side short on confidence. A safe pass doesn’t trigger the crowd, but it doesn’t penetrate the opposition either. Neither were fooled. City scored four times and the Blues were booed off at the end of each half.

Chelsea's Mason Mount looks dejected as his team lost the Manchester City in the FA Cup third round.
Chelsea's Mason Mount looks dejected as his team lost the Manchester City in the FA Cup third round. (PHOTO: Reuters/Molly Darlington)

Overthinking Potter trying too hard to impress

Potter’s progress at Östersund, Swansea and Brighton was steady and admirable, but there’s a sense of an overthinking manager trying too hard to impress at a big club with a number of “look at me” tactical decisions. Playing Raheem Sterling at wing-back in late October was the infamous example, but resting Thiago Silva against City and picking kids and reserves across the back four felt needlessly reckless, or desperate, depending on one's generosity towards a struggling manager.

Comparisons to David Moyes’ brief spell at Manchester United are already being made. Famously, the Scotsman took his trophy-less backroom staff from Everton to Old Trafford and organised video sessions for the likes of Rio Ferdinand, to show the finest centre-back of his generation how to defend more effectively. It did not go down well.

Moyes’ coaching team came with only the best of intentions and a neat compilation of defensive clips, but lacked the day-to-day experience of handling elite athletes. Potter finds himself in a similar position now, struggling to incorporate and elevate the respective skillsets of Havertz, Ziyech, Mason Mount and Mateo Kovacic – all recent World Cup participants – and create something genuinely enterprising and threatening.

In Potter’s defence, the catch-22 element that has blighted the promising careers of English managers in the past is present here, too. They need exposure at elite-level clubs to be granted extended stays at elite-level clubs, but such clubs rarely take on managers without elite-level experience. Tuchel and ten Hag, to use the most obvious and relevant examples, were granted opportunities in Europe rarely offered to young English managers, allowing the English Premier League’s finest to hire them off the peg, as it were.

Potter needs time to prove his worth. But he needs to demonstrate his worthiness immediately to earn that time.

All of which makes his position a precarious one. His tactical work at smaller clubs earned him a job among the Big Four contenders, but he must finish in or around the top four to keep it. He didn’t instigate the Blues’ dysfunctional crisis, but he was hired to fix it. And while most clubs would struggle without Reece James, Ben Chilwell, N’Golo Kante and Sterling, most clubs aren’t Chelsea.

Stamford Bridge remains that elaborate Bond villain set masquerading as a regular football club, existing mostly to satisfy the whims of a financially omnipotent individual, rather than Potter’s long-term vision for renewal, whatever that might be.

If he doesn’t match Boehly’s lofty expectations, he’ll meet an untimely end. An attractive settlement package will ensure a more dignified exit than being fed to sharks or crocodiles – the usual denouement for the Bond villain's minion – but the outcome remains the same.

He’ll be just another cautionary tale. And elite clubs will be even less inclined to take a chance on the next Graham Potter.

Stamford Bridge remains that elaborate Bond villain set masquerading as a regular football club, existing mostly to satisfy the whims of a financially omnipotent individual, rather than Potter’s long-term vision for renewal, whatever that might be.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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