Graham Potter’s final press conference before Chelsea sacking
Chelsea fans could be forgiven for believing that even with Todd Boehly in charge, Roman Abramovich very much remains at the helm at Stamford Bridge. The expensive hiring and firing of Graham Potter after the defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday, following a huge investment in transfers and dissenting voices in the stands, was straight out of the Russian’s playbook – and it exhibits just how his presence still lingers over the club, with Boehly willingly stepping into his shadow.
Roberto Di Matteo was given nine months before he was axed, Andre Villas-Boas got eight. But with only 12 wins from 31 games, Potter’s reign was the shortest and statistically worst of any manager since the turn of the century.
The facts do not mask the truth – his tenure has been largely disastrous – but there is no point trying to pin the blame solely on the 47-year-old for the myriad of problems Chelsea are facing.
Boehly set the tone early on when he spent £25m to sack Tuchel and bring in Potter and his backroom staff from Brighton. His brutal axing of the Champions League-winning coach, reportedly consisting of a “three to five-minute meeting”, was fiercely unpopular with the club’s most loyal fans, and immediately there was an expectation on Potter to be better than his predecessor. The truth is he needed time, money and loyalty to make this five-year project a success – but at Chelsea, you only get one: money.
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Any manager would struggle without N’Golo Kante, Reece James, Ben Chilwell and Thiago Silva for long periods of the season. To lose them all simultaneously threatened disaster. Potter will know that, deep down, it wasn’t entirely his fault, just as much as his constant tinkering with formations and starting lineups ultimately exacerbated his issues. Scoring 29 goals in 28 games, when Arsenal and Manchester City have gone past 70, and a run of two wins from 16 games undermine any complaints he may have about his departure.
Boehly felt the solution was to throw money at the problem, spending a record £323million in one window. Mykhaylo Mudryk, Joao Felix and Enzo Fernandez all arrived with big reputations, along with the talented future stars Benoit Badiashile, Noni Madueke, Andrey Santos and David Fofana. But gelling a squad together filled to the brim with young players and asking them to win on a weekly basis is a tall order for any coach.
Unlike Abramovich, who relied upon the daily updates from his right hand Marina Granovskaia, Boehly and Eghbali were there to witness everything. After their 1-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund, which left their Champions League hopes hanging by a thread, the frustration was splashed across Boehly’s face.
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Then there was a feeling of angst after the 1-0 defeat to Southampton, where fans called for his head rather audibly after another goalless and soulless display. Their top-four hopes had vanished and even qualifying for Europe was looking unrealistic. If at any time the American was going to sack Potter, this was it. Instead, Boehly and Eghbali admirably stood by him, insisting Potter was their man when many other owners – and definitely Abramovich – would have pulled the trigger for such incompetence.
Their 2-0 comeback win over Dortmund at Stamford Bridge proved to be special – and probably the most memorable time of Potter’s reign – as Chelsea fought valiantly to seal their progress to the quarter-finals. That night, Potter felt the energy and buzz from the fans and that euphoric feeling of victory. At last, it felt like he understood what made Chelsea an attractive club to be a part of.
Wins over Leeds and Leicester followed and there were glimpses of the eye-catching brand of football Potter had developed at Brighton. Chelsea were not only scoring, they were winning again. Boehly must have felt vindicated at that moment and he could see the bright future he had envisioned for the London outfit.
But after a badly-timed international break, their 2-0 defeat to Aston Villa offered up the best example of how things had gone pear-shaped under Potter. Chelsea managed to have 27 shots on goal without scoring and up the other end, they were even less convincing.
Marc Cucurella, the poster boy for Potter’s success at Brighton, proved in three seconds of painful defending that his £62m transfer has been a complete and utter failure. Similarly, Kalidou Koulibaly at times looked like he had never been asked to mark a centre forward in his 13-year career, while Mudryk was dreadful in front of goal.
The players should take their share of responsibility in what has happened to Potter. Unlike in previous regimes, there have been no leaks about players questioning his methods – and everyone bar perhaps Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has appeared happy enough to have Potter leading them. But even in a season of transition, they have let him down by performing below the level expected of them.
So for Potter to come out and praise their performance, to keep things in a positive light, felt odd. Any other manager, especially Tuchel, would have unleashed his fury on his flops for failing to beat a team who were in danger of being relegated only three months ago. Ironically, the only thing that appeared to anger Potter in his six-month spell was that idea that he doesn’t get angry, as opposed to his hapless squad of misfits letting him down in front of goal.
Wherever he turned, Potter was getting it wrong, and falling into the bottom half of the Premier League with 10 games to go finally seemed to be the breaking point for Boehly. On Saturday, he finally realised that this was going to get worse before it was going to get better, and the £600m black hole of transfer spend meant he could not risk Chelsea finishing outside of the European places.
The man chosen to lead the team for the final 10 games is Bruno Saltor, a man that has worked closely with Potter in his short coaching career. How much the Spaniard can do to turn things around while also moving away from Potter’s philosophy is anyone’s guess, but it seems Boehly is looking for an immediate bounce while he begins searching for the third manager of his ownership.
Luis Enrique has European pedigree, winning trophies at Barcelona and doing so with an attractive brand of football, while Julian Nagelsmann’s sacking by Bayern Munich was a surprise. Both would prove to be outstanding candidates to be appointed in time for next season, with a full summer to get their ideas across and begin clearing out the dead wood. Potter never got that chance, nor will he after his sacking, and Boehly will feel some culpability on his shoulders for the way it has panned out this season.
Little by little, it appears Boehly is embracing Abramovich’s approach – he wants instant success and is willing to pay heavily for it. He won’t need to be informed that his next appointment needs to be the right one, but the fans will remind him of his errors after his decision to fire Tuchel and hire Potter – and a repeat of those mistakes could see Boehly lose their trust for good. Perhaps convincing Mason Mount to sign a new contract would help him repair some of the damage.
But now, just as Abramovich consistently did during his 19 years in charge, he has to prove his ruthless decision to oust Potter was the right one.
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