Chelsea, beaten at Fulham: what if it was one crisis too many?

Every crisis is also an opportunity“. Chelsea knows this better than anyone. Its history since Roman Abramovich took control of the club in 2003 could be written in a dozen chapters, each of which would tell the story of a crisis and its resolution. A dozen trainers, and not the least, would attest to this. If none of them came out the front door, almost all, in the short time granted to them, added one or more lines to the most beautiful list of English football of the 21st century, rich in nineteen major titles, including five English championships and two Champions Leagues, such is the long-term strategy of the Blues: the long term does not exist.

Or such was this strategy, until Todd Boehly and the American investment fund Clearlake agreed to spend four and a half billion over ten years for what was then the reigning European and world champion. The new regime intended to break with the ‘when it’s used, you throw it away’ policy of the old one, and when it turned out that the new owners’ relationship with Thomas Tuchel had deteriorated to the point of not being able to To be rectified, they turned to a manager whose profile and personality were at odds with those of his predecessors, a man who, in their eyes, could finally calm this perpetually erupting volcano.

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Potter, bitter-tasting revolution

Graham Potter had neither the aggressiveness of a Conte or a Mourinho, nor the status of a Hiddink or an Ancelotti, or even a Scolari. His trophies? Three promotions and a Swedish Cup with Östersund, and that was it. He had done an honorable job with Swansea in the Championship, before making a name for himself at Brighton, who finished with the most points and the highest place in their history in the top flight last season. It was not an insignificant journey for a manager who was then forty-six, and of whom English football knew almost nothing until 2018; but for Chelsea it was indeed a revolution – and a revolution whose fruits, to this day, taste bittersweet.

We will say that Potter has only been in place since September 8, a little over four months, therefore, a misery. When Mao-Tse Tung’s prime minister, Chou-En-Lai, was asked what the impact of the French Revolution of 1789 had been, he replied that it was “still too early to judge”. We think differently at Chelsea. We do not know what historians call the ‘long time’. We were unaware of it, in any case, and we will not have the means to ignore it for long if the current drift were to be prolonged. Could Potter experience what another ‘atypical’, André Villas-Boas experienced?

The Blues were sixth in the Premier League when Thomas Tuchel received his marching orders in September, four days after beating West Ham in the league, and the day after a nasty loss to Dinamo Zagreb in C1. They are now tenth, two places behind Brighton, who seem to have digested the departure of their emblematic manager rather well. The draw for the League Cup and the FA Cup was the toughest for the Blues: in both cases, it was Manchester City who stood in front of them as soon as they entered the competition – from which they left immediately, conceding six goals and scoring none. A place in the Top 4 seems unattainable, Manchester United, the last of the quartet intended for the C1, already counting ten lengths in advance. It’s only in the Champions League that Chelsea hold their ground, and hold it to the turnaround that we saw almost immediately after Potter’s arrival at Stamford Bridge – something few of them recall today. in the English media today.

Chelsea manager Graham Potter

Credit: Getty Images

Chelsea, who had taken one point from six in the first two rounds of the group stage, then lined up four wins – including two over Milan – to finish first in their pool. It’s not nothing. For optimists, it might even recall the miracle of 2011-12, when Roberto Di Matteo’s – and Didier Drogba’s – non-league Blues beat Napoli, Benfica, Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern at home to become champions. from Europe for the second time. These optimists are increasingly rare, and the meeting against Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16 on February 15 inspires more concern than hope today.

Unreadable transfer window and complete infirmary

Despite all this, and even despite another defeat in the league against Fulham, who had beaten the Blues only once in 43 years before this success, Graham Potter is not – yet – weakened as he would have been. been in other times. Some will read there a confirmation that its American owners definitely understand nothing about football. They had started by getting rid of almost the entire hierarchy of the club, including Marina Granovskaya and Petr Cech, without having the slightest idea, it seems, of the identity of those who should fill the gaping void they had themselves created. Thomas Tuchel saw himself bombarded by the de facto sports director, a role for which he was not made, and hated – which did not prevent Boehly and his advisers from making some aberrant decisions in terms of recruitment, for which Potter is now paying the price well in spite of himself.

The craziest of them was to imagine that it was possible to compensate for the loss of Romelu Lukaku by acquiring a Pierre Emerick Aubameyang at the end of the race, who experienced the supreme humiliation of being replaced (and logically) during the recent 0-4 rout in the Cup at Manchester City, and which Chelsea could let go for nothing in January.

That Potter had nothing to do with. As it has nothing to do with the fact that Chelsea accumulate injuries like no other club. The list is worth citing in full. Edward Mendy. Ben Chilwell. Reece James. Wesley Fofana. N’Golo Kante. Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Christian Pulisic. Armando Broja. Raheem Sterling. And now, Denis Zakaria, one of the few real satisfactions of this season, hit in the knee against Fulham.

Mutatis mutandis, this situation is reminiscent of that of Liverpool in 2020-21, when many of Jürgen Klopp’s key players suffered muscle injuries during the winter, and the Reds – unbeaten for 68 games at Anfield – suffered six defeats in a row in their stage. Nobody then called for the dismissal of the German, for the simple reason that the team he had to field had little to do with the one that would have allowed him to compete with Manchester City. Potter certainly does not have Klopp’s pedigree, far from it, but it remains surprising that the enforced absences which amputate his Chelsea of ​​almost half of its starters (starting with Ben Chilwell and Reece James, absolutely crucial in a tactical scheme where the offensive contribution of the pistons is essential) are not taken into account as they should be.

Kanté could leave Chelsea next summer.

Credit: Getty Images

The virtues of patience?

Maybe Potter doesn’t have the build to be a Chelsea manager. Maybe he’s not ‘bad’ enough, as a lengthy piece by Times journalist Henry Winter suggested in the aftermath of the Blues’ inglorious FA Cup exit. He is not a genius tactician. The football he advocates is simple in design if not in execution; but Cruyff’s was too.

In Brighton, he could rely on what is perhaps the most formidable cell of analysts in any PL club – namely the hundreds of employees of Star Lizard, the company of owner Tony Bloom, whose the job is just to process, seven days a week, millions of data for the benefit of professional bettors – and the Seagulls. No comparable structure is in place at Chelsea. Maybe he suffers from it.

But perhaps Boehly and his associates are less naïve than they seem. Perhaps they are more the victim of the stereotypes which observers of old Europe make use of when it comes to soccer and Americans than their flaws. Perhaps they know the virtues of patience. Graham Potter, we want to believe, was not hired on a whim, and it will not be on a whim that they will separate.

Of course, we can’t swear to anything in football. This Thursday, the Blues, who had not lost to neighbors Fulham since 2006, fell again. Joao Felix, lined up from the start, just hours after the confirmation of his loan by Atlético de Madrid, brilliant for 57 minutes, found a way to be sent off in the 58th and will be absent for the next three matches of his new club, against Crystal Palace, Liverpool and, again, Fulham. It’s up to Chelsea to show that this famous ‘long term’ now means something.

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