Last weekend football solemnly marked the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an act that, on a far more trivial level, set in motion a course of events which led Chelsea to where they find themselves today.
Without Vladimir Putin’s murderous willy-waving there would be no Todd Boehly at Stamford Bridge, no monolithic spending spree, probably no Graham Potter and almost certainly no muddled slide into mid-table mediocrity.
It’s not all Potter’s fault
With Potter winless in six games it has been remarked that Chelsea’s reflex reaction would be to sack the manager, but that Chelsea no longer exist.
Roman Abramovich is gone and with him Marina Granovskaia, Petr Cech and much of the behind-the-scenes brains trust which, along with the Russian oligarch’s money, made Chelsea such a consistent fixture at the head of the European game for two decades.
New co-owner Boehly has also brought a lot of money, ambition and good intentions, but little evidence so far of anything more concrete beyond.
Results on the field are the obvious and fairest barometer of a club’s progress – especially one that has spent so much on players – so it is only natural that when things go badly the scrutiny falls largely on the manager. But Potter is the frontman for a club undergoing tremendous upheaval above and beyond his control.
Tottenham coach Antonio Conte recently bemoaned the lack of public profile and accountability afforded to sporting directors in the English game means it falls on managers and coaches to answer for decisions and repercussions over which they have little knowledge or control. It is fair to wonder whether Graham Potter might agree with him.
Chelsea’s participation in the January transfer window wasn’t just enthusiastic, it was chaotic and seemingly naive. After Benfica told them Enzo Fernandes would not be sold for less than his huge release clause the Blues played hardball for a month before accepting the inevitable and paying the full fee at the deadline.
Mudryk was signed from under Arsenal’s noses without any indication the club’s plan for him expands beyond frustrating a local rival. Both Fernandez and Mudryk will likely prove to be quality signings and will probably not be the only ones.
Benoit Badiashile has made an encouraging start and Joao Felix has also shown promise but cannot be considered a long-term building block as the £9million Chelsea paid Atletico Madrid for the forward only covers a six-month loan with no option for a permanent deal.
Noni Madueke and David Datro Fofana look more likely to have an impact in the future than right now and Malo Gusto and Andrey Santos have been loaned back out.
Chelsea’s hectic window has left Potter with a bloated squad of some 31 first-team players, a situation which has reportedly left the former Brighton boss struggling to conduct meaningful training sessions which keep everyone involved and inevitably left noses out of joint when players don’t make the matchday squad.
The manager’s desire to keep everyone happy and involved has at times also appeared to have an influence on selection with impossible-to-predict recent Chelsea teams featuring countless changes in personnel, formation and tactics. Six changes were made for Sunday’s listless loss at Tottenham.
Time to be ruthless
In truth Potter’s squad rotation – a throwback to the Tinkerman era of former Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri – is more about finding balanced and successful solutions than keeping everybody happy but there is a sense the manager should be more ruthless.
Throughout his management career with Ostersund, Swansea and Brighton Potter has shown huge ability to build a team and an ethos, and it is the 47-year-old’s credentials as a ‘project builder’ which attracted Boehly in his search for the right coach to shape his new Chelsea.
But football, as the old truism goes, is about results and Potter’s Chelsea are reaching the stage of needing a few good ones, whatever it takes to achieve them.
If that means upsetting a few big names old or new then so be it. It’s time for the man with the long-term vision to apply some short-term focus, settle on a team he trusts and grind out a few wins.
If Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has to be called in from the naughty step to help achieve that, then so be it.
Where are the leaders?
A settled side might also force players to take responsibility. In recent years Chelsea have become a team that lack leadership and with the line-up chopping and changing every week it is easier still for players to pass the buck for individual mistakes, collective failings and defeats. Raheem Sterling has captained England, Mason Mount and Reece James have both played well over 100 games for the club. It is time for them to set the standards for others and ensure they are met.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta and Thomas Frank have both offered words of support for Potter this week. It’s normal for rival managers to rally around when one of their own is under threat but their comments had more than the ring of hollow platitudes about them.
‘(Graham is) a very good coach and it’s proven that he can do a good job,’ Frank told the BBC. ‘A good coach can work at every club. It’s just sometimes the circumstances create an environment where it’s difficult to get everything to just click.
‘There’s a lot of new players (at Chelsea), the team isn’t in sync, trying to find the right balance. A lot of players have been in and out [of the team]. Graham is searching for a solution and I’m convinced, over time, he will find that solution.’
Graham Potter is clearly a decent man who does what he thinks is best for long-term future of the club but winning games matters too and so does saving his job. There is still time.