GRAHAM Potter looks like a first-time homeowner, struggling with buyer's remorse. He’s bought into a fantasy, the promise of a stable reality that can never exist.
Chelsea are not really a football club now, but a strange cross between a property portfolio and a Disney franchise, with an American owner contemplating fireworks and float parades.
Do not discount anything at this point. Chelsea co-owner, chairman, director of football and self-appointed thought leader of the English game, Todd Boehly, has already suggested an all-star EPL fixture, an idea which is proving less popular than an anti-monarchy protest.
Boehly has advocated an NBA-like gathering of the constellations from the north and south. Why stop there, bro? Why not introduce those float parades of legends at Stamford Bridge, with Didier Drogba and John Terry dancing along to Blue is the Colour?
If it ain’t broke at Chelsea, smash it to pieces and replace it with crass, Americana-style marketing and tone-deaf corporate triumphalism. Boehly has lavished £250 million in the most erratic display of needless spending since Rosmah Mansor went handbag shopping. He sacked a manager, appointed another and called for an all-star circus that reeks of Seventies’ sports marketing and Pele turning up to play for Mickey Mouse outfits in the defunct North American Soccer League.
And in the middle of all this was Potter, fittingly attired in a sombre black suit, watching his side stumble against Salzburg and wondering what, exactly, he had bought into.
Buyer’s remorse often taps into cognitive dissonance. A sense of fear or regret takes hold after a life-changing decision of such magnitude. Was the decision made irrationally? Did the weight of the moment overwhelm one’s judgement? Did the prospect of playing Raheem Sterling as a left wing-back in a Champions League game seem more attractive than a job for life at Brighton?
Who knows what was actually going through Potter’s head as Salzburg went through his shaky defence to snatch an equaliser at Stamford Bridge.
But his sartorial choices felt almost too obvious. Coaching careers are frequently buried at the Bridge. At least previous managers maintained a semblance of respectability, thanks to the near invisibility of former owner Roman Abramovich. But Chelsea have gone from the man who said too little to that auntie at every reunion dinner.
Boehly doesn’t stop talking.
Can manager and owner co-exist?
It’s hard to see a positive outcome between the two men at the Bridge. Boehly wants a Red Bull-style, Manchester City-infused global syndicate of Chelsea-lite clones, all serving and feeding the mothership like an old Alien movie. Potter just wants to manage a team with a half-decent striker. He may not have a half-decent striker. Who knows if he’ll be around long enough to do the managing bit.
The Blues’ fall already feels remarkably swift. In the 21st minute, supporters sang Thomas Tuchel’s name, reminding everyone, and perhaps themselves, that they won the Champions League in 2021. They were Club World Cup winners in February. Now a 1-1 draw at home to Salzburg feels like a decent result. It’s a dramatic shift in expectations.
And Potter is off on a futile journey of discovery to learn if he’s the next Eddie Howe or another Phil Brown, a young British manager overachieving at a smaller, well-run club before overreaching elsewhere. His impressive track record suggests the former, but it really doesn’t matter. He will be fired in any case, the latest bit-part in English football’s Shakespearean farce (good guy leaves the good guys, tempted by the fame and fortune of the bad guys.)
Potter’s standout selection decision, assigning left wing-back duties to Sterling, is indicative of Chelsea’s lack of tactical and structural direction, post-COVID, post-Ukraine invasion, post-Abramovich. Yes, there are more pressing issues involving a sanctioned oligarch than a football club’s line-up, but the Blues are all over the place nonetheless.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Kai Havertz were both wisely removed in the 66th minute. Listless and largely anonymous, Havertz remains the talented enigma wrapped in a Chelsea riddle and Aubameyang has only really highlighted Arsenal’s foresight in selling him.
Sterling scores goals – and curled in a cracker against Salzburg – but the asterisk that hovers over his name, that indefinable something that made him dispensable at Pep Guardiola’s City, still lingers. Experienced, international forwards are not usually signed for £47.5 million and then deployed at left wing-back.
Potter is already scrambling to solve a problem that cost Tuchel his job. The blues enjoyed 72.1 per cent possession and managed 17 shots. Salzburg conjured only four and the game ended 1-1. Havertz, Aubameyang and substitute Christian Pulisic are not the obvious fixes to the club’s longstanding inconsistency in front of goal.
At the other end, centre-backs Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly – signed at a combined cost of £108.8 million – were conspicuous by their absence. Potter left both on the bench, an indictment perhaps of a scattergun approach to recruitment. It’s just another mess for Potter’s magic broom to sweep away.
With one point from two Champions League games, Chelsea remain bottom of their group, their poorest start to a European campaign since 1999. Their next games are home-and-away ties in Milan. The sense of urgency is unmistakable, but Potter will not lead his players out again until 1 October, when they visit Crystal Palace.
Ironically, the new manager is blessed with time that he could do without, at a club that typically views patience as a weakness, a quaint indulgence usually found at the game’s quirkier incubators, like Brighton and Hove Albion.
Whisper it, but there’s a chance that Chelsea’s Champions League participation could be over before it’s really begun with the race to qualify for next season’s competition suddenly becoming a nail-biting, career-defining challenge for the new kid on the chopping block.
All the relevant parties are saying the opposite, of course, playing nice in their mutual appreciation society. Potter was drawn towards Chelsea’s “vision”, which sounded about as convincing as the crew of the Millennium Falcon insisting they were drawn towards the vision of the Death Star. While the Blues’ owners are adamant that European qualification is not an essential KPI.
But even if there is confidence in the Potter process, there will be no time. Potter’s new boss sees only a future filled with all-stars. And Boehly will keep hiring and firing until he gets it.
Even if there is confidence in the Potter process, there will be no time. Potter’s new boss sees only a future filled with all-stars. And Boehly will keep hiring and firing until he gets it.
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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