How much longer does Graham Potter have to save his job at Chelsea? How near is he to a line that he dare not cross? We don’t know for sure, because there is no hard evidence on how loyal or patient the club’s new co-owner Todd Boehly might be with a manager he personally picked to take control less than six months ago.
The project was to build a new Chelsea dynasty with bright young players led by the kind of innovative bright coaching that made Potter a big success at Brighton, where he led the modest south coast outfit to a best-ever ninth-place finish and produced an attractive brand of football. But after going nine games unbeaten at the start of his Chelsea tenure, it’s all gone horribly wrong in 2023 to the extent that the manager recently confessed to getting abhorrent death threats from some fans.
Chelsea have spent over £550 million in transfer fees since Boehly took control, but they have won only two of their past 15 Premier League games. A club accustomed to dining at the top table are instead feeding off scraps down in 10th place, 14 points off the top four. They are in a sort of footballing No Man’s Land, and mutiny is in the air.
Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Tottenham was another alarming affair for Chelsea fans, who watched their team muddle through a big game devoid of any real fire, heart or soul. An error from record £105m signing Enzo Fernandez handed Spurs the lead, Harry Kane got a late second and Potter’s men never looked remotely like fighting back. That performance followed an embarrassing 1-0 home defeat by bottom club Southampton at Stamford Bridge last week.
Chelsea have scored just once in the past five matches and are out of both domestic cup competitions. Indeed, the team look exactly what they are — a mishmash of comparative strangers selected from a ludicrously bloated squad of around 33 players. Keeping that many expensive stars happy is next to impossible; by simple numbers, there are always likely to be 22 bruised egos every week.
How do you organise training for that many footballers? Potter made six changes for the Spurs game to no avail, and it might take months to discover his best XI.
It is clear Potter needs more time; his problem is that very few Chelsea fans are prepared to let him have it. Most grew up in the Roman Abramovich era, during which Chelsea delivered more trophies than any club in England despite the owner deploying a total of 13 managers along the way.
Abramovich had no patience for anything but unrelenting success; as such, coaches were hired and fired in ruthless fashion. Roberto Di Matteo lasted only a matter of months after winning the Champions League; Carlo Ancelotti was sacked a year after delivering a Premier League and FA Cup double. Yet the fans accepted, and even applauded, such moves because they worked in that era. Over time, it became the Chelsea culture.
Most supporters want Boehly to adopt a similarly cold approach now with regard to Potter’s tenure, but will he be so brave?
Sacking Potter would get the fans off his back, but it would also expose Boehly’s original judgement to have been flawed. The billionaire co-owner cut a sad figure sitting with a blue and white scarf around his neck in the directors box at Spurs, being ridiculed by the home fans. A penny for his thoughts.
Potter may only have been half joking when he entered a recent news conference saying he had been “delayed at a crisis meeting.” He is a decent man and if results had been different, the Chelsea supporters would almost certainly have appreciated his self-deprecating, ego-free and reasoned approach, one that befits a man with a degree in emotional intelligence. Instead they moan that he does not have the charisma of a Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte or Thomas Tuchel — all of them predecessors in the Stamford Bridge hotseat.
The fans want Potter to get more angry more often; they want to imagine him breathing a bit of fire in the dressing room. But it’s a bit like asking someone to change their DNA. Besides, you can only shout so much at players before they stop hearing what he has to say; no, this manager will stand or fall on his man management, coaching and tactical nous.
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Potter’s critics argue that his success at Brighton was no guarantee that he could work in a more demanding environment at a top-four club. That could prove to be the case, but only if a good manager has become a bad one in a matter of months.
Typically Potter fronted up for TV interviews after the Spurs defeat, but he knew the questions would be pointed and awkward and he’d have no easy answers until his team can help him change the ugly mood around the club. He’s clearly been hurt by the Blues’ run of form. It has, of course, also affected his wife, Rachel, and three sons as well, given the death threats he has received.
However, Saturday’s game against Leeds and the following midweek Champions League home tie with Borussia Dortmund — Chelsea are down 1-0 from the first leg of their round-of-16 clash — must be won, otherwise you would be right to fear the worst for a man who rose from coaching university students to working in the Champions League.
Potter has come to his first rock in the road, and the next 10 days will show if he can find a way round it. Meanwhile, what happens next might also tell us a fair bit about Mr. Boehly, too. Could he accept what might be a “fallow year” in the belief that Potter will eventually come through?