Despite having an intricate knowledge of the squad available to his own successor, Graham Potter evidently wasn’t expecting the manner in which Brighton were able to outpress and outperform us. Potter’s insistence that Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic are capable fill-in wingbacks showed a gigantic weakness, but there were other issues, too.
Our lineup was not dissimilar to that which faced Salzburg midweek, and it certainly raised additional questions per fatigue about the selections made. Brighton did make a slight adjustment to what seems to be their preferred 3-4-2-1 formation, and their resultantly improved linkup play made it appear as though they’ve been using that system for some time. The ability of their attacking midfield three to overload or isolate our defenders combined with the withdrawn runs Leandro Trossard made towards and away from the ball left our defense spread far too widely and vertically.
Potter stated afterwards that Sterling and Pulisic were not intended to play traditionally, but were to join in on the massive forward presence we had and recover possession in either the middle or final third. That strategy would likely have been banking on a prerequisite of possession. But because Brighton had over 50% possession in the first half, over 40% of the play took place in the middle third, and both teams had a high number of turnovers in the middle of the park, the wingbacks’ ‘defensive’ role was essentially nullified. That strategy also made progressive passes into those vacant spaces too much for Trevoh Chalobah and Marc Cucurella to cover and thus became our crux.
When considering the heatmaps below, note that the adventurous nature of Cucurella and the fact that he was subbed off (the game against Salzburg is the only one of the last 5 in which he hasn’t been replaced) just after the hour mark makes it clear both why his greater knack is as a wingback and why we were really stretched down that flank. Cucurella was not nearly as defensively rooted as Chalobah on the opposite flank, and De Zerbi has admitted that isolating Solly March on Cucurella was a main objective.
While Thiago Silva can marshall a back line as well as anyone, without defensive cover for the vast amounts of space left open and their quick attackers pressing hard, even he was rushed and uncomfortable in some of his decisions. Many outlets have chalked this up to fatigue, which may be and hopefully is the case (he can rest midweek), because his passing decisions put us at ends far too many times in the beginning of the game. He saved himself from his first errant pass by heading off the line, saved himself again by clearing off the line a second time after a brilliant strike from the subsequent corner, but, despite his best efforts to compensate and recover, he couldn’t thrice replicate that result.
While theoretically you would want Loftus-Cheek more square because he would be able to receive and turn upfield in space, there is no need to force that issue. The safe pass is back to Kepa, but instead he turns the ball over. In his effort to recover, our marking is thrown off entirely. He, Chalobah, and Loftus-Cheek converge on the ball at Kaoru Mitoma’s feet rather than recognise the threat and pick up Troussard centrally. Kepa is dribbled around patiently, and Brighton would have their first ever lead over Chelsea in the Premier League, ever. The defensive duress we were under was quite clear and only grew worse.
The difficulties in attack and defense in the past few games have been a result of Potter fielding the wrong squad in the first place and failing to anticipate the objectives of his opposition. We have been able to praise his reactionary response in previous matches, and might have even continued to heap praise on it had our winning streak continued. This loss instead heaps scrutiny on why his selections have been wrong in the first place.
Because defensive errors from our wingbacks both involving positioning - especially failing to pick up appropriate defensive pressure or failing to track runs - Brighton were able to repeatedly get in 1v1 situations or even behind our back line. Their third goal essentially killed the game, and considering Pulisic’s confusion about whom to attack, it essentially confirms that the the wingbacks were not clear on the marking scenarios. After tracking Pervis Estupiñán on a counter down that flank, once Kaoru Mitoma lays the ball back for Moises Caicedo, Pulisic isn’t sure whether to press the ball or stay with his runner. The hesitancy affords space that was is exploited after the non-committal run from Pulisic, Trevoh Chalobah is left with a 1v1 challenge, and as he slides to clear wide, he unfortunately puts in the second own goal of the half.
Here is where the instructions somewhat ruin the tactics. There is clearly no other option for Pulisic than to stay with his runner and allow Loftus-Cheek, who was actually in ever-the-slowest motion to do so, put pressure on Caicedo. In the bottom of the three images, you can see that they have three players in central and threatening positions. As a result, Chalobah cannot and should not be drawn out wide to cover Estupiñán’s run. The result of this confusion is their third goal, and though this came through their left side, they actually attacked through the middle and right side equally effectively with the stretched play pulling Loftus-Cheek and Kovačić out of position.
Our passing patterns were also concerning. The progressive passing that Potter had been employing might have forced Brighton to defend more resolutely, and the forward passing lanes should have been readily available with so many attacking players. Our attempt to dictate tempo and play a more controlled and precise game (without Jorginho) really added pressure to our already harried outside backs. The pass map shows the average positioning of our players between passes and demonstrates how neither wingback truly has either wing or back (i.e. wide or defensive) play in their buildup game. Our pass matrix shows that there were almost as many passes back to the outside central defenders as they made themselves, meaning that we were enabling the pressure that the Brighton press was causing. Criminently, Kepa has the most progressive passes attempted and completed through the whole game, and he was even subbed at half.
Potter did make a slight tweak before the half but without a change of players by moving Loftus-Cheek into a wingback role. He doubled down in the second half as Loftus-Cheek became an outside right back as part of a four. Through those interesting 45 minutes, Potter had permutations of a 4-1-4-1 at the start with the only change being Mendy for Kepa, a 4-1-3-2 after the introduction of Aubameyang as a second striker with Kovačić the lone holding midfielder, and finally a 4-3-3 for the last ten minutes with Broja coming into the third attacking role while Ziyech played a much more attacking role than Gallagher. The result was that we gave up another ball through the midfield via their high press, conceded a fourth goal, and Potter’s unbeaten run ended against his previous club.
Glaringly, it took quite a while to make adjustments to a clearly deficient lineup, and for a man who rarely hesitates to adjust his starting formation, that drew attention. Potter’s comments afterward shed some light on that decision and how this is all part of the process to outlast our growing pains. Those words also somewhat affirm that his being here isn’t the quick managerial fix to which we Chelsea fans are accustomed, but actually a more guided approach to a realisation of the maximum potential that Chelsea could become. Whether we as fans and, more importantly, the higher-ups are patient enough to endure a slower rebuild is yet to be seen. The word results has traditionally echoed resoundingly through the halls of Stamford Bridge, but the prospect surely is tantalising.