There was a positive bounce in individual performances, if not the result, in the 1-1 draw against Salzburg two weeks ago. With the intense schedule we face in the upcoming month and a half, what might we be able to determine objectively insofar as Graham Potter’s plans for this squad?
Let’s highlight how and what the new manager has changed in only the brief time he’s had to work with the squad. I would ideally be working with a few games worth of information, but we came into this international break with Potter at the helm but the one time — our Premier League fixtures were cancelled, a friendly against quite familiar Brighton was played behind closed doors, as was a the friendly played against Portsmouth that featured non-first-team players anyway (who were either on international duty or on break).
That said, there were enough initiatives in Potter’s singular viewable outing, his first career game in the Champions League, to indicate some his intentions, and we ought to take note.
Virtually every outlet, including Chelsea’s own account itself, got Potter’s starting formation incorrect for the Salzburg match — even though it was oddly announced well prior to the requisite hour before kickoff. Graham Potter himself insisted that it was a back three in his post-match presser, but there were shades of four at the back when off the ball. Reece James was certainly tasked with a bit more defensive duties than Raheem Sterling, who was operating as a nominal left wingback and might well continue to do so in Potter’s system should he continue with a back three. Potter used a back four in both friendlies, but that might well have been due to his selection of players rather than tactics.
And while that asymmetrical defensive formation might seem concerning, it was probably an astute approach to a game where a counter through our left side was their intent and only real threat. Lining up this way made sure that our slower defense on the right had a speedy and gargantuan presence in Reece James there to tidy up any issues while the rest shifted left to cover for the lack of positional defense provided by Sterling. The left side was progressive, determined, and loaded with an expressive selection in both wingback and defense, and while Sterling was supported by Marc Cucurella on the flank and Mateo Kovačić centrally, he was operating more singularly than those on the right side. It is no surprise that Reece James will continue to be utilised as a major offensive threat, but providing variety on the opposite side with an equally direct attack would be wonderful, should there be a compensational balance defensively.
It ought to be noted that the fluidity in defense should be something with which we become accustomed, as it has been an integral aspect of comprehensive defending that Potter and his defensive coach, Björn Hamberg, have been implementing since their days in Sweden. Transparency and clarity in instruction, especially in defensive organisation, is absolutely key to Potter’s system, and they seem to have identified that problem, once a Tuchel foundation.
“The player can speak, we’ll have a discussion around it. The player should feel comfortable on the pitch, not stressed. And when the stress kicks in it’s natural. How we work is if they get a chance to influence their own game, they can take more control, more responsibility, when things are tough they feel they can challenge themselves as well. That kind of progress is key, that communication with the players.”
-Björn Hamberg; The Athletic
The subtleties of the tactical adjustments that Potter made were clever - wherein both Kai Havertz was tasked with both stretching the defensive line either high or wide and Mason Mount was trying to act as a more traditional no. 8, even if he was both slightly more forward and on the right flank than what would be deemed traditional. The other more glaring and effective change was to move Raheem Sterling, by far our most productive offensive player this season, into a position where he would see more touches and be capable of developing the play from deeper positions. Our wingbacks have always been key to our offensive success out of a back three, and moving him into that position was a bold risk that paid off, if only until Salzburg levelled.
Sterling’s effectiveness on the ball was one of the highlights of our game, and getting him into a deeper position not only allowed him to be more influential on our offensive movements, but it also gave him or others the chance to make penetrating runs behind their back line for the few occasions we were able to do so. Clearly one of Potter’s instructions was for Raheem Sterling to have his heels on the touchline, but often to carry diagonally towards goal upon receiving the ball rather than stay wide, something like an inverted winger from a wingback position. An inverted wingerback? Anyway, Kovačić was tasked with overlapping runs to the outside, dragging the defense out to open up larger channels for Sterling’s inside runs. This movement did create a few opportunities and when Sterling couldn’t shoot or make headway centrally, Kovačić (or Havertz on the odd occasion) was finding space to lay crosses across the six. As often and more directly, Sterling was able to link up play centrally, as he did with Havertz below.
Those runs by Kovačić also provided direct lanes for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to attack, and he and Havertz were both trying to exploit that space. The best chance nearly turned fruitful, lest for some impressive Salzburg shot blocking.
Which leads us to our unfortunate Chelsea constant of late; this team for far too long has been misfiring. Not shooting at good opportunities is likely something that will thankfully dissipate over time - Tuchel discouraged that in favour of possession while Potter is his opposite and will encourage those endeavours. Possession-based play is within the comfort zone of this squad - they are often, player for player, better than their opposition, even in the Premier League, and they are now accustomed to that style of play. The comfortable pass while retaining possession doesn’t push the drive of a player individually and it prohibits them from accomplishing all of which they might be capable - and that hindrance isn’t Potter’s proverbial cup of tea. Our hesitancy to shoot allowed defenses to settle (let’s be clear, this was not entirely different against Salzburg) and likely led to our shots not hitting the target or being forced or blocked. Especially considering the shot/xG map and how all of our chances were essentially from a central position and even often from inside the box, this game is another circumstance where failing to finish has robbed us of otherwise deserved points. Potter will want to notice how and why this occurred, as it is a similar to what many Premier League teams will offer by compacting the box and throwing bodies in front of shots...but 6 of our 17 shots also went wide, an issue which might well be bolstered with the encouragement and espoused confidence of a coach like Potter, who offers it in bounties via his Masters Degree in Emotional Intelligence.
That’s not to say what happened was all well and good nor doom and gloom...the game did finish in a draw. There were other aspects, however, which also led us to concern.
When we had sustained deep pressure, our shape essentially morphed into a 3-2-5, using the entire width of the pitch to spread their back line. This flat line of attackers was still finding minimal space behind their defense nor in the half spaces of midfield, as they were standing stagnant across their back line - Kovačić or Jorginho were the only deeper midfielders, and neither prefers to make a forward run without the ball at their feet. This is also why we were so lifeless against a low block, marking our attackers is far too easy. The hesitancy for an forward to even make the run to drop in, pick up the ball, and drive it forward is something that lingers from the Tuchel era, and it’s why a player like Mason Mount or Conor Gallagher can be a game changer by providing that linked play. It is a habit that was clear during the Tuchel reign, and breaking out of it is an absolute must. Once possession is in our favour, the attackers cannot turn their backs to the ball and push too high up the pitch to ever receive it. Dropping into those midfield pockets will pull defenders out of their spaces, open up channels, and present opportunities for any one of our quick attackers to find that vacant space, but it happens far too infrequently.
Potter’s encouragement of the players to be more free in their style was evident, and there were quite a few moments where the flair was being expressed through flicks, tricks, and deft turns. Tuchel shackled the players to his passing sequences, expecting that constant possession while prodding down the wings would eventually break down a defense. Potter wasn’t entirely different in that regard, but the pace of the vertical movement up the field was accelerated. He also pulled out an old Tuchel trick, something that Tuchel had employed to great success in the early stages of last season, deliberately deep crosses from one wingback to another. Sterling was doing a great job of holding his run wide at the far post so that on the occasions that those crosses did come, he would be poised for a shot...unfortunately, either due to seeking a better shooting angle or taking too many touches, something he is wont to do, he missed opportunities to grab a goal on the occasion below.
Those crosses weren’t only effective from James, too, as Azpilicueta was galavanting down that right flank sending in deep crosses to Sterling also. One in particular, which ended up being...get this... wonderfully blocked, nearly was volleyed beautifully into the net by Sterling, who had again found himself free at the back post.
But along with the good patterns that Tuchel had implanted came the worrying ones, and despite having that same sustained pressure in their final third, multiple opportunities to cross were foregone and our slow transition through Jorginho caused a defensive calamity through a counter. That balance that Tuchel once spoke of and delivered upon first coming to Chelsea has to be restored, because we have conceded 11 goals in 8 games, and 9 in 6 in the league (the average goals conceded for all teams in the top 10 of the Premier League through their first 6 games is 6.8). Equally worrying is that we have only scored 9 goals through all 11 games played in all competitions (City, for example, have scored 30 in 10, and even Liverpool, who have also conceded 11 goals in their first 8 games, have scored 18 times in that same span, double our goal count). There is no balance to this squad, and our possession-oriented football is glossing over the clear problems of conceding cheap and easily preventable goals all while still having utter impotence in front of goal. We may have been progressing the ball quicker through the lines, but the end product is still going to be the decisive factor in our results this season.
Potter has held conversations about both the current status and the projected future for each of the players, and his man-management will be critical with such a diverse group of expected and experienced starters, blossoming and burgeoning squad players, and the promising and propitious prospects brought in that are at his disposal. The man must be feeling pressure, despite any assurances provided by the new American regime. As he is winless against Crystal Palace, now would be the perfect time for him to break that duck and show everyone of what he is capable.