Graham Potter’s true offensive objectives have been more difficult to discern lately. Perhaps that is due to how easily they were predicted under Thomas Tuchel, where the same passing patterns, overloads, and recycled possession persisted even with injuries to our influential wingbacks. With Potter, the play seems so much less schematic and those established expectations of runs and ball movement haven’t been as clearly developed.
Marco Silva has done a fine job at Fulham, especially lately - but without Aleksandar Mitrović, the source of 11 of their 30 goals this season, there was hope that we might be able to keep our winning streak alive against Fulham (and despite our poor recent form.) Alas, we did not, and it is our first loss to Fulham since 2006 and only our second loss since October 1979.
Potter started with a back three, which Silva may not have expected, and yet our wingbacks were exploited even more than our outside backs would have been had we put out a back four. Even Trevoh Chalobah and Kalidou Koulibaly didn’t cover themselves in glory - the former especially. Do not forget that it was Chalobah’s terrible decision to attempt to head the ball back to Kepa Arrizabalaga rather than bring it down under control that lead to them striking the woodwork even prior to nabbing their goal.
Every outlet has Mason Mount as part of a midfield trio, but his touch map has him significantly farther forward than Mateo Kovačić and his average position was actually the farthest forward of all other Chelsea players. There is no doubt that the base of that was Denis Zakaria until his quite worrying and unfortunate substitution. He has also been trusted to hold the base of the defense while the defenders go forward for set pieces, showing the level of trust he has earned from his quality play. His loss will be felt tremendously.
João Félix was an instant impact to the attack, something so drastically needed, and he was completely free and mobile, showing how he can affect a game while doing so. He got two players booked, was running behind the back line while also finding pockets of space with ease, and eager to take players on and bring the impetus towards goal. It was a bright spot to our attack, initially seeming to justify his costly loan. Having received a straight red and now banned for the following three matches, meaning the loan will literally cost about £1 million per Premier League match in which he could feature, the cost seems all the more outrageous now.
1 - Despite being sent off in the 58th minute, João Félix had the most shots (6), shots on target (4), successful take-ons (2) and won the most fouls (4) of any player on either side in Chelsea's 2-1 defeat to Fulham tonight. Eventful. pic.twitter.com/xxbu170M23— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 12, 2023
But enough positivity. The lack of width with our preferential wingbacks or outside backs has notoriously stifled our attack, and that was a wretched problem on its own. In our past few games, it has been the reason for our goals conceded and has compounded our problems. On the first goal, both wingbacks should have done better. Knowing that he was double teamed, Lewis Hall attempts to take on both Antonee Robinson and Bobby De Cordova-Reid, both of whom were having a great outing getting forward down that flank. It was ill-advised by the youngster, but our dealing with the cross was equally disappointing.
If there was one person who should have known that Willian has very few memorable left-footed Chelsea goals (one happened to be his first), that person should have been César Azpilicueta. In the top image he is clearly drawn centrally too much, and it gives Willian too much space. That space, while in the box, is far too great. Azpilicueta also doesn’t show him towards the flank but opens him up inside. While Kepa might have kept out the initial shot, the deflection off of Chalobah’s leg steers it just inside the far post, leaving Kepa no chance. In a bit of irony, his goal means that he has scored more goals against Chelsea for Fulham than he has against Fulham for Chelsea.
And while our 14 attempts in the first half were a new high for Potter’s Chelsea and garnered a 1.83 xG, we would go into the break without scoring and down a goal and never truly convincingly testing Bernd Leno. We let him pad his stats while taking numerous shots with less than ideal chances of scoring.
The first 15 minutes of the second half would seal our fate, and what began as optimism would quickly dwindle. We have not been great on set pieces this season - in fact, half of our set piece goals this season and both of his goals for the club have come from Koulibaly. Prior to that goal, we were in the bottom four in set piece xG, goals, and shots. It should be noted that Mount’s audacious effort, the reason we scored the goal, was earned by Lewis Hall. While not looking incredibly solid in defense, the young man did have quite a few decent attacking efforts.
But our miscues in attack would continue despite the life brought by Félix, and the action which took out Zakaria was a clear example of that. After doing ever so well to touch the ball around the opposition and find the open man in the middle of the park, Zakaria went down after the making this incisive pass. Havertz misses his chance to make the second open pass and displays what has been plaguing our attack for so many of our defeats - making a quality, decisive decision.
Jorginho would replace Zakaria in the midfield and, within five minutes, Félix would be sent off. Unsurprisingly, those things dramatically affected the way both Chelsea and Fulham played. Mount played a bit more withdrawn at this point, but Fulham moved Andreas Pereira farther forward and attempted to nullify our ability to play out through the centre. The passing options became long balls, which we were surprisingly willing to play for once, or through the flanks, where we were being so greatly outplayed. They were dictating play even without the ball.
In possession, they were looking somewhat similar to our traditional style of play, probing the wings for overloads and recycling possession from side to side. Off the ball Chelsea were far too restrained, perhaps due to the sending off, and allowed Fulham to create chances by moving the ball quickly into wide areas. They were switching the play much faster than we typically do, and that was what allowed them to find the space to pick out good crosses.
In fact, in the two sequences prior to the goal, they had 16 passes that were recycled through the back 3 times until Lewis Hall cleared their first probing effort. Unfortunately, that clearance was directly to Pereira, who was still parked in our half. Pereira then began a sequence of 8 passes that was recycled side to side another three times until his eventual cross would perfectly pick out, while switching to the far post, Carlos Vinicius for his first goal. Two things must be said; there is no reason Vinicius should be the one to connect with the ball considering the marking and Kepa picked the worst time to finally come out for a cross.
It took Potter quite some time to react to the sending off, and even their goal didn’t immediately change anything. Without presuming too much, it does leave one to ponder what Potter had planned to do. We were being outplayed on and off the ball and so their goal should have been the minimal requisite to change the game. It still took six minutes until Potter made a quadruple change and went to a back four with a midfield three of Jorginho, Carney Chukwuemeka, and Conor Gallagher. Hakim Ziyech and Marc Cucurella were given more minutes, but Chukwuemeka by far earned the plaudits from the bunch. His passing and movement was lively once again, only raising the question of why he wasn’t given the start or at least brought on sooner.
Under the previous regime this would have certainly been a dalliance rather than a marriage with Graham Potter. There have been many arguments noting that it is in fact the players from that previous regime who are slowing Potter’s ability to demonstrate his influence. The fact remains that we have now lost more games this season than last season. Changes need to and thankfully continue to be made.