Chelsea are on to a winner with Graham Potter if they give him time
Six games into the new season and the top of the Premier League table contains some familiar names. Arsenal lead the way, with unbeaten Manchester City and Tottenham both one point behind. Manchester United’s four-game winning run has helped them surge up to fifth above Chelsea and Liverpool who, despite sub-par starts, are still chasing the early leaders. The outlier in the mix? Brighton, who are fourth.
This is not alien territory for the club, who also sat on 13 points after six games last season, but to be in such a position following the high-profile sales of Marc Cucurella to Chelsea, Yves Bissouma to Tottenham and Neal Maupay to Everton for a combined £95m is a testament to Graham Potter’s coaching capabilities. To lose three of their best players from last season and still have much such a strong start deserves widespread praise.
Potter’s managerial record is no secret. After making his name in Sweden, where he led Östersund from the fourth tier to the Europa League, he moved to Swansea before taking the Brighton job in May 2019 and taking the club from strength to strength. It is no surprise that Chelsea have come knocking on the Amex door after sacking Thomas Tuchel.
Chelsea relieved Tuchel of his duties after their 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League and the club have wasted no time in lining up the German’s replacement. Brighton finished ninth in the Premier League last season under Potter – the highest finish in the club’s 121-year history. As well as helping Brighton climb up the table, the 47-year-old has drawn admirers for his team’s entertaining style of play.
Tottenham were linked with Potter last summer before, oddly, plumping for Nuno Espírito Santo, only to then right their wrongs and appoint Antonio Conte in November. Potter is at long last being given the chance to try his luck at one of England’s richest clubs.
He is a good choice for Chelsea. Potter used a three-man defence with Brighton, which suits Chelsea. Tuchel struggled to get the best out of his players this season, though it was always going to take time for the new arrivals to get up to speed after some big departures. The key for Potter will be to build a functioning and competitive midfield. This would be a lot easier were N’Golo Kanté able to remain fit. Even so, Potter has the managerial know-how to bring the best from the players at his disposal.
He needs his Chelsea midfielders to start doing more defensive work. Brighton rank ninth for tackles and interceptions combined in the Premier League this season, with 27 per game. The bulk of this industrious work has been carried out by their two young midfielders Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo, who rank eighth and 10th, respectively, for tackles and interceptions combined in the league. Their hard work in midfield protects the Brighton defence.
Chelsea, by contrast, are making more tackles and interceptions than Brighton, but what’s important to note is that Chelsea’s centre-backs, Thiago Silva and Kalidou Koulibaly, are among the highest ranking players for this metric, which is not ideal. Midfielders should be placing higher for this statistic, like they are at Brighton. By picking two hard-working and diligent midfielders, Potter has found a way to protect his defence and make Brighton difficult to break down.
Brighton have conceded just five goals in their six league games this season – only Wolves have a better defensive record, having conceded just four – and two of the goals Brighton have conceded were own goals. By contrast, Chelsea have already conceded nine times. It took them until 4 December – 15 games into the campaign – to ship as many last season.
Losing Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rüdiger has contributed to their struggles in defence but this is a longer-term issue for Chelsea. Tuchel was in charge of Chelsea for 100 games. They conceded 24 goals in his first 50 matches and 53 goals in his last 50 matches. Chelsea need to tighten up their defence and the best way to do that is by sorting out their midfield.
Potter has favoured a 3-5-2 setup during his time at Brighton, a slight change from the 3-4-2-1 system that Tuchel used most frequently at Chelsea. Continuing with a 3-5-2 formation would allow Potter to bulk out the midfield and provide more protection for the defence. With the responsibility then on the wing-backs to stretch opponents, this will benefit Reece James, Ben Chilwell and former Brighton man Cucurella, who knows Potter’s system and expectations inside out.
Potter will need some time and patience to implement his approach. When he moved to Brighton three years ago, he arrived at a stable environment and was given the chance to establish his preferred system. By comparison Chelsea have sacked three managers – Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard and Tuchel – during his spell on the south coast.
Expectations are higher at Chelsea but the new owners need to give Potter a stable platform on which to build success. Revitalising and reshaping the team will be difficult, with games coming thick and fast following the return of the Champions League and the race to squeeze in as many fixtures as possible before the World Cup begins in November. Potter is likely to be in the dugout for Chelsea’s trip to local rivals Fulham on Saturday, their first of 16 fixtures in 63 days – one every four days.
It will be interesting to see how Potter fares at Chelsea, where the quality of players is higher than at Brighton, Östersund or Swansea. Brighton were an exciting side to watch during Potter’s tenure – even if they lacked the cutting edge of a great goalscorer – though, conversely, they were also tough to beat. They only lost 11 games last season – only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea lost fewer.
Potter is not just an appointment for right now. He is a manager who could rebuild Chelsea in the long term. If given the time and patience, he could prove perfect.