Patched-together Chelsea at odds with Graham Potter’s wizard eye for a bargain
Imagine you are Graham Potter. You consider Arsenal’s probable team to face your Chelsea side today. You look at Mikel Arteta’s front three. You are not sure who will play on the right but even with Ben Chilwell injured again you have Marc Cucurella to play on that side of the defence as well as the option of a more attacking wing-back. Then you look at the other flank, where Gabriel Martinelli has been in sensational form. You remember how he embarrassed Emerson Royal and unsettled Trent Alexander-Arnold, how his pace and directness have troubled teams all season. With Reece James out, it is an obvious problem.
Potter has taken charge of Chelsea in 11 games. In seven he has started with a back three and two others, against Wolves and the home game against Salzburg, a hybrid system perhaps best described as a 4-2-3-1 when the right-back was very attacking and the left-sided forward had to shuttle back.
That suggests an inclination to wing-backs but who can he play against Martinelli? César Azpilicueta is 33 and, although committed as ever, age is beginning to sap at him; to offer space behind him for Martinelli to attack would seem a risk. Christian Pulisic was unconvincing on that flank against Brighton as Chelsea lost 4-1. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another possibility but is relatively inexperienced as a wing-back and he may be needed in the middle.
Perhaps the solution is to use a back four with Azpilicueta as an orthodox full-back. But Thiago Silva is 38 and the defeat by Brighton exposed his lack of pace if he is isolated, as is more likely in a four, particularly when the absence of N’Golo Kanté leaves Chelsea without a real ball-winner in midfield. Notably, other than the dead rubber against Dinamo Zagreb, when the Brazilian was a substitute, the only time Potter has started with what might be termed a pure back four – in his first game, at Crystal Palace – he spent the second half adding runners.
So maybe the solution is the shape he turned to against Manchester United two weeks ago after a first half-hour when Jadon Sancho troubled Azpilicueta and Marcus Rashford repeatedly threatened to get in behind Silva: a back four protected by a midfield diamond. Jorginho may not be the most ferocious presence but his positioning can shield the centre of the defence, with Mateo Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek as diligent blockers alongside him.
That leaves Mason Mount to play behind a front two of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Raheem Sterling or possibly Kai Havertz. That would also pose Arsenal a couple of potentially tricky questions. Can Thomas Partey handle an attacking midfielder directly up against him? And how will William Saliba and Gabriel manage a front two rather than one picking up the centre-forward with the other covering behind? They had few issues against front twos in the wins over Bournemouth and Brentford, but were flustered by Adam Armstrong and Joe Aribo in the draw at Southampton.
What is most significant, though, is less which solution Potter favours than every available option feels a little awkward. They all require some tinkering and repurposing. To an extent that is a matter of misfortune: to lose James, Wesley Fofana and, although he was back on Wednesday, Kalidou Koulibaly at the same time would stretch any squad. But it also highlights how patched together this Chelsea is. Problems that predated the sanctions against Roman Abramovich are still in the process of being resolved.
Silva has far exceeded expectations but no elite club should be so reliant on a player of his age. Aubameyang, at 33, is a short-term fix necessitated by the failure of Romelu Lukaku’s return. Kanté and Jorginho are over 30 and out of contract in June. With the Todd Boehly-Clearlake ownership apparently reluctant to incur significant liability on players with little resale value, any contract offer is likely to be heavily incentive-based and that increases the possibility of one or both leaving.
Perhaps none of that is particularly unusual. Injuries cause imbalances and rebuilding squads is difficult even without the added complication of sanctions. But there is also the obvious issue that Thomas Tuchel was supposedly driving recruitment in the summer, only to be dismissed as soon as the transfer window closed.
Sterling, in the politest possible way, suggested last week he would prefer to be playing as a winger rather than as a wing-back. He will not be the only summer signing wondering whether Potter has the same plans for him that Tuchel did, wondering exactly who is doing the planning.
Boehly, with his eagerness to sign Cristiano Ronaldo and his advocacy of an all-star match, does not seem somebody who instinctively grasps the holistic nature of football, the need for not merely the best players but players whose attributes enhance and are enhanced by those of their teammates. In that regard recent moves for Brighton’s head of recruitment, Paul Winstanley, and Monaco’s technical director, Laurence Stewart, are both hugely important and overdue.
The absence of Kepa Arrizabalaga, whose recent excellence perhaps masked the issues exposed at Brighton, further complicates Potter’s thinking for Sunday but the longer-term issue is instituting a plan that ensures recruitment and coaching are coordinated. Chelsea never seemed particularly discerning in the market even in the later, more financially restrained years of the Abramovich era and, although there were plenty of trophies to show for it, they came at an average loss of £900,000 a week over his 19 years at the club.
The new regime, presumably, will not tolerate that, even if financial fair play regulations have proved to lack teeth, and neither has that been Potter’s style before. His success has come on a budget, buying players tailored to his approach. Whether that clashes with the desire for celebrity Boehly has demonstrated both with his MLB franchise and in repeated public utterances since the takeover remains to be seen.
Without a coherent strategy, though, what is left is the situation Potter finds himself in: lots of good (and expensive) players who do not quite fit together.