“We’ve got Super Thomas Tuchel! He knows exactly what we need!”
There were 64 minutes on the clock at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester City were 3-0 up, and the Chelsea fans had seen enough. Time to take refuge in an alternative reality.
On the sideline the actual Chelsea coach, Graham Potter, betrayed no visible sign of emotion. Those who chanted Tuchel’s name might argue that’s the whole problem right there.
The last thing Potter needed at this point was two games against Manchester City. As he ruefully noted afterwards, “they can make you look like you’re not trying”.
In the Premier League match last Thursday at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had at least managed to lose with dignity. The first half at the Etihad was less dignified. There wasn’t much Kepa Arrizabalaga could do about Riyad Mahrez’s sensational free-kick, but there was no excuse or explanation for the handball with which Kai Havertz conceded the penalty for 2-0.
City then rubbed it in with a brilliant third, in which Bernardo Silva, Rodri, Mahrez, Kyle Walker and Phil Foden combined to make Chelsea look stupid. There was still time for Khalidou Koulibaly to give away another penalty with a clumsy challenge on Phil Foden, as the Chelsea fans sang for Tuchel and Roman Abramovich.
It’s clear that Chelsea are a complete mess right now – and it’s equally clear that this is not Graham Potter’s fault. The key moment in the club’s recent history is the sanctioning of Abramovich and the sale of the club to Todd Boehly, but the current situation has its roots in the catastrophic transfer dealings of the 2021-22 season, before the change of ownership.
That was the season when the Petr Cech-Marina Granovskaia dream team blew €110 million on Romelu Lukaku, who has since boomeranged back to Inter on loan, while failing to renew the contracts of Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen, thus losing two members of their Champions League-winning defence on free transfers.
Boehly’s mad spending splurge last summer was to a large extent an attempt to repair that damage. €183 million was spent on three defenders: Wesley Fofana, Khalidou Koulibaly and Marc Cucurella.
These players have not had the impact Chelsea hoped for. Fofana managed only two league games before injuring his knee. Koulibaly might have been a good signing three seasons ago, but not now.
Cucurella would have been a good signing for €15 million, except Chelsea for some reason spent more than four times that amount on him; he’s the second-most-expensive full-back in history (behind Bayern’s Lucas Hernández), but far from being the second-best.
Last week the club spent another €40 million on the young French centre-back Benoît Badiashile, but at this moment the 38-year old Thiago Silva remains their best defender.
Up front they added Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The signing of Aubameyang was totally insane.
Chelsea brought him in apparently because he had enjoyed a productive time at Dortmund under Tuchel six years earlier, only to sack Tuchel a few days later. Now he will be taking up space on the bench and the wage bill until either his contract runs out in summer 2024 or they decide to pay him off.
All these mistakes were made before Potter arrived, and his difficulties are compounded by an injury list that currently includes nine first-team players: Sterling, Fofana, Christian Pulisic, Reece James, N’Golo Kanté, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Edouard Mendy, Armando Broja and Ben Chilwell. The team has disintegrated and the results, far from reflecting some Potter-induced collapse, are pretty much as you would expect.
Still, you would feel more confident about Potter’s long-term prospects at Chelsea if he gave more of an impression of understanding what the club is all about.
“There’s a completely different ownership than there was,” he said after the game last Thursday, “and this is hard for people to get their head round, because Chelsea for 20 years has been one thing, and now all of a sudden it’s different, but they still think back to what previously happened for 20 years, which is normal, despite the fact that it’s completely different.”
Except Chelsea didn’t become completely different when Boehly bought the club from Abramovich. Chelsea is the very same – same fans, same history, same culture, same basic identity.
In the Abramovich era Chelsea learned to think of themselves as winners, but for decades before that they thought of themselves as showbiz. The cult of celebrity is stronger at Chelsea than at any other English club.
If you look at their most popular coaches of the Premier League era – Tuchel, Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho, Gianluca Vialli – you notice they all have two things in common. They’re all “big personalities” – charismatic lion-tamers and showmen – and they had all enjoyed major success elsewhere before they ever came to Chelsea.
So Potter isn’t their usual type. Rather than the charisma of Vialli or the charm of Ancelotti, he has a master’s in leadership and emotional intelligence from Leeds Metropolitan University.
Reflecting on the value of this qualification, he told the Coaches’ Voice: “Self-awareness, empathy, responsibility, motivation, building relationships – these are all things I think you need when you’re coaching.”
Maybe though guys like Tuchel, Conte and Mourinho seem to get by without them.
On Thursday a reporter remarked that Potter never seemed to lose his temper, and the coach’s eye twitched almost imperceptibly. He replied that he does, of course, fly off the handle on occasion – behind closed doors, as and when appropriate.
“There’s times when you get cross and you get angry. It’s not like I’m some robot . . . Regardless of the fact that I’m pissed off after the game, I have to come here and represent Chelsea as best I can.”
He said the words “pissed off” slightly sotto voce, as though uncertain whether he ought to use such language in the press conference setting.
Nevertheless the words “PISSED OFF!” appeared in the YouTube clickbait titles as though he had shouted them, and Chelsea fans posted approving comments saying how glad they were that at last Potter was showing some passion.
There is no rational case for Chelsea to sack Potter. Unfortunately football is not a rational business. The crowd demands results or scapegoats: either will do.
“The owners are billionaires, so they’re quite smart. Smarter than me, that’s for sure!” Potter said last week. That’s what they call ‘managing up’. But it’s no use cultivating support in the boardroom if you can’t also win support from the stands.