How Chelsea’s faith in Graham Potter slowly ebbed away
After fewer than seven months in charge the west London club made a move that left players and staff stunned
The buzzword around Chelsea on Sunday night was ‘progress’ and a lack of it, but ultimately it was decisions that cost Graham Potter what only six months earlier had been his dream job.
Chelsea’s owners wanted to back Potter after the embarrassing home defeat to Southampton in February, which was the final straw for most reasonable supporters.
But with each decision that backfired after that Southampton game, the internal faith in Potter was chipped away at, culminating in the defeat to Aston Villa when just about all of his big calls blew up in his face.
It was left to the man he bizarrely decided against putting on the pitch against Villa, Mason Mount, to applaud all four sides of Stamford Bridge long after his team-mates had disappeared down the tunnel to the dressing room to the sound of jeers and calls for Potter to go.
Co-controlling owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali, along with sporting directors Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley, were inside Stamford Bridge to take the temperature, but it was Potter who pushed himself towards the exit and not the angry fans.
Following the Southampton defeat, Chelsea’s owners wanted a demonstration of progress and remained supportive of their head coach, but Potter’s decisions ultimately made that position impossible and his own position practically untenable.
Like the decision to not only start Hakim Ziyech against Tottenham Hotspur, but then leave him on the pitch for the start of the second half after the winger had done his best to get sent off.
Ziyech had only been an email away from leaving Chelsea on transfer deadline day in January, having travelled to Paris without the club’s position, so his inclusion set alarm bells ringing.
Coupled with the fact that, a goal down, defensive midfielder Denis Zakaria was sent on with just under half-an-hour of the game to go, serious questions started to be raised about Potter’s ability to get the big calls right in the aftermath of the Tottenham defeat.
It was not just the decision-makers who were beginning to wonder whether what had been unequivocal backing for Potter to that point could continue, either. There was anger in the dressing-room over some of the decisions of the head coach and even players who liked him feared that he was out of his depth.
Potter came through make-or-break games against Leeds United and Borussia Dortmund, progressing to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, when a defeat in either may well have resulted in his dismissal.
But in the victory over Leeds, Potter’s substitutions almost backfired and not even an excellent evening against Dortmund was enough to restore the faith that had already started to be eradicated.
Boehly let his guard down to a supporter with a camera phone after the frustrating draw with Everton in which the visitors snatched a late point, giving the assessment it had been a “s— f—— game.” Potter had actually seen many positives in the performance, but he allowed Chelsea to sit back on a one-goal lead and made a series of late changes, none of which improved the team. Again, decisions.
The draw with Everton stunted Chelsea’s momentum heading into the international break, but Potter had the best part of two weeks to prepare for the visit of an Aston Villa side who have proved dangerous opponents on the road under Unai Emery.
With Wesley Fofana not fit enough to start, Potter did something he would live to regret. Rather than making a simple change and playing his three available centre-backs, Kalidou Koulibaly, Benoit Badiashile and Trevoh Chalobah, he started with two full-backs, Reece James and Marc Cucurella, either side of Koulibaly and asked midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek to fill in at right wing-back.
The move blew up in Potter’s face as not only did Cucurella set up Ollie Watkins for the opening goal, but Loftus-Cheek failed to provide any threat from the right and the impact of James, so often Chelsea’s best attacking outlet, was minimal. It made no sense.
Mykhaylo Mudryk failed to justify his selection, squandering two great chances, while Noni Madueke and N’Golo Kante were sent on straight after Villa went two goals up and Potter took until the 80th minute to make another change. The fact Mount, who has such a good record against the Midlands club, remained on the bench was mind-boggling.
A top-four place and Champions League qualification was never the be-all and end-all for Boehly and Eghbali during what was always considered a transitional season. But seeing Chelsea in the bottom half of the Premier League table was viewed as unacceptable and there could no longer be any argument made for the fact that progress was being made or might be around the corner.
The wheels of Potter’s exit were not officially set in motion until around 3pm on Sunday afternoon, five hours before his departure was announced in a statement. But the decisions that had resulted in defeat to Villa had told Chelsea all they needed to know – he was not the man to make the big calls.
Source: The Telegraph