Graham Potter’s final match as Brighton boss was almost reason alone to hire him at Chelsea. It was everything he worked towards across three years on the south coast and there were already Blues fans watching it with a sense of frustration. Chelsea themselves had just scraped past West Ham at home, coming from behind to win 2-1 the day earlier – with the Hammers seeing a last- minute equaliser ruled out by VAR. That was the last league game Thomas Tuchel managed.
Just over 24 hours later and Brighton moved into fourth with a 5-2 victory over a hapless Leicester. Chelsea have won three of the next five league games, Brighton have drawn two and lost three. Potter has switched clubs but his methods have remained in the footballing world, but his fortunes have transferred. Todd Boehly’s snap decision – taken off the back of a chaotic summer in which he felt relationships with Tuchel fraying – has already been justified. Chelsea’s form has changed, the path moving forward is clear, Boehly and co will feel they have a manager capable of working with them and the new recruitment team being put in place.
From the match at the Amex Stadium on that Sunday – the same setting for Chelsea’s next fixture – there will have been a similar tactical setups. This isn’t to say it’s Potter’s stock, he doesn’t have one, but given the timing of this match it is intriguing to already see certain patterns. The 47-year-old’s first game in charge was against RB Salzburg. It was a 1-1 draw and saw fundamental but subtle changes from the tactics Tuchel had ingrained into his team. Jorginho was at the base of a midfield three, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Kai Havertz were a strike partnership of sorts and the two wing-backs were high and wide on the flanks and not very back.
Eight matches later and Potter lined up against Salzburg again. With more subtle tweaks, Chelsea were in a similar situation. They used more of a diamond in midfield, though Jorginho was still at the base, but Conor Gallagher and Mateo Kovacic were effective No.8s and Havertz played wherever the game took him. The wing-backs, once more, didn’t do much of the back part. Partly this is down to the very occupants. In match one, Reece James and Raheem Sterling were used.
It was slightly lopsided with Sterling playing as the most advanced player but also the widest, almost straying into the east stand at periods. James has defensive acumen and tried to be the counterbalance on the right. In match two, Sterling was mirror by Christian Pulisic on the left, another attacker. On paper it was almost impossible to decipher before watching the game, but it ended with a version of 3-1-4-1-1. This isn’t dissimilar to the formation Potter used in his final Brighton match, specifically the use of wing-backs.
With natural wingers Leandro Trossard and Solly March both deployed on the flanks, Potter used his attackers for width and threat, much like he might with James and Ben Chilwell or Marc Cucurella. The instincts of Sterling and Pulisic is always to go forward though, and it helped to peg Salzburg back. Trossard joined Brighton the same year that Potter did and for £14million has been a bargain. His training under Potter has helped him to develop into an all-round star and the biggest threat posed by the Seagulls ahead of the match. His adaption to new roles is something the manager will be hoping to use for Sterling and Pulisic in the coming weeks, potentially against Brighton too. Against Manchester United this didn’t work. Cesar Azpilicueta wasn’t offensive enough and lacks pace to get back, Sterling was off the money and hardly involved.
Chilwell didn’t get forward. It didn’t help that a midfield overload stopped Chelsea getting a foothold in the game with the 3-4-3. Salzburg offered less threat and more chance of being in possession, in the European trip it was clear that Potter fancied getting numbers forward to hold the ball and occupy attacking spaces. Havertz was less needed in a defined role due to the sheer volume of bodies created by Pulisic, Sterling, Aubameyang, Gallagher and the onrushing Kovacic. Chelsea controlled the first half once in the flow. It may not be the same system Potter uses against Brighton, but his transfer of wing-back ideology onto Chelsea’s attackers goes against the use of Tuchel’s play in that position.
The role of the wide players under the German rarely changed with who was there. Pulisic was needed to do what James might, and he simply can’t; things collapsed over time. Under Potter, Pulisic is taking the spot of a wing-back put playing as a winger. It’s risk vs reward, but if Chelsea control the ball then their threat will undoubtedly grow. For Pulisic, who wanted to leave over the summer and was one of the worst performers when called upon in the opening weeks of the season, his game time is still sporadic but promising sub appearances have opened up the chances of regular game time. His touch has become tighter, dribbling more compact and behind it may be more than confidence.
His role has been tailored not only to his team’s need, but also to something he is capable of doing. That adds value and reality that he previously didn’t have. A makeshift wing-back is still a square peg in a round hole, but the differences are much smaller and Potter’s iteration feels more akin to a winger than it does a defender.