What Graham Potter would bring to Chelsea: pressing, tactical tweaks, developing players

Just 33 days into the season came our second managerial casualty. Thomas Tuchel was sacked by Chelsea on Wednesday after exactly 100 games in charge.

Tuchel’s impact was immediate and positive when he arrived at Stamford Bridge, and he won the Champions League within five months. However, Chelsea’s record has not been so glowing recently.

Illustrating how quickly situations change in football, before Tuchel could tip his Chelsea-branded cap to the staff at Cobham training ground, talks were already underway with prospective managers.

The Athletic understands Chelsea met with Brighton & Hove Albion manager Graham Potter — seen by some as one of the most exciting coaches in the Premier League — yesterday afternoon, with the club hoping to make a quick appointment.

The question is, would bringing Potter in be a good move for Chelsea? Would it be a good move for Potter? Let’s break down Potter’s managerial profile…

First, it’s worth noting how well Potter has brought on Brighton.

This can be shown using FiveThirtyEight’s respected Soccer Power Index (SPI) ratings, which estimate a team’s overall strength between zero and 100, using difficulty-adjusted match results and underlying performance metrics to model a team’s offensive and defensive strength.

When Potter took the reins at the start of the 2019-20 season, Brighton’s SPI rating was 64.4 — a figure they never dropped below during Potter’s three full seasons at the club.

At present, Brighton boast an SPI rating of 76.3, with a steady incline shown in the overall team strength across his tenure. Slowly but surely, Potter has been building something special at Brighton.

A compliment to Potter’s adaptability is how difficult it is to outline how he likes to set up his team.

If we were to defer to his most common starting formations, you’d see Potter most frequently used a 3-5-2 last campaign, while also employing a “3-box-3” that has been used to great effect in the early part of this season.

In essence, the use of a 3-4-3 formation — or variants of it — has parallels with Chelsea’s setup under Tuchel. But to look at starting formations alone would neglect Potter’s tactical versatility between and within games.

Potter has an evident eye for detail in making tweaks to his side depending on the opponent and the state of the game. One example this season was in Brighton’s defeat to Fulham last month. Brighton started with a 3-5-2 without a recognised No 9, which clearly wasn’t working. So what did he do? He changed to a back four within 15 minutes.

This is a perfect example of Potter’s willingness to adapt to establish or sustain control of games — whether that is through tactical tweaks or substitutions.

Looking at Brighton’s playing style, it is well known that Potter likes his team to play possession-based football, dominating the game with clear principles and patterns.

This was not immediately apparent when he took the role in 2019, but when granted the time to implement his style, you can see that Brighton’s patient build-up in possession was more similar to teams pushing for European spots last season — notably, not a million miles away from Tuchel’s Chelsea.

Turning to The Athletic’s playstyle wheels to profile Brighton’s evolution under Potter, it’s hard to overstate just how dramatically Brighton have been transformed.

The team he inherited from Hughton was your standard low-budget relegation-scrap side: they played competent low-block defence with almost no possession or high pressing, surviving on switch-heavy counterattacks and set pieces.

Brighton transformation wheels

That changed almost overnight, starting with their approach in possession. Brighton became perhaps the only Premier League side in the last decade to flip from a long-ball side to a modern possession team in consecutive seasons, with no middle ground. They went from the bottom decile to about average at moving the ball from their own third to the final third (the green “Build-up” wedge on the playstyle wheel), which allowed them to tilt the field, taking more touches in the opponent’s end than they allowed in their own (the green “Field tilt” wedge).

The revolution started at the back. Brighton’s goalkeeper at the time, Mathew Ryan, went from launching 94 per cent of his goal kicks and 69 per cent of his open-play passes at least 40 yards in 2018-19, Hughton’s last season, to just 46 per cent and 34 per cent under Potter.

By Potter’s second season, Brighton had replaced Ryan with a short-passing specialist, Robert Sanchez, to give them an extra man in the build-up.

The newfound confidence at the base of their formation allowed Brighton to recycle the ball safely and build up with intent. In 2020-21, they were one of the best Premier League sides of the past five years at securing possession or successfully moving the ball forward after recovering it (the green “Safety” wedge).

Just as important as the passing game changes was Potter’s attention to Brighton’s high press, which went from virtually non-existent to one of the best in the league. Over the past two seasons, they’ve been especially effective at winning the ball back immediately after losing it (the red “Counter-pressing” wedge), which has allowed them to start their possessions close to the opponent’s goal (the red “Start distance” wedge).

The only section of the wheel where Potter’s Brighton failed to break into the top half of the league are the three yellow “Finishing” wedges. Despite their strong possession and pressing — usually hallmarks of a top side — Brighton struggled to turn their attacks into chances and goals. That seemed to be changing this season, though, as the club’s revamped front line sits fourth in the league for expected goals (xG) after the first six games of 2022-23.

One of the key reasons Chelsea parted company with Tuchel was a lack of improvement across many of the players within his squad.

This is something Potter has not only proved he is capable of doing but is also a responsibility he thrives on. He provides his squad with more tactical diversity by giving them new roles within the team.

When Alexis Mac Allister joined Brighton, he operated as an attacking midfielder who would look to affect the game in advanced areas. This season, Mac Allister has thrived in a deeper role, pulling the strings in Brighton’s midfield alongside the destructive Moises Caicedo, whose minutes were carefully managed by Potter when he signed in 2021.

The same could be said of Pascal GrossAdam Lallana or Marc Cucurella, with whom Potter would be reunited in west London.

Potter’s ability to reignite the performances of players who might lack a clear role within the side is likely to be music to the ears of many within the Chelsea squad.

Christian PulisicHakim ZiyechTrevoh Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek(among others) have either been unloved, unused or misunderstood within Tuchel’s system. Potter would no doubt embrace the challenge to shape the role of the high-quality players he would have at his disposal.

Only part of the discussion is how suitable Potter might be for Chelsea. The other part is how Chelsea would suit Potter.

Potter has thrived when given the opportunity to mould a squad to his own identity — most recently at Brighton but also notably at Swedish club Ostersunds.

Would he get the opportunity to do that if he took the job at Chelsea? Historically, the answer would be no.

One of the key traits of a Potter side is that his teams are more than the sum of their parts — everyone has a job with and without the ball.

Individual brilliance should rarely be seen as a negative but it remains to be seen whether Potter can manage a squad that has so many high-profile players.

There is only one way to find out.

ARTICLE LINK:https://theathletic.com/3573768/2022/09/08/graham-potter-chelsea-coach/


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