At the final whistle, loud boos echoed around Stamford Bridge, but they quickly receded and did not carry the venomous rage that usually attacks managers who are on edge. It may have been partly because some Chelsea fans, realizing their players had lost confidence in erasing Aston Villa’s two-goal lead well before the end of the game, followed suit by leaving. It may also be because anger has given way to misery for those who remain.
In any case, Graham Potter never ventured onto the field full time. Instead, he waited in front of the tunnel, acknowledging all his players leaving and shaking hands with the match officials before venturing inside to navigate his post-match media duties in maniacally calculated style.
The mask had slipped off a few minutes earlier. I watched his frustrated players relentlessly play out the final moments of his technical territory, the TV camera caught him sad-eyed, sullen and biting his lower lip – the look of a coach who knows his scores tests the limits of patience beyond anything he’s endured in his life. Modern club history.
Chelsea were in the bottom half of the Premier League in April, a depth not reached even at this late stage in the Premier League The dreadful approached From 2015-16. Villa have suffered a 10th league loss of the season – the most they’ve lost in a single season this century is 12. With 10 games to go, including trips to Arsenal and Manchester City, that record also looks in jeopardy.
Eight of those 10 losses have been suffered by Potter and this one belongs alongside February’s defeat at home to Southampton in terms of how damaging the manager’s decision was. His team selection was intriguing from the start: Kalidou Koulibaly is the only natural center back in the starting line-up, along with Reece James and Mark Cucurella in a three-man defence.
What’s even more curious is that at practice in Cobham on Friday, Trevoh Chalobah was in Potter’s defense. The 23-year-old hasn’t started for Chelsea since a goalless draw with Liverpool at Anfield in February, and neither he nor Benoit Badiachel looked close to delivering against Villa despite his lack of height hampering the team in both boxes.
“We wanted to attack, we wanted to use Mark and Rhys as sidekicks, and that’s where the space would be and they could run attacks well,” Potter said.
The problem was that it left Chelsea wide open defensively in the early stages, with Ollie Watkins first exploiting a huge gap between Coulibaly and James and then a disastrous mix-up between Cucurella and the Senegal international to force two clean runs over Kepa Arrizabalaga. He should have scored both of them.
Potter could point to the fact that, according to Opta, Aston Villa’s final expected goal value (xG) was 0.81 – a perfectly respectable defensive figure and a marked dip from what Leeds United, Leicester City and Everton achieved against Chelsea in the previous league. games. But 0.75 of that figure was achieved in the first 18 minutes, after which Unai Emery instructed his team to curtail their attacking ambition as they had the drive to protect.
Villa didn’t protect him well, but Chelsea’s poor finishing ensured they didn’t need to. Mikhailo Modric missed the chance he’d been crying out for ever since a goal was disallowed against Leicester, having earlier witnessed another shot by Emiliano Martinez from close range. Joao Felix came close on several occasions and Kai Havertz blocked a fierce shot from James that was blocked in the six-yard box.
Emery switched from a back four to a back five in the first half and as the game wore on, Chelsea’s attacking pressure was evident in an escalating number of passes and corner kicks. It is unfortunate, then, that Havertz, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Koulibaly were the only players to wear blue overalls at 6ft or taller. On the other hand, failure to properly deflect one of Villa’s corner kicks in the match gave John McGinn a chance of a win.
The flaws in Potter’s starting style were exposed but his substitutions made Chelsea worse. N’Golo Kante’s long-awaited intro clipped the audible chants of “You don’t know what you do” from Matthew Harding’s stand, but the man who took his place was Mudryk. Havertz and Joao Felix found it more difficult to pressure Villa defenders without the Ukraine striker while Kante spent more time on the ball than on it, sometimes looking unsure of his role and missing the best scoring opportunity in the second half.
Any tactical cohesion was wiped out 10 minutes from time when Conor Gallagher, Christian Pulisic, were introduced to Cucurella and Mateo Kovacic. Chelsea ended up with Ben Chilwell and James – their most productive strikers of the last two years – either side of Koulibaly in central defence, Pulisic and Noni Madueki at full-back and Kanté as a supporting striker. Villa took the win in relative comfort.
As we enter the eighth month of Potter’s term, this mess is unnerving. The unique extenuating circumstances he has experienced since succeeding Thomas Tuchel are important to the wider context and have been documented at length, but even this has its limits. It is difficult to sustain any hope of beating Leeds United, Borussia Dortmund and Leicester City after the 2-2 draw with Everton and defeat by Villa.
Chelsea sit in 11th place, which is where they would sit if the Premier League season began on the day Potter was appointed. His 22 matches resulted in 21 goals for and 21 goals against. During that time, his team’s accumulated xG was 28.3, while his team’s accumulated xG was 27.2. By almost every statistical measure, the Premier League’s sample size, which is no longer terribly small, screams mediocrity.
The upshot is that while Potter can reasonably cite many factors outside his control in Chelsea’s struggles, he cannot yet make a credible argument as to why he should be the trusted man to lead this very well funded venture next season. .
If he survives long enough to do so, it will be thanks to Todd Bohle and Bagdad Eghbali who have shown a level of pain tolerance unprecedented in Premier League history.
(Top photo: Mark Atkins/Getty Images)
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