Chelsea’s Graham Potter has issues to solve, but can learn from David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers.
Graham Potter will take charge of Chelsea for the first time in Wednesday’s Champions League Group E clash against FC Salzburg at Stamford Bridge, but having taken his first training session and delivered his mission statement to his new squad, the brutal reality of elite football is that most of Potter’s players will have already formed an opinion of their new boss before playing a game under him.
The 47-year-old, hired as manager last week following Thomas Tuchel’s dismissal by new Chelsea owner Todd Boehly, is just as likely to have made a positive impression in the dressing room than a negative one. After all, in his previous jobs at Brighton, Swansea and Swedish club Ostersunds FK, Potter forged a reputation as one of the brightest coaches in the game — a tactical thinker who builds teams that play exciting, attacking football and perform beyond expectations.
But while his appointment as Chelsea manager is undoubtedly a boost for the reputation of English coaches — don’t forget, no English manager has won the Premier League, while Liverpool‘s Joe Fagan was the last English boss to win the European Cup/Champions League in 1984 — there are also a number of visible red flags Potter must address if he is to make a success of the job, and it would be naive to suggest that the firm backing of Boehly gives him protection for any storms ahead. Just ask David Moyes how much protection his six-year contract at Manchester United offered when results went against him and he was sacked inside a year.
The first red flag is raised the moment any new manager walks through the door and meets his players for the first time. The messaging is crucial, and Potter walked into a dressing room stacked with players who have won World Cup, Champions League and Premier League trophies; without being able to match that success himself as either a player or coach, he is already dealing with a sceptical audience.
What he achieved at Brighton — 42 wins from 135 games and keeping them in the Premier League for four seasons, with the club’s highest-ever finish of 9th last campaign — will count for little at Chelsea because he is dealing with players who have far greater expectations those he worked with at the Amex Stadium.
This might seem harsh, but Moyes had the same problem when he succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson at Man United, and he instantly raised doubts among his new players by telling them he would make the team better by making the squad fitter. Elite players always want to improve and win; Potter’s messaging has to be able to convince the dressing room that he can take the team and players to a new level.
The same applies to his coaches. Moyes stayed loyal to his Everton staff at United, working with coaches who had never trained a world-class squad, and they were unable to inspire or motivate the players at Old Trafford. Potter has taken five members of his Brighton backroom staff to Chelsea including assistant Billy Reid, the former Hamilton Academical manager, which is a bold move considering the depth of big-club experience and talent in his squad at Chelsea.
Brendan Rodgers took charge of Liverpool in 2012 with a similar career trajectory to Potter — his previous jobs were at Watford, Reading and Swansea City — but he was able to succeed where Moyes failed at United because he inherited a dressing room that was no longer accustomed to winning. At the time of his arrival, Liverpool had won just one trophy in six years and the squad was in need of a rebuild. Rodgers did not meet the kind of resistance that Moyes met and that Potter may also come across with players who, less than 18 months ago, won the Champions League with Chelsea.
Rodgers was given time to make changes to Liverpool’s squad and playing style, and he almost delivered the Premier League title in in 2014. Jurgen Klopp has clearly taken Liverpool to a different level since replacing Rodgers in 2015, but the Rodgers era was a success in that he put Liverpool on course to win again. He also made Liverpool better despite mistakes made by the club’s owners at the time. Fenway Sports Groups took ownership of Liverpool 18 months before Rodgers arrived and they were still learning on the job, specifically in terms of player recruitment, when the new manager was appointed.
Potter has a similar problem to deal with at Chelsea. Boehly has only been running the club since May and the LA Dodgers co-owner oversaw a huge £271 million summer spending spree, which brought in big names such as Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly, but left the club without a centre-forward following the departures of Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner.
Having spent so much in one window, financial fair play regulations will restrict Chelsea’s spending in January and next summer, meaning Potter will have to work with a squad that is arguably imbalanced and unquestionably under-performing over the months ahead. All coaches want players who can fit their requirements, and many like younger players who are more likely to be receptive to change and new methods, but Potter is largely stuck with what he has.
Already, with an inexperienced new owner and a group of seasoned players with successful careers, Potter has sizeable problems to overcome.
Under former owner Roman Abramovich, Chelsea tended to appoint the best or biggest name available as manager. The players and fans grew accustomed to the likes of Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Antonio Conte and Tuchel running the team, so hiring the Brighton manager — a coach with just the Swedish Cup on his CV — whose playing career was largely spent in England’s lower leagues, is a clear change of course by the new owners.
Potter is, without question, a talented coach and rising star in management, but his new players won’t give him time to make them better. They will expect to be impressed from day one and he will meet resistance from those who don’t buy into his methods. It is the same for any manager at any level, but at a club as big as Chelsea, patience only comes with results and Potter can’t waste any time when it comes to delivering victories on the pitch.
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