Gentle Graham Potter may not sound like a typical Chelsea manager, but that’s exactly why he’s there, says Betsson expert Lars Sivertsen.
By Lars Sivertsen, Football Expert for Betsson
There have been times this year when the Graham Potter situation at Chelsea has seemed like some kind of weird, The Truman Show-style experiment: What if you have an intensely public position, where histrionics and unhinged behaviour is not just indulged but encouraged, and stick a well-rounded, sensible, grown-up person in there. The result has been a pretty intense dissonance.
Not very Chelsea
In situations where previous Chelsea managers would have raved at the referee and made childish assertions of conspiracy and dark forces, Graham Potter has instead said that abuse towards referees is a “massive problem” in football. In situations where previous Chelsea managers may have picked nonsensical fights with opposing managers to distract from poor results, Potter has remained unflinchingly respectful of his opponents. In situations where previous Chelsea managers may have picked an unproductive member of the first team squad and thrown him to the wolves in public as a kind of footballing blood sacrifice, Potter has been nothing but publicly supportive and sympathetic towards his struggling players. This is all very good and very sensible, but many experienced observers of this very particular footballing institution have pointed out that, well, it just isn’t very Chelsea, is it?
Chelsea fans have certainly been used to seeing something very different. Most of them have at some point drunk the Kool-Aid and enlisted themselves in the cult of Mourinho, getting fully behind the charismatic Portuguese as he embarked on various feuds and did battle against imagined enemies at the gates. The dalliance with Antonio Conte was shorter, but the volcanic temperament of the Italian made him at least briefly a fine fit to lead the Chelsea circus. As one football official once remarked to me: “Some managers will be furious to make a point or to put pressure on you, but Conte just loses it entirely”. Thomas Tuchel, though a very different type of character, also somehow felt a good match for this modern Chelsea, as he was straight-talking and rarely missed an opportunity to stand up for himself or the team.
Boom and bust
These big, explosive characters have each played a part in making the modern Chelsea a very successful football club, with a fine array of trophies to display. But it did also come at a cost, certainly in the case of Mourinho and Conte. Their explosive personalities and undoubted managerial skill yielded big results in the short term, but their reigns were short lived and things came crashing down in a pretty big way. In the very lively modern history of Chelsea, even their most successful managerial appointments were brief and mostly ended in toxicity and bad vibes, prompting expensive payoffs and a need for some manner of squad rebuild.
This is fine, of course, when you’re owned by a very wealthy man who is more than happy to foot the bill. In a sense, Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea were extremely well-funded disruptors. They did upset the establishment, though some will argue that in football being able to spend the kind of money Chelsea did automatically makes you the establishment. Either way, if there is one thing everyone can agree on about Abramovich-era Chelsea, it is that they enthusiastically lived up to Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous motto: “Move fast and break things”.
But this wrecking-ball approach to running a modern superclub came at a cost. Football finance expert Kieran Maguire has estimated that during Roman Abramovich’s time as Chelsea owner, the club on average lost almost 1 million pounds a week. To sustain their way of operating, Chelsea needed a number of large cash injections from their owner. For Abramovich this was seemingly of no concern, but there are very few owners in football who are happy to sustain losses like that over such a long period of time. In spite of their initial transfer market splurge, it is unlikely that Todd Boehly and his backers are in this game to rack up long-term losses.
We do know a few things about Boehly’s vision for Chelsea, as he spoke briefly about it at a business conference last year. “We know human capital. We understand game plans and strategies. We’re not expecting to be football experts who find the best talent, but we’re going to put those people in place”, Boehly explained. “I don’t think it’s any different to running any human capital business, where it’s all about getting the right resources, making them collaborate, getting them organised, thinking about how you have a global business at a local level”. Boehly has recruited football experts from clubs like Brighton and the Red Bull group, clubs that have built up a reputation for running clubs in a meticulous and intelligent way. On the sacking of Thomas Tuchel, Boaehly explained: “the reality of our decision was that we just weren’t sure that Thomas saw it the same way we saw it. No one’s right or wrong, it’s just we didn’t share a vision for the future. It wasn’t about soccer, it was really about the shared vision for what we wanted Chelsea Football Club to look like”. It’s easy, bordering on irresistible, to ridicule this. Maybe we could make a list of the most successful managers in football in the last 20 years and ask: Were they all aligned with the club’s owner? Did they all have a shared vision? Or were they perhaps just very good football managers who did the best job they could with the resources that were made available to them. Some press reports suggested Boehly was upset at Tuchel for not being more active in a group chat he set up on Whatsapp. Again, the jokes write themselves. “I’d like to see the outcome if the Glazers had tried to get Sir Alex Ferguson active on the group chat to make sure they had a shared vision for the club”, etc and so on .
But at least Todd Boehly has spoken publicly about how he wants to run his club, and in a manner that came across as honest rather than vapid PR speak. There are enough infuriatingly silent owners in football, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to mock one that has actually engaged with the public. And it does tell us a few things about what this next era of Chelsea is likely to look like, and what it certainly will not look like. It’s hard to see how explosive, combustible, melodramatic managers like Conte and Mourinho could have a place in Todd Boehly’s Chelsea.
What of the angry men?
This could be to the club’s detriment, of course. Football history is full of managers who were difficult for the club to work with but who achieved huge success. But at the same time, if you cast a glance around European football right now, it’s hard not to notice that these angry alpha male managers who jump up and down a lot aren’t doing that well. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid were awful in the Champions League and are far off the top domestically. Antonio Conte’s reign at Tottenham seems destined for an unhappy and underwhelming ending. Jose Mourinho has galvanized Roma’s support and is a popular man in the Eternal City, but the team is no more than 5th after spending a pretty significant amount of money by Serie A standards.
Meanwhile, in Germany the far more urbane and modern Julian Nagelsmann has just secured a big win in the Champions League for Bayern, and has the team top of the table as you’d expect. Dortmund are on the charge, led by the very likeable Edin Terzic who certainly comes across as the consummate company man. In Spain, Xavi is heading for a league title with Barcelona without resorting to random acts of madness on the sideline or in press conferences, while the suave old gentleman Carlo Ancelotti has had a successful stint at Real Madrid. In England we’re seeing Mikel Arteta lead Arsenal to an incredible season with a young team he has had to take time to build, and we’re seeing company man Eddie Howe be well ahead of schedule with Newcastle United. Erik ten Hag has made it clear that he is his own man at Old Trafford, but he has also managed to navigate difficult issues off the pitch by taking a firm but sensible approach.
The point is this: There is no evidence to suggest that big, disruptive characters who move fast and break things are the only way to succeed in football right now. And the thing about breaking things in football is that the club inevitably has to clean up the mess afterwards, which usually ends up being expensive. Chelsea fans may see the last two decades of boom and bust, chaos and trophies, as just the way things are done at Chelsea. Todd Boehly will no doubt see it as an inefficient and unprofitable way of running a sports franchise.
All of which brings us to Graham Potter, a man who is no doubt a dutiful poster in the group chat. And it’s true that high-minded ideas about what kind of leadership you want and what kind of model and structure you want in football all feel a bit irrelevant if the team keeps losing, which has been the case far too often with Potter so far. When it comes to the actual football, Potter has been dealt a deceptively difficult hand. Chelsea have spent a lot of money, but they’ve left Potter with a squad that has too many options in some positions and too few in others. Their strongest and most logical starting line-up is not immediately obvious, and Potter’s search for the right setup has also been hampered by untimely injuries. A lot of the players brought in on Chelsea’s wild shopping spree this year have been young players arriving from inferior leagues, who should be afforded time to both settle in, get used to the level and get to know each other. This is not to fully excuse Chelsea’s results under Potter so far, which have been dire and would no doubt have cost him his job under Chelsea’s previous owner. But in the words of Slim Charles, the thing about the old days is they’re the old days.
Recently we’ve started to see gradual improvements, both in Chelsea’s performances and results. Enzo Fernandez is finding his feet in midfield. Kai Havertz has put in some very promising performances as a false nine. Joao Felix is enjoying himself, freed from Simeone’s shackles. Potter has settled on playing with a back three, which seems to suit his defenders – though it would help an awful lot if both his first choice wing-backs could stay fit. In the raging fury unleashed by Chelsea’s run of poor results, it’s been easy to forget that Potter has proven consistently across his career that he is a hugely competent manager. Sure, he isn’t the kind of character we’ve been used to seeing in the Chelsea dugout, but to complain that Potter doesn’t act or sound like a Chelsea-manager is to miss the point. Boehly’s Chelsea will not be like Abramovich’s Chelsea. If Boehly’s model is to get competent people together, organise them and make them collaborate, it would make no sense to appoint the kind of slightly maniacal figures Chelsea have employed in the past. The fact that Potter doesn’t act like a modern Chelsea manager is exactly why he’s there.