Iimagine you are Graham Potter. You consider Arsenal probable squad to face your Chelsea side today. You’re looking at Mikel Arteta’s first three. You don’t know who will play right but even with Ben Chilwell injured again you have Marc Cucurella to play on that side of defense as well as the option of a more attacking winger. Then you look at the other flank, where Gabriel Martinelli has been in sensational form. You remember how he embarrassed Emerson Royal and unsettled Trent Alexander-Arnold, how his pace and directness troubled teams all season. With Reece James out, that’s an obvious problem.
Potter supported chelsea in 11 games. In seven he started with a back three and two more, against Wolves and the home game against Salzburg, a hybrid system perhaps best described as a 4-2-3-1 when the right-back was very attacking and the left side the striker had to go back.
This suggests an inclination for wingers, but who can play against Martinelli? César Azpilicueta is 33 years old and, although committed as ever, age is beginning to undermine him; offering space behind him for Martinelli to attack seems like a risk. Christian Pulisic was not convincing on this flank against Brighton as Chelsea lost 4-1. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another possibility but he is relatively inexperienced as a wing-back and may be needed in the middle.
The solution may be to use a full-back with Azpilicueta as the orthodox full-back. But Thiago Silva is 38 and the loss to Brighton revealed his lack of rhythm if he is isolated, as is more likely in a four, especially when the absence of N’Golo Kanté leaves Chelsea without a real player. ball in midfield. Notably, apart from the dead rubber against Dinamo Zagreb, when the Brazilian was a substitute, the only time Potter has started with what could be called a pure back four – in his first match, at Crystal Palace – he has spent the second half adding runners. .
So maybe the solution is the form he turned to against Manchester United two weeks ago after a first half hour when Jadon Sancho troubled Azpilicueta and Marcus Rashford repeatedly threatened to get behind Silva: a back four protected by a midfield diamond. Jorginho might not be the fiercest presence, but his positioning can protect the center of defence, with Mateo Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek as diligent blockers alongside him.
That leaves Mason Mount playing behind a front two of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Raheem Sterling or maybe Kai Havertz. It would also pose Arsenal some potentially tricky questions. Can Thomas Partey handle an attacking midfielder directly against him? And how will William Saliba and Gabriel manage to manage a front two rather than one picking up the centre-forward with the other covering behind? They had few problems against the front two in wins over Bournemouth and Brentford, but were troubled by Adam Armstrong and Joe Aribo in the draw at Southampton.
What’s more important, however, is less the solution Potter favors than every available option seems a bit inconvenient. They all require a bit of tinkering and repurposing. To some extent it’s a matter of misfortune: losing James, Wesley Fofana and, although he returns on Wednesday, Kalidou Koulibaly at the same time would stretch any squad. But it also highlights just how well put together this Chelsea is. The pre-sanctions issues against Roman Abramovich are still being resolved.
Silva has far exceeded expectations, but no elite club should be so dependent on a player his age. Aubameyang, 33, is a short-term fix necessitated by Romelu Lukaku’s failed comeback. Kanté and Jorginho are over 30 and are out of contract in June. With Todd Boehly-Clearlake ownership apparently reluctant to take significant liability on players with low resale value, any contract offer is likely to be heavily incentivized and it increases the chance that one or both will leave.
Perhaps none of this is particularly unusual. Injuries cause imbalances and rebuilding teams is difficult even without the added complication of penalties. But there’s also the obvious problem that Thomas Tuchel was supposed to lead recruitment this summer, only to be fired as soon as the transfer window closes.
Sterling, in the most polite way possible, suggested last week that he would rather play as a winger than a full-back. He won’t be the only summer signing to wonder if Potter has the same plans for him as Tuchel, wondering exactly who is doing the planning.
Boehly, with his eagerness to sign Cristiano Ronaldo and his the defense of an all-star match, doesn’t seem like someone who instinctively grasps the holistic nature of football, the need not just for the best players, but for players whose attributes reinforce and are reinforced by those of their teammates. In this regard recent moves for Brighton’s head of recruitment Paul Winstanley and Monaco’s technical director Laurence Stewart are both hugely important and overdue.
The absence of Kepa Arrizabalaga, whose recent excellence may have masked the problems on display at Brighton, further complicates Potter’s thinking for Sunday, but the longer-term issue is putting in place a plan to ensure the coordination of the recruitment and management. Chelsea never looked particularly demanding on the market, even in the later, more financially constrained years of the Abramovich era and, although there were plenty of trophies to show for, they suffered an average loss of 900 £000 a week during his 19 years at the club.
The new regime, presumably, won’t tolerate this, even though the Financial Fair Play regulations have proven to lack teeth, and that wasn’t Potter’s style before either. His success came on a budget, buying players suited to his approach. Whether that conflicts with the desire for stardom that Boehly has demonstrated both with his MLB franchise and in repeated public statements since the takeover remains to be seen.
Without a cohesive strategy, however, what remains is the situation Potter finds himself in: lots of good (and expensive) players who don’t quite fit together.
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