You would not be the only one going back and rewatching Chelsea’s two clashes with Brighton last season or scouring YouTube for clips of their best performances under Graham Potter.
With the 47-year-old’s first Chelsea game delayed until at least Wednesday with respect to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, Chelsea supporters have been given extra time to ponder what the new era will look like. What players will benefit, and who won’t?
Delving a little deeper into the tactical side of Potter offers further intrigue, particularly in how flexible and undefined Brighton are when they step onto the pitch.
Although you may read a 3-5-2 on paper, Potter’s team has been known for how they shapeshift in and out of possession, in different spells of the game and in phases of play. This is not totally unfamiliar to Chelsea fans. The most recent reference point is the fluid deployment of Ruben Loftus-Cheek in a wing-back role off the ball before joining a box midfield (a term related to Potter) when in it.
Leeds United first-team coach Rene Maric, who was previously at Borrusia Dortmund, recently said that the most accurate way of gauging a team’s formation is when they are out of possession, given the fluidity and interchangeable nature of positions when a team is on the ball.
“He tends to operate with three centre-backs, and two wing-backs pack the midfield, and has one striker (or sometimes a false nine) up top.” Richard Mills, Brighton correspondent for SussexLive, told SportEarly
“Brighton liked to press high up the pitch with man-to-man marking but then were defensively fluid, and their formations changed over the match, depending on how the game was going. The formations can be 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-3-2-1, and more!”
The transition from Thomas Tuchel to Potter might not be as harsh as Antonio Conte to Maurizio Sarri per se, given these are two coaches who generally align in their belief in controlling possession, counter-pressing as a method to win back the ball and creating opportunities. There is also a nice fit that some of Potter’s best work at the Amex came through wing-backs – Leandro Trossard, Solly March and Marc Cucurella, to name the standouts.
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Potter also has proved capable of reshaping players into different roles depending on the occasion. Cucurella’s first outing as a left-sided centre-back came against Chelsea last December in a back-three. His speed helped maintain Brighton’s ability to pen the Blues back, also getting into the crossing position that created Danny Welbeck’s equaliser in added time.
Alexis Mac Allister is probably the perfect representation of a Graham Potter player (if such a thing exists). As dissected by The Athletic, his shapeshifting ability would make the Skrulls proud. A Swiss Army Knife of a player who the former Ostersunds coach has used as a striker, an attacking midfielder, a left midfielder and briefly on both wings before settling into his defensive midfield spot this season.
Not only do you need players technically capable of filling such varied demands, but you also need the man management skills to get buy-in from players to adapt and sacrifice their own ambitions for the betterment of the team. That is something Tuchel did expertly in his first year at Stamford Bridge, but some reports following his sacking suggested players had grown frustrated with playing out of position.
In Potter’s previous three jobs, that buy-in was a lot easier to attain due to the status of those clubs and the reality that in a notable portion of games, Brighton was the inferior side who had to overperform to get something. At Chelsea, that will simply not be the case, which will bring its own tactical challenges for Potter.
But there is hope within the current Chelsea squad that his flexible approach will not be too unfamiliar within the group, given how Tuchel fashioned players into roles that few of us would have felt suited their talent. It will be curious to see who could become Potter’s Mac Allister in the coming months.
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