Graham Potter is starting to look a little out of his depth at a Chelsea side that steadfastly refuses to learn any lessons. This cannot be cured in January
It was an eternal question proffered by Roy Keane, albeit with a slight caveat.
“The difficulty is, what top players are going to go to Spurs?” he was the latest in an endless line of critical thinkers to ponder. But the point he made in January 2022, after a 2-0 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, was more specific to the calibre of player they could attract without the lure of Champions League football.
A year later, and with their respective summer windows while sitting at Europe’s elite table taken into account, neither club will be concerned at the impact non-qualification will have on their transfer prospects. Antonio Conte won’t be having sleepless nights at no longer being able to attract Yves Bissouma and Richarlison and Todd Boehly will continue throwing money at the problems he inherited with feckless abandon.
Arsenal are runaway Premier League leaders on the back of consistently brilliant, focused and ruthless business conducted in the Europa League at best. Newcastle are one of their closest contenders on a budget most clubs would sell their souls for but which Chelsea would scoff at like a Waitrose shopper realising they will have to get their eggs from Asda. Liverpool provided the blueprint for the Gunners by competing when they had no right to off the back of phenomenal work in the transfer market.
Each put the foundations in place before building; they made sure to walk before they could run. Chelsea have tried to skip those chapters by importing Brighton’s entire backroom staff and it feels remarkably unlikely that Paul Winstanley or Kyle Macaulay identified such hidden, off-the-radar gems as World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez, Europe-wide target Mykhailo Mudryk or £30m centre-half Benoit Badiashile.
Boehly is copying the answers of the top students without seeing how they worked it out. And as much transfer sh*t Chelsea are throwing at the wall, not much is sticking.
Kalidou Koulibaly was exposed once more at Nottingham Forest, struggling to defend against pace or indeed at all. Marc Cucurella, the only player with actual functioning legs in Graham Potter’s back four, was smothered by the expectation and workload.
Ahead of them, Denis Zakaria was vaguely serviceable and did indeed exhibit some sense of fight in his midfield battle with Ryan Yates. And while Raheem Sterling scored, it was the interruption to a performance dripping in anonymity.
Nottingham Forest were faster, stronger, more committed and far better prepared. Taiwo Awoniyi will have rarely enjoyed a game quite so much, Brennan Johnson was a constant threat and Serge Aurier scored a sodding goal. The hosts had more shots with a fraction of the possession because they came with a game plan instead of just an expensive squad and some unclear concept of projects and processes. Chelsea’s goal was lucky and their chance creation before and after was non-existent. That second half was particularly abysmal against a side facing relegation.
Five of these Chelsea players started the Champions League final win 18 months ago and the other six were signed for £275.2m under three different managers – none of whom are the current incumbent. Throwing three-figure sums at Benfica and Shakhtar Donetsk does not feel like the answer.
Potter is a phenomenal coach but there is a creeping sense that his appointment might have been a mistake for all parties. Many of Chelsea’s structural issues predate him yet his solutions to those on-pitch problems have been inadequate. Right coach, right place but completely the wrong time as things stand.
Chucking Champions League money around is not, in itself, a panacea to that. If Chelsea and Boehly did not learn that last season or in the summer then a campaign outside of Europe altogether could force a necessary rethink.
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