Graham Potter takes his last chance to live to fight another day
It was not the first problem Chelsea have had with a coach this season. Indeed, given the way Thomas Tuchel’s reign imploded, it was not even the first with a Borussia Dortmund coach. But when a large vehicle containing the visitors struggled to get into Stamford Bridge, at least it was not an issue with a malfunctioning coach that was an indictment of Graham Potter.
Instead, an evening that had the potential to render him a dead man walking, to borrow a phrase often used about one of his beleaguered predecessors, Claudio Ranieri, instead produced the best result of his troubled tenure as Chelsea manager. Which, admittedly, is not saying much. The shortlist of candidates was just that: until Dortmund were defeated, it only contained home-and-away victories over AC Milan. A knockout game with a manager under pressure, factoring in a first-leg deficit, rendered this the finest.
Dortmund’s difficulties arriving put kick-off back. If it might have only extended Chelsea’s participation in the Champions League by another 10 minutes, instead it goes on into April. So, surely, will Potter’s time in charge. Chelsea are only 10th in the Premier League but they can at least brand themselves one of the top eight sides in Europe.
They entered a new realm in another respect. They went into uncharted territory as, in the 66th day of the year, the club who have spent more than anyone else ever has in two transfer windows finally scored two goals in a game. It took a twice-taken penalty, with both the award and the retake, afforded because of encroachment, requiring the intervention of VAR but maybe it would need something special for Chelsea to get more than one.
It may have been a historic occasion, but the strikes themselves scarcely showed a strategy. Kai Havertz missed his first spot kick. Raheem Sterling missed his initial kick at Ben Chilwell’s cross; it was hardly a training-ground routine executed to perfection. So Sterling resorted to kicking the ball very hard. It worked. Perhaps Chelsea should try it more often. Lashing the ball into the roof of the net at least had a cathartic element. Finally, Chelsea found an outlet for their frustrations.
With two, Sterling is now out on his own as Chelsea’s top scorer in 2023. Tuchel’s flagship signing came to Potter’s aid, which may be another indication of flawed thinking. There is a sense Sterling was pivotal in Chelsea’s plans for about five months, until they bought Mykhailo Mudryk, a younger and costlier player with designs on the spot on the left wing.
Sterling was a Todd Boehly 1.0 signing before the emphasis switched to younger players on never-ending contracts. But he is the most likely goalscorer in this squad, at least with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang exiled from the Champions League squad, and had the pace to get behind the Dortmund defence, even if the timing of his runs meant he was often offside. Potter was right to bench the expensive newcomer Mudryk and select Sterling.
Anointing Havertz as Jorginho’s replacement as Chelsea’s resident penalty-taker feels a more questionable choice. Havertz delivered the decider but it was a fraught way to end his goal drought. The German has scored in a Champions League final but in too few other games and if there are worse trade-offs, a belated seventh of the season came on the second occasion he found the net and after he struck the post at either end: once with a crisp strike from 16 yards, once with the original penalty. Havertz had mustered an immaculate finish when he found the top corner, only for Sterling to be ruled offside.
He played more as a false nine, though the temptation should be resisted to say it is his rightful role. Nearly three years into his Chelsea career, Havertz remains the talent with no real position. He is Stamford Bridge’s eternal enigma, Chelsea the side whose surreal season is still alive.
Potter’s remaining supporters had argued he was luckless. Not this time. Fortune favoured him; or, at the least, it conspired against Dortmund. They lost the Signal Iduna Park match-winner Karim Adeyemi after the first leg, the Bundesliga’s best goalkeeper Gregor Kobel before the second leg and then the in-form Julian Brandt after five minutes. They don’t have the luxury of £600 million of signings. They named a goalkeeper, in Alexander Meyer, who was a free transfer from Jahn Regensburg, who finished 15th in the German second tier last season. He cost £71 million less than Kepa Arrizabalaga. He was beaten twice.
If Potter’s Chelsea seem to have two fundamental problems in attack this season – creating and scoring – they at least fashioned enough opportunities in either leg against Dortmund. With Kobel looking inspired, they converted none in Germany. But even the two they took in London only elevated their tally to seven goals in 13 games in 2023.
Neal Maupay was mocked for his misses in Potter’s Brighton side but he once mustered 10 goals in a season for them. This season provides a case for giving him a retrospective Ballon d’Or. For Sterling, Havertz and co, the quest for double figures in a Potter team continues, but at least a Champions League quarter final could add to their tallies. Because, with Potter nearing the last-chance saloon, they took their second chances.