Chelsea in freefall: What is going wrong under Graham Potter?

It seems to be going from bad to worse for the Premier League club after the humbling FA Cup exit to Manchester City

Graham Potter has endured a tough start to life as Chelsea manager following a run of one win in eight games. AP
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Chelsea's 4-0 loss at Manchester City in the FA Cup third round on Sunday extended a miserable run of form and further increased the scrutiny on manager Graham Potter.

For the past two decades, Chelsea had a rightful claim to be regarded the best club in London, sometimes the best in England, and on two occasions, the finest in Europe. On current Premier League standings, the Blues are not even the best in West London: both promoted Fulham and Brentford, in their second season in the top flight, are placed above their wealthy and powerful local rivals.

Sunday's humbling defeat at the Etihad means Chelsea have now won just one of their last eight matches; they are out of both cup competitions and languish down in 10th in the league table, 10 points behind fourth-placed Manchester United in the last of the Champions League spots.

It has been a remarkable collapse, especially when considering Potter's start to life at Stamford Bridge was quite encouraging. After beginning his Chelsea reign with a home draw against RB Salzburg in the Champions League, Potter oversaw five wins and three draws in his first eight games, including home and away wins over Italian champions AC Milan to finish top of their European Cup group.

So, what is going wrong at Chelsea and will the club be able to turn a corner this season before it's too late?

Injury problems

Potter has been desperately unlucky when it comes to having his best players available. Full-backs Ben Chilwell and Reece James have barely featured and make Chelsea a far more complete team in both defence and attack; defender Wesley Fofana has sustained two knee injuries since joining Chelsea last summer and is expected to be out until the end of the month, and midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been sidelined for two months with a calf injury.

Forward Armando Broja is out until the end of the season after rupturing his cruciate ligament during a friendly against Aston Villa in Abu Dhabi, and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has undergone surgery on a fractured finger. Most recently, forwards Raheem Sterling (hamstring) and Christian Pulisic (knee) have been added to Chelsea's injury list.

But perhaps the most glaring absence under Potter has been defensive midfielder N'Golo Kante. The French World Cup winner has made just two appearances this season – the first two league games – and has since been recovering from a hamstring injury. He is not expected to be back in contention until the end of February.

Chelsea have always been a far more cohesive team with Kante on the pitch; his defensive and positional abilities, and the energy and drive he provides in midfield, have been sorely missed.

Potter needs the Frenchman, and indeed close to a full strength squad, to help reverse Chelsea's fortunes.

N'Golo Kante has not played under Graham Potter and continues to recover from the long-term hamstring injury. AFP

Massive transition

The Chelsea takeover, completed last May, was no ordinary takeover.

Former owner Roman Abramovich, who bankrolled and presided over the most successful chapter in the club's history, was forced to put Chelsea up for sale amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions placed upon him and his assets by the UK government.

So, when Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital assumed control, they did so with the club enduring unprecedented turbulence and operating under various government-imposed restrictions. Those included an inability to offer players and staff new contracts, strict travel budgets, and a transfer ban. Hardly ideal circumstances for new owners with no prior experience running a Premier League football club.

From the boardroom to the dressing room, Chelsea have had to contend with a squad in transition, too. The departure of three senior defenders – Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, and Marcos Alonso, all on free transfers – left the club with plenty of defensive gaps to fill, while the exits of Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku meant replacements were needed in attack.

In all, nine players who were part of last season's squad left in the off-season, leading to a record-spending summer.

Then, to complete the transition hat-trick, Thomas Tuchel, the steady constant amid the uncertainty of sanctions and upheaval of the takeover, was stunningly sacked just weeks into the new season.

New owners, new players, and a new manager – it's little wonder Chelsea are struggling for consistency.

Manchester City v Chelsea - FA Cup player ratings

Scattergun transfer policy

After years of heavy spending, Chelsea were expected to take a more calculated approach to the transfer market under their new owners.

That has all gone out the window for now: Chelsea last summer set a record for most money spent in a single transfer window, £278.4m, on eight new players. That has since increased to around £340m following the January arrivals of defender Benoit Badiashile from Monaco, teenage midfielder Andrey Santos from Vasco de Gama, and young Ivorian striker David Datro Fofana from Molde.

The problem is, none of the new signings can yet be considered unqualified successes. Sterling, signed from Manchester City, has had his moments but is not prolific enough, Fofana has been injured more than he's been fit, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks a shadow of his former self.

Marc Cucurella, signed for an eye-watering £60m from Brighton, does not look an elite-level player, while Kalidou Koulibaly has struggled since joining from Napoli and looks a significant downgrade on the superb Rudiger.

Ironically, the most impressive new arrival has been the cheapest: midfielder Denis Zakaria joined on loan from Juventus but has only just been given opportunities in the starting line-up.

Yet, despite all the investment, glaring weaknesses remain in the squad. There is an over-reliance on James at right-back, while the lack of a top-level centre-forward is a key reason for Chelsea's goalscoring problems.

More money will be spent in January, and it is encouraging to see several young talents being recruited to build for the future, but will Chelsea adopt a more measured strategy to rebuilding their squad? The pursuit of a £100m-plus deal for Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernandez, for all his undoubted talent, would suggest otherwise.

Kalidou Koulibaly and Marc Cucurella, signed for a combined £90m, have struggled for their best form. Getty

Players out of form

In past seasons when Chelsea hit a stumbling block, there was at least a player or two who could drag them out of trouble and mask any immediate issues. Eden Hazard was a prime example of that; Willian had a season where he perpetually delivered when his team struggled; even during Chelsea's most dominant period, the likes of Frank Lampard or Didier Drogba were on hand to produce a goal or moment of magic to steal a win when needed.

At present, too many talented players, those capable of making the difference in key moments and tight games, are out of form or low on confidence. Kai Havertz has all the makings of a world beater and has shown glimpses but not yet over a full season, Hakim Ziyech and Pulisic have been too inconsistent, Sterling has been too wasteful, and Aubameyang is nowhere near his best.

Mateo Kovacic, Chelsea's standout central midfielder, has not dominated games this season like he did last, and Mason Mount has scored just three Premier League goals this campaign.

Potter needs to get his game-changing players back in form quickly, so even as this transition process continues, Chelsea can start winning games ugly when required. At the moment, any wins will do.

Soccer Football - FA Cup Third Round - Manchester City v Chelsea - Etihad Stadium, Manchester, Britain - January 8, 2023 Chelsea's Kai Havertz reacts after conceding their third goal REUTERS / Molly Darlington
Updated: January 09, 2023, 11:27 AM
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