LONDON — Graham Potter’s arrival at Chelsea last September was supposed to herald a new era of stability at the club after a period of unprecedented turbulence. Instead, co-controlling owners Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital’s Behdad Eghbali are looking for a new head coach less than seven months after making their first managerial appointment.
The turmoil began last February, when then-owner Roman Abramovich announced his intention to pass control of the club to its trustees. This was a preemptive move that failed to prevent the United Kingdom government sanctioning Abramovich over alleged ties to Russia President Vladimir Putin, which, following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, effectively forced Chelsea’s sale to trigger a whirlwind few months.
Boehly and Eghbali completed their £2.5 billion takeover at the end of May. Tensions continued, though, as relations quickly became strained with head coach Thomas Tuchel during a frantic summer in which the club spent £270 million to sign players, the second-biggest outlay ever by any side in a single window.
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Tuchel was sacked less than a week after the window closed following an internal 100-day review conducted by Boehly and Eghbali that analysed all aspects of the club. Potter was identified as a progressive, innovative appointment designed to lead a long-term strategy and his arrival from Brighton & Hove Albion was swift, coming barely 24 hours after Tuchel’s exit.
On Sunday, Potter was sacked after less than seven months in charge, winning 12 of his 31 games in charge. Where did it all go wrong?
In many ways, Potter was the opposite of Tuchel. Cynics would argue that was the case in terms of pedigree: Tuchel is a Champions League winner and lifted trophies with Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain. Potter’s highlights included winning the Svenska Cupen and three promotions in five seasons with Swedish club Ostersunds before taking Brighton into the top half of the Premier League — the latter of which, while lacking the notoriety of Tuchel’s accomplishments, was no small feat.
Boehly and Eghbali saw more welcome contrasts, though. Among the reasons for Tuchel’s exit was a breakdown in communications.
Sources have told ESPN that Tuchel had little interest in what he believed was micromanagement from above, resisting the desire for daily conversations about the team.
Equally, Tuchel was frustrated that his influence over the club’s transfer policy would be diluted as a new structure was put in place above him. There were disagreements over targets, perhaps most famously in Tuchel’s reluctance to countenance a move for Cristiano Ronaldo, then at Manchester United, despite Boehly repeatedly suggesting the transfer.
Sources say Tuchel expected to be sacked in preseason, but the axe only fell six days after the summer window closed.
Boehly and Eghbali went for Potter partly because they believed him to be an excellent communicator, better suited to working within the framework they were putting in place. Chelsea now have co-sporting directors in Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart along with technical director Christopher Vivell, Joe Shields, Kyle Macaulay and Jim Fraser, who are responsible for talent management and recruitment. Potter knew Winstanley from their time together at Brighton. He spent a decade with Macaulay at Ostersunds, Swansea City and Brighton.
Whereas Tuchel had little interest in anything other than being a coach and recommending players, Potter, 47, was prepared to invest more time in helping to strengthen this coalition. There was perhaps also a difference in that while Tuchel had operated at the highest level for a number of years, Chelsea were palpably Potter’s biggest job to date, and therefore Potter was a little more malleable in accepting the conditions surrounding the role.
Sources told ESPN that Chelsea paid Brighton up to £21m to buy Potter out of his contract on the south coast, a further sign of the conviction Boehly and Eghbali held that they were getting the right man.
The new owners wanted to accelerate their revolution and spent aggressively in the transfer market, overhauled the backroom staff and have tried to make strides in determining how to move forward with Stamford Bridge, whether that is through redevelopment or relocating to a new site. Potter’s job, therefore, became about binding this speedily assembled squad together and keeping calm in the eye of the storm as so much continued to change around him.
Unfortunately, there was a sense the job was almost always close to the point of overwhelming him. Circumstances conspired to put him on the back foot from the outset of what looked like a nearly impossible situation — one that would be difficult to manage for any coach.
On the day of his official unveiling, Queen Elizabeth II died, and the club postponed their proposed media conference in a show of respect. The subsequent round of Premier League games was cancelled as the nation entered a period of mourning. After a 1-1 draw against FC Salzburg in his first match, the vast majority of players departed for an international break. They returned for a run of 13 matches in 43 days before leaving again for the World Cup.
This is not to excuse Chelsea’s later poor run under Potter, but the absence of a full preseason to work with his squad was keenly felt. So was the fact that this was a squad that was changing all the time, with 31 first-team players on the books by Feb. 1, following a huge January spending spree that took the overall Boehly-Clearlake era spending past £550m.
Despite all this, Potter started well with five consecutive wins after Salzburg, including home and away Champions League group-stage victories over Serie A champions AC Milan. However, a humiliating 4-1 defeat to his former club Brighton at the end of October raised questions that increased with three subsequent defeats to Arsenal, Manchester City (exiting the Carabao Cup) and Newcastle United before the World Cup break.
The hits kept coming. Six games without a win across late January to the end of February raised pressure on a manager who by now had revealed that his family had received death threats while expressing concerns for his own mental health.
Sources have told ESPN that Boehly and Eghbali made a visit to the club’s Cobham training base at the start of March, something they tried to do at least once a month. Three successive defeats preceded that visit, and outsiders could be forgiven for thinking an ominous mood might permeate the training pitches given mounting speculation about Potter’s position, but the truth was different. One training ground source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Everything was still really relaxed that day. Maybe too relaxed — it might be part of the problem.”
Potter invested time to get to know his players. Sources say he was keen on one-on-one meetings and arranged a flurry of them before the Champions League round-of-16 second leg against Dortmund. Potter knew he needed to quickly foster team spirit with so many changes to his squad. Perhaps that relaxed feel slid on occasion into a lack of urgency, a radical departure from the ruthless culture that epitomised Abramovich’s ownership.
Boehly and Eghbali sincerely wanted Potter’s appointment to work. They were determined to give him time to succeed, and it appeared as though knocking out Dortmund to reach a Champions League quarterfinal could be the turning point for Potter to finally begin forging a new path.
The team’s cyclical shortcomings returned, though.
The familiar pattern of Chelsea’s failures began to reflect badly on the manager. The Blues would keep the ball, fail to score and then concede soft goals. It happened time and again, with Saturday’s defeat to Aston Villa a classic case of what ailed the team: 27 shots, eight on target, with an expected goals figure of 2.09 and 69% possession, but still they lost 2-0.
The calibre and expense of the players now at his disposal only made Potter’s lack of experience at the highest level feel more of an obstacle to success. There were concerns he had shown poor judgment in a series of selection decisions, not least in using Hakim Ziyech when the winger reportedly travelled to France without the club’s permission in hopes of joining Paris Saint-Germain in January, only for a clerical error to deny him the move he wanted.
However, training ground sources have told ESPN that there was no mutiny against Potter from the playing squad. Many players appreciated his personal touch and found him to be likeable, warm and engaging. Yet, as results began to slide, there were concerns among more senior players that Potter did not possess the experience and know-how to reverse the decline. Some noted the absence of the same ruthlessness which had come to epitomise Chelsea under previous managers.
Given the inflated squad numbers, there were certain players who inevitably did feel alienated, most obviously striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Goals were a major issue — Chelsea have scored 29 times in the Premier League this season, a total surpassed by every team in the top half of the table — yet while Potter publicly praised Aubameyang’s performances in training he continued to exclude the club’s only out-and-out No. 9 from the matchday squad. Sources said the pair had a strained relationship, while Aubameyang started nine of Potter’s first 12 games in charge but none thereafter. His final start came on Nov. 6 against Arsenal, when he registered eight touches of the ball and was substituted after 64 minutes.
Chelsea’s slump saw fans voice their anger in increasing numbers, chanting “You don’t know what you’re doing” during Saturday’s defeat to Aston Villa and booing the team off at full-time. Where there had been some sympathy with his assertion that his role was “the toughest job in football,” given the sheer scale of change at Chelsea, by this point many supporters had concluded it was beyond his capabilities.
His public comments caused further consternation among some supporters, as he often insisted players had performed to an acceptable level, even in defeat. “If you look at the [expected goals] of [John] McGinn’s goal, it’s not that big a chance,” Potter said after losing to Villa. The xG in that case was 0.03, but the argument had already been lost.
Sources have told ESPN that Potter was informed of the decision to sack him on Sunday in a face-to-face meeting. Winstanley and Stewart spearheaded the change with the unanimous backing of Chelsea’s board, united in the belief that insufficient progress was being made with the resources available.
Sources added that Potter would not receive the full compensation from being dismissed less than a year into a five-year contract, and while assistant Billy Reid also departed, coach Bruno Saltor effectively confirmed at a Monday news conference that his appointment as interim head coach was the product of a compromise between Potter and the club while the search for a successor begins.
Leboeuf: Chelsea hiring Graham Potter was a mistake
Former Chelsea star Frank Leboeuf says it was time for Chelsea to turn the page on Graham Potter as manager.
Some of Chelsea’s rivals will note the club’s latest travails with mirth. Jurgen Klopp’s response to Boehly’s suggestion last September of staging an all-star game to help support lower divisions exemplified the bemusement felt around the league by his assertion that he could teach English football a thing or two about governance.
At the time, Boehly told a SALT investment and networking conference: “Ultimately, I hope the Premier League takes a little bit of a lesson out of the American sports teams and really starts to think about why don’t we do a tournament with the bottom-four teams. People are talking about why don’t we have more money for the pyramid? [Major League Baseball] did their All-Star Game this year. They made $200m from a Monday and a Tuesday; you could do a North vs. South All-Star Game from the Premier League to fund the pyramid very easily.”
Boehly arranged a dinner with counterparts from the other Premier League clubs last July at which he was said to be gracious and conscientious while also naïve to the vagaries of football ownership, something that was exposed to an extent in subsequent transfer windows. The idea that Boehly could tell those involved in one of England’s most successful global exports how the big picture could change was met with a scepticism now heightened by the palpable failure of his first managerial appointment.
Chelsea remain an attractive proposition for many managers, but there will now be a question mark over what sort of club they are.
In handing Potter a five-year contract, Boehly and Eghbali preached long-term stability was at the core of their strategy, trying to distance themselves from the hire-and-fire culture that epitomised Abramovich’s 19-year ownership. Dishing out long-term deals to new signings — Mykhailo Mudryk was given an 8½-year contract following his £88.5m move from Shakhtar Donetsk, while Benoit Badiashile signed a 7½-year deal when joining from AS Monaco in just two examples — was partly a move to offset Financial Fair Play concerns by staggering transfer payments, but also reinforced the idea that a lasting core was being built around young talent.
Dispensing with Potter so soon severely undermines that perception, and potential successors will likely take notice. Can Boehly and Eghbali be taken at face value in their interviews?
At the same time, however, there must also be an acknowledgement that football is a results-based business and Chelsea could not countenance dropping into the bottom half of the Premier League with a top-four spot disappearing from view. They host Liverpool on Tuesday sitting 12 points adrift of fourth-placed Manchester United.
Sources have told ESPN that no imminent appointment is likely, but that five to seven candidates have been identified. Winstanley and Stewart are expected to lead the initial search for Potter’s replacement. Although Boehly and Eghbali spoke with multiple candidates — including, briefly, with Mauricio Pochettino — there was a sense that Potter was always their first choice to replace Tuchel and senior figures at the club want to avoid pre-empting due process this time around.
In addition to Julian Nagelsmann, sacked by Bayern Munich last month and admired by senior figures within the club, Pochettino is of interest again, alongside Spain’s Luis Enrique, but Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi is not. There is no clear front-runner at this stage.
Tottenham are widely expected to make contact with Pochettino over their own managerial vacancy, but a source close to the Argentine confirmed to ESPN that as of Tuesday, no approach has been made. While it is unclear whether Pochettino would return to Spurs — having been sacked by the club in 2019 — the longer they deliberate, the more the opportunity arises for other clubs to express an interest. Real Madrid are also expected to consider both Pochettino and Nagelsmann should they part company with Carlo Ancelotti at the end of the season.
The situation for Chelsea is further complicated by uncertainty over which, if any, European competition they will qualify for next season. Despite the club’s monetary gymnastics around many of their transfers, complying with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules will become considerably tougher if they miss out on Champions League football, as looks increasingly likely, thereby restricting any new manager’s ability to sign his own players.
Without an imminent arrival, it is highly likely that Saltor will lead the team into next week’s Champions League quarterfinal first leg against Real Madrid. Saltor, 42, spent a decade as a defender at Brighton before retiring to join Potter’s backroom staff upon his appointment in May 2019 and has never been a manager at any level. Facing Klopp one week and then Ancelotti the next is quite the baptism by fire.
Despite the promises of Boehly and Eghbali, the turmoil continues.