Chelsea on the back foot in Champions League as Graham Potter faces new reality

Graham Potter began life at Cheslea with a 1-1 draw against FC Salzburg

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This may be the wrong question to ask after the eyes had peered down on Graham Potter and Chelsea were held to a 1-1 draw by FC Salzburg at Stamford Bridge – but what must Thomas Tuchel have been thinking?

If Tuchel had the stomach to watch just a week on from his dismissal, in between chants of his name sung in the 21st minute he would have seen an energy and spark that was missing from the trauma of his final match in charge at Dinamo Zagreb. Perhaps he would have leaned back, grinning in both frustration and longing, at the memory of when those same players would perform that way for him.

But then Tuchel may have looked up and been hit with some more recent flashbacks, of missed chances, a lapse of concentration at the back and the concession of a cheap goal, a lack of control and a failure to kill off the game. For Tuchel and at his end, this version of Chelsea was more familiar to him, but it is not his problem any longer.

Instead, it is Potter left frustrated by the feeling of a victory that slipped away, and who will be left to stew over the two dropped points that leaves Chelsea in a tricky spot at the bottom of Group E in the Champions League. Although Chelsea’s position is of course not his own making, one point from six already puts Potter on a bit of a back foot ahead of the double-header against AC Milan next month.

“It’s not the position we want to be in but we have to respond,” Potter said, answering to the reality he faces now after his step up from Brighton. In an effort from the new owners to break from the past, the Englishman is set to be afforded time but Chelsea will still be expected to qualify from this group – even after this start.

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Potter is only one game into his Chelsea tenure but already, through no fault of his own, finds himself in an interesting situation. With the matches against Fulham and Liverpool postponed, he has been allowed time on the training ground to work with his new players and the early results were promising in Chelsea’s best spells against Salzburg.

There is more time to come, with Chelsea’s next fixture not until Crystal Palace on 1 October, but a chunk of that will be taken up by the majority of his squad being away on pre-World Cup internationals. It will be another far different experience to an international break at Brighton or Swansea.

The positives of his first match in charge, though, were fairly clear. Chelsea’s system only needed a slight tweak but it released several players and created space for the ball to be played through. Salzburg have this season tended to deploy a narrow midfield diamond and so Raheem Sterling and Reece James were used out wide. Both were excellent and naturally benefitted from the gaps. The shape was fluid and there had clearly been some good work that promises much more and hints at further variety.

Chelsea produced an improved display but were held back by familiar issues

But although Potter was also pleased with his side’s “attitude” and “application”, this was a night that ultimately ended in frustration. His admission that Chelsea lost control of the game and lacked an edge to score the second goal was a reminder of why Chelsea and a squad that has seen a £260m injection of talent are where they are.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been signed to be Chelsea’s goalscorer but faded after some early half-chances. Both he and Kai Havertz were the first to be brought off and if there were some lingering questions of Potter from his Brighton days, it would be that leading forwards tended to struggle in his teams. A lack of confidence, stemming from the final days of Tuchel and the deterioration of relationships at the club, is a key issue.

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Potter has time to fix this. He does not, though, have matches. After Chelsea come back from the international break to face Crystal Palace, it will have been three weeks on from Potter’s debut when they return to Stamford Bridge again to face AC Milan. It’s already a huge game and even if there are more positives to take from it, there will be pressure on Potter to address Chelsea’s issues and deliver a result.

If it wasn’t ready, it has not taken long for that reality at Chelsea to become apparent.

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