After the final whistle, Graham Potter shook hands with Leeds United’s coach, Javi Gracia, and his staff. He then went down the tunnel. Chelsea’s players stayed on the Stamford Bridge pitch to thank the remaining home fans and celebrate their first win in any competition since mid-January.
Potter, on the other hand, was happy to just take the three points and move on, perhaps because he didn’t want to push his luck with those who still doubt him.
This practical approach was also used for most of the second half, starting in the 68th minute when Potter switched Joao Felix and Raheem Sterling for Denis Zakaria and Conor Gallagher. After these changes, Kai Havertz no longer had any help going forward, and Leeds was free to rush into Chelsea’s low block with increasing urgency.
Potter had waited over 400 minutes for Wesley Fofana’s goal early in the second half, so why take big chances in pursuit of another? Yet it was also the choice of a Chelsea manager who, for the first time in his tumultuous reign, acted as if tomorrow depended on today.
Up until recently, the story told by Chelsea’s ambitious new owners was clear and consistent: Potter was hired in September to be the architect of a long-term project, and he would be given time and patience to get through the short-term pain.
The limp defeats to Southampton and Tottenham in February, however, changed the tone significantly, and there was a growing fear that negative results at home against Leeds and Borussia Dortmund—with no reason to be optimistic based on the performances—would make his position indefensible.
Potter refused to talk about anything but Leeds at his pre-match press conference on Friday, and the only big decision he made about his team was to give Reece James a couple of extra days to get over some lingering hamstring tightness before Dortmund came to play in the Champions League last-16 decider.
In every other way, Chelsea fielded their strongest available lineup, with a return to the three-man central defense that underpinned Potter’s early success in the fall.
Potter was also more outwardly demonstrative than usual on the touchline, frequently gesticulating from the edge of his technical area to direct Chelsea’s possession and calling out tactical instructions to individual players rather than simply applauding in encouragement and appreciation after positive attacking sequences of play.
Potter has never lost the dressing room, or even huge chunks of it, during this dismal run of results, and the determination with which he started to pin down Leeds dispelled any thought that it may happen now.
Inside the first half-hour, Fofana smashed a near-post header just over from a corner, Havertz saw a dink well saved by Illan Meslier, and Joao Felix slammed a Sterling cutback off the crossbar.
Chelsea accomplished everything except score, as has frequently been the case on Potter’s better days, and then watched their dominance and confidence ebb as their opponents survived and adapted.
Gracia changed his formation to prevent the ocean of space that Ben Chilwell often sprinted into on Chelsea’s left wing, and Leeds increased their offensive threat despite brilliant interventions from Fofana, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Benoit Badiashile.
An unsaid tension hung in the air just above the fray: the fear that if Leeds scored first, Stamford Bridge would finally and irreversibly turn against Potter. It did not happen, partly because Chelsea began the second half with increased vigor.
The emotional release from Fofana’s header resonated across the stadium as Potter grinned and raised a defiant fist.
Shortly after, Sterling cut inside and curled a shot over after a counter-attack started by Joao Felix, and the game seemed to be perfectly set up to provide the transition opportunities that this club has been lacking for much of the season.
Potter, on the other hand, sensed too much danger at the other end of the field, where Koulibaly had to rush to deflect Georginio Rutter’s goal-bound attempt. Leeds wants an open, transitional game, or “Hawaii football,” as Potter later dubbed it.
He desired control. Stamford Bridge desired a last blow, a sense of completion. In the 77th minute, boos were heard all over the stadium because Chilwell chose to slow down and keep possession at his head coach’s request instead of leading another quick attack to try to score a second goal that would seal the win.
Chelsea’s caution ensured a tense finish, and goalkeeper Meslier’s header while coming up for a Leeds corner late in extra time threatened a twist that would have looked harsh and odd-even by recent standards in this part of west London.
Instead, the ball made its way into the palms of rival Kepa Arrizabalaga, and a victory was gained, providing at least a modest foundation of confidence before attempting to overcome Dortmund’s 1-0 aggregate advantage.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Potter can stick with what worked.
Mudryk is missing
Fernandez’s £107 million deal from Benfica surpassed the British transfer record. Nevertheless, the Argentine World Cup champion has failed to make the anticipated impact in terms of delivering a creative spark from midfield, and he was found lacking by Karim Adeyemi’s blistering pace for Dortmund’s winner in the first leg.
Chelsea spent £10 million simply to have Felix on loan for the remaining few months of the season, but if they fail to turn the tie around, there will be nothing left to play for.
Unlike Mudryk, Potter has tended to employ Fernandez and Felix when they are available.
Chelsea outbid Arsenal to buy the Ukrainian from Shakhtar Donetsk for an initial fee of 70 million euros (£62 million, $74 million), with add-ons worth up to 100 million euros.
Despite Potter making all five possible changes, Mudryk has not started in the previous three games and was an unused replacement against Leeds.
Chelsea’s first goal in four games came against Leeds, but it came from a defender, Wesley Fofana of France, who hammered in a corner.
“We need to attack better as a team,” Potter stated. “I’m responsible for that. Individuals are too easily singled out and blamed. It’s a group effort; we need to generate more and accomplish better, and it all starts with me assisting the squad in getting better and more chances. I have no doubts about the players’ abilities.”
Even though he has had a lot of injuries in his first year at Stamford Bridge, Raheem Sterling is Chelsea’s joint-top scorer with seven goals in all competitions.
Sterling hadn’t scored since January 1, but Potter feels he can provide his team the spark they need heading into the business end of the season. Before making a £50 million move to Chelsea in the summer of 2022, the England international scored 24 goals in 67 matches for Manchester City in the most prestigious club league in Europe.
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Chelsea’s spending shouldn’t be criticized until three or four years
According to Richard Masters, the chief executive of the Premier League, spending habits of Chelsea should not be evaluated for at least three to four years.
After assuming control of the club in May of the previous year, the new club leadership has begun an aggressive player recruiting campaign and has already spent more than 600 million pounds on new players.
This sum includes an investment of more than £300 million during the most recent transfer window in January, an amount that was £100 million higher than what Europe’s other four major leagues spent combined.
Some people have a problem with the choice to spend a lot of money and then spread the expense out across longer player contracts.
Nonetheless, Masters believes that it is premature to pass judgement on the Todd Boehly-Clearlake project at this stage.