“I understand where you are coming from but there is a completely different ownership than there was. That’s hard for some people to get their head around because for 20 years, Chelsea was one thing and now all of a sudden it’s different.”
In the midst of his barely disguised frustration when it was put to him — shortly after the first of Chelsea’s two comprehensive defeats to Manchester City in the space of three days — that he would likely have already been sacked by Roman Abramovich, Graham Potter inadvertently pinpointed a crisis that is even more significant than the growing list of players he has lost to injury.
Chelsea’s crisis of identity was laid bare early in the second half of their yearly nightmare trip to the Etihad Stadium when, having already endured three first-half City goals, the traveling supporters who remained broke into a loud chorus of ‘ROMAN ABRAMOVICH’, followed by chants in support of Thomas Tuchel.
They stopped short of directly abusing Potter, Todd Boehly or Clearlake Capital, but their dismay at Chelsea’s swift slide into Premier League mediocrity was clear. On social media, where criticism of the club’s new owners and head coach has been most vociferous, there was no such restraint.
Back-to-back matches against City were always likely to provide humbling reminders of how far Chelsea have fallen out of contention at the most rarefied levels in the top flight; as Potter reasonably pointed out afterwards, “This is probably the worst opponent you can play when things aren’t going well because they can make it look like you are not trying.”
If anything, the close nature of the scoreline at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League on Thursday, when Chelsea were beaten 1-0, was more surprising than the FA Cup rout that followed. But the limp nature of the team’s disintegration at the Etihad once Riyad Mahrez had curled in a brilliant free kick sank the collective mood to new depths.
City always take particular relish in tormenting Chelsea, the Premier League’s new money before their new money, and the most memorable image of an otherwise utterly forgettable second half (apologies, David Datro Fofana) was thousands of home supporters in the bottom tier of the Etihad’s south stand indulging in the Poznan as they goaded the away contingent above — a small group of whom had, a little earlier, thrown objects at them.
This time they also achieved history: the first time Chelsea have been dumped out of the FA Cup at the third round stage since the 1997-98 season. It was a remarkable streak, preserved throughout a trophy-laden Abramovich era in which supporters came to expect disappointing league campaigns to be redeemed by cup glory.
Only one route to such salvation remains, and this squad winning the Champions League in May appears at least as fanciful a notion as it did before Tuchel was hired in January 2021. Back then, Chelsea were still a club dependent on what Petr Cech memorably described as the “shock therapy” of mid-season coaching changes. That is the pattern Boehly and Clearlake say they want to change, but patience is a difficult message to preach when the patient appears to be flatlining.
Potter is within his rights to expect support, both from those above him and from those in the stands. He did not sanction Abramovich or sack Tuchel, nor did he create the many problems he inherited in a squad that has been steadily declining since that remarkable Champions League triumph in Porto one and a half years ago. Boehly and Clearlake appointed him to be the architect of a long-term project, in his words a “massive transitional period”.
The problem is the Chelsea supporters currently making their frustrations heard in stadiums and online didn’t sign up for any of this.
Despite the chaos that accompanied the trophies over 19 years of ownership and the widespread condemnation that accompanied UK government sanctions in the wake of Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine, Abramovich remains for many supporters a close-to-perfect owner. And despite an alarming dip in Chelsea’s performances at both ends of the pitch in 2022, Tuchel remains for many a close-to-unimpeachable figure: a world-class tactician with the public charisma to lead and inspire belief even in difficult times.
Both have been replaced at jarring speed by owners who are still learning the business of European football and a promising head coach who has never faced a challenge remotely of this size. Just as unsettling as the speed of the collapse is the lack of proven pedigree in charge of the rebuild.
Against this backdrop, the cryptic words of Thiago Silva‘s typically outspoken wife Belle, posted on Twitter during the half-time interval, chimed with the mood of the day:
It’s probably true that Abramovich would have sacked Potter by now. But more indicative of the seismic nature of the culture shift at Stamford Bridge over the past seven months is that he would almost certainly never have appointed him in the first place.
Potter’s response to the question was also true. Chelsea is a different club now, regardless of whether or not those who follow it saw any need for change. The past is the past, the present is painful, and the future offers little by way of reassurance.
(Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)