Graham Potter's big regret? Turning his back on Brighton for Chelsea
Graham Potter would probably deny it, but surely a part of him must wonder whether he might have been happier staying at Brighton & Hove Albion. The 3-3 draw with Chelsea’s west London neighbours Brentford on Saturday was cast as a battle between two up-and-coming clubs with realistic European ambitions.
Potter’s Chelsea, by contrast, are more marooned than ever in mid-table after being overtaken by an Aston Villa side who are also harbouring thoughts of trips to the continent.
It was while in charge at Brighton in November 2021 that Potter was annoyed by a couple of dozen spectators booing at the end of a frustrating goalless draw at home to Leeds United. But the jeers at the final whistle were on an entirely different scale and duration here, and Potter knew they were coming.
After that Leeds game, he had asked ironically if he needed a history lesson when the fans of a club that had spent most of its history in the third tier booed after a home draw against a traditionally big club. But there was no need to enquire about the expectations at an outfit who have been Premier League and European – indeed, World – champions in very recent memory.
Even a run of three wins in four unbeaten games, which included progress into the Champions League quarter-finals, was never going to provide enough of a cushion to ensure Potter a soft landing after what seemed a giant step back after those four steps forward.
“I understand their disappointment and I understand their frustration,” he said. “There were some positives in the game. If you look at all the other stats apart from the stat that really matters, you can see a team that is fighting and trying, and doing some things well, but clearly the goals affect the game and then everything is emotional and it is really frustrating.
“I know that we are Chelsea, we are where we are in the table and that is not good enough. So then there is always going to be criticism and there is always going to be negativity and I understand that. I am not going to criticise anybody for that. We have to take it, the responsibility of that, and do better.”
Long-term Brighton watchers might point out that Chelsea’s performance against Villa bore many of the hallmarks of early Potter – plenty of possession and half-chances created, but no goals scored, and indeed new ways not to hit the net invented. For Neal Maupay at Brighton, read Mikhailo Mudryk here, side-footing tamely at Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez when clean through.
But Potter fixed the problem at Brighton in the end and the goals were flowing in his last dozen or so games on the south coast – four against Manchester United, for example, and five in his final match at home to Leicester City, still Brighton’s highest score in the top division. He will hope that the patience of Todd Boehly, the Chelsea co-owner, is greater than that of the supporters and will be rewarded in the same way that Brighton owner Tony Bloom’s was.
Those Chelsea fans who jeered at the final whistle might also be accused of a lack of respect for Aston Villa, whose victory was their ninth in 14 Premier League games since Unai Emery took charge. They are especially strong on the road, where only Manchester City have beaten them during Emery’s tenure. Only City and Arsenal have a better record over the same period, and one suspects that a similar result against either of those two would not have been met with such disdain, or even a reverse at home to Liverpool – who visit Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening – despite their recent record being far inferior to Villa’s.
Emery’s side were solid and organised throughout, but in addition to their hard work they had quality when it mattered. Ollie Watkins became the first Villa player to score in five consecutive Premier League away matches when he opened the scoring with a delightful lob over Kepa after a mis-communication between Marc Cucurella and Kalidou Koulibaly had left him clear. Skipper John McGinn’s 25-yard strike that curled away from Kepa into the bottom corner after Chelsea failed to clear a corner in the 56th minute was his first in 47 games but dispatched with a confidence that belied that surprising stat.
“It’s been a long time coming,” McGinn said. “We’re running hard, we’re working hard, we’re sticking together as a team. We’re on a brilliant run and you just never know what can happen.”