This was the launch for Graham Potter at Chelsea.
After a frustrating draw against Red Bull Salzburg and a last gasp at Crystal Palace, Wednesday night’s 3-0 win over AC Milan offered a promising look at what lies ahead.
The Blues’ emphatic victory over the Italian champions instantly changed the complexion of Group E and helped allay much of the fear surrounding their Champions League prospects.
Chelsea drove to a 3-0 win over AC Milan to rekindle the Graham Potter era at Stamford Bridge
Winning Potter’s third game in charge felt like a statement as a new era begins
The impressive nature of Chelsea’s performance suggested that Potter’s blueprint will be effective as they try to overcome the inconsistent early season form that Thomas Tuchel did.
Of course, the challenge now is to maintain this momentum and position itself as strongly as possible for after the World Cup.
Return to the tried and true
Potter experimented with Chelsea’s formation in his first two games, but a return to the familiar 3-4-2-1 paid off against Milan.
The Salzburg game had undergone a minor tactical adjustment to 3-5-2, with Mason Mount deployed as a number 8 alongside Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic in a midfield three, with Raheem Sterling high and wide on the left.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Kai Havertz formed a forward pair, with the German dropping out to link the game.
It worked in terms of giving Chelsea possession – 73 per cent and 648 passes – but they could only take one of their 17 chances and were punished with a rare strike in Salzburg.
Chelsea were left frustrated when dominance against Red Bull Salzburg was not rewarded
Chelsea returned to action after more than a fortnight after the death of the Queen and the Internationals, and set up in a more 4-2-2-2 formation at Palace.
Again, that’s not unknown to the players, but after Chelsea’s slim win, Potter continued to complain about a lack of width.
So for the Milan visit, he returned to a set up often used by Tuchel and got the rewards.
Reece James and Ben Chilwell punched the wings and Milan couldn’t handle their overlaps and crossings.
James had an excellent night, scoring a goal on a plate for Aubameyang to make it 2-0 and then batting in the third after Sterling picked him in the right channel.
Conor Gallagher (right) scored a late winner against his former club Crystal Palace on Saturday
Mount and Sterling were allowed to roam and the Milan defense was forced to make mistakes.
Potter was also happy to change things up in the game, with Sterling moving further forward when Aubameyang was replaced by Conor Gallagher in the 65th minute. Havertz and Armando Broja came by later with the match.
New managers like to experiment and Potter certainly likes tactical agility from players, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they continued with the tried and true 3-4-2-1 system now.
Building around an English core
At the BT Sport studio, Rio Ferdinand was delighted to see Potter field seven England players over the course of the evening.
“Potter has seven young English players on the pitch which bodes well and all the right buttons are being pushed,” he said.
Potter started with Sterling, Mount, James, Chilwell and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Trevoh Chalobah was brought in when Wesley Fofana was injured late in the first half and Gallagher later.
Mason Mount and Reece James are part of an English core of Chelsea’s current squad
Afterwards, Potter had warm words for James, who now clearly shows that he is world class.
“He can play any game in the world, he’s great,” Potter said. “My job is to help him reach his potential, because his potential extends beyond the sky.
‘We love him. He is so important to us. My job is to help him reach his potential, and his potential is to become a Chelsea legend.”
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another Englishman who has become important to the Chelsea team
Sterling and Mount should have free rein during the attack, which only bodes well for England, while Loftus-Cheek has been in and out of favor with several managers but now feels well at home in Chelsea’s midfield.
If Fofana’s knee injury is serious, Chalobah has an excellent chance of securing a place in those back three.
Potter has long been touted as a potential future England manager and it seems he is already doing his bit for the national team with his own Chelsea squad.
Trevoh Chalobah fired nicely in Chelsea defense after Wesley Fofana was injured
More defensive soundness
An equally welcome aspect of the evening was Chelsea’s first clean sheet since they won 1-0 at Everton on opening day in August.
Kalidou Koulibaly cheers on the Stamford Bridge crowd after a welcome clean slate
This season, especially in the 3-0 defeat in Leeds and the 2-0 reverse in Zagreb, they have looked frayed at times.
This is far from a great Milan year, but they are the best team in Italy and Chelsea’s defense limited them to just one shot on target all night.
Yes, there was a lucky break as Rade Krunic missed a nanny just before half-time, but Chelsea largely kept their opponents at bay.
The back three also took Fofana’s injury in their stride, with Chalobah intervening and standing strong against Rafael Leao and old boy Olivier Giroud.
Whether it’s Thiago Silva, Kalidou Koulibaly and Fofana making up the back three, or Chalobah in there, they need to build on this solid screen.
The Blues have winning games ahead of them against Wolves, Aston Villa and Brentford – plus next week’s return at the San Siro, of course – so have the chance to score more clean sheets.
Aubameyang can be a real threat
Romelu Lukaku was supposed to push the goals for Chelsea, but instead it is former Arsenal player Aubameyang who seems to be their biggest threat in attack.
Aubameyang has scored twice in Potter’s three games in charge and the 33-year-old knows how to conjure something despite seeing relatively little of the ball.
He only had 21 strokes against Milan, but you can’t say he wasn’t involved. Aubameyang willingly slumped deep to connect the game, finishing James’ cross for 2-0 after stealing a yard on Fikayo Tomori, another ex-Chelsea man.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates in signature fashion after scoring Chelsea’s second
With two goals in two games now, the striker hopes to achieve an impressive total
Chelsea match schedule
Premier League unless otherwise stated
Saturday Wolves (H)
11 October AC Milan (A)
October 16 Aston Villa (A)
19 October Brentford (A)
22 October Chelsea (A)
October 25 Red Bull Salzburg (A)
With Sterling, Mount and Havertz switching well behind him and the fullbacks providing service, Potter is unlikely to worry about Aubameyang’s limited involvement as long as he clears opportunities.
Aubameyang scored 13 goals for Barcelona last season and should top that total if he continues on the same footing for Chelsea.
He should definitely let the service thrive and he knows the Premier League through and through.
Clear communication and a relaxed atmosphere
It was a rather strange start to Potter’s time as boss. After the match in Salzburg, Chelsea’s next two games against Fulham and Liverpool were postponed due to the death of the Queen, followed by many players going to represent their country.
It was an unexpected opportunity to work with the players on the training ground in Cobham, but with no certainty of when they would play next.
However, it provided a window for the new manager to interact with each player on a personal level without the pressure of games.
One of Potter’s first appearances as Chelsea manager was to have one-on-one chats with each player
Potter held one-on-one meetings with every first-team player before the September internationals.
In a relaxed setting, these were real conversations rather than Potter giving instructions. The players were given the opportunity to criticize their own performances so far this season before Potter told them about his intentions for them and the team.
Everyone got a clean sheet after Tuchel, though so far there are no suggestions that Potter will let them give a ballet like he did at Swedish club Ostersund.
It has helped to create a fresh atmosphere in the club and now the results are starting to come.