Soccer  

Chelsea collapse on coach Graham Potter’s return to Brighton

BRIGHTON, England — If Graham Potter was in any doubt about what awaited him on his return to Brighton on Saturday, it dissipated as the players emerged for kick-off when the home fans adapted Beatles classic “Hey Jude” to “Hey Judas.”

This was a chastening and hugely embarrassing afternoon for the 47-year-old coach, who left Brighton abruptly last month after a hugely successful three-year spell to replace Thomas Tuchel at Stamford Bridge. Saturday’s 4-1 defeat was his first as Blues boss and simultaneously the first win for his successor on the south coast, Roberto De Zerbi, at the sixth attempt.

Brighton were magnificent, palpably enthused by the prospect of making a point to Potter that the step up he had taken did not elevate him to an untouchable perch. And this was not just about Potter. Marc Cucurella, the defender who handed in a summer transfer request to join Manchester City before Chelsea paid a higher transfer fee (£62 million) to land their man, had his first touch booed. Worse followed when he delayed taking an early throw-in.

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In total, seven coaches, staff and players have traded Brighton for Chelsea to date, a flow of talent which clearly angered the home fans.

“I didn’t have any expectations,” said Potter. “I have nothing to say sorry for, I have nothing to apologise for. I did a good job. You can see the team is a good team. I took over when they were fourth from bottom in the Premier League, probably third-worst team.

“There’s a lot of money been raised through player sales and there’s a lot of good players on the pitch. I hope for their sake, the next manager does as good a job and that’s brilliant for them.”

What should alarm Potter more is that this was a defeat largely of his own making. Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 system looked more like 3-2-4-1 given the advanced deployment of Christian Pulisic and Raheem Sterling as wing-backs, a tactic which worked in Tuesday’s Champions League win at FC Salzburg but faltered badly here.

Brighton were sharper and more incisive from the first whistle, enabling them to beat Chelsea’s lackadaisical press, time and again manoeuvring Solly March and Pervis Estupinan into one-on-one situations against the wider pair of Chelsea’s three centre-backs. This system offers high risk and reward, and Chelsea were not without threat in the first half. But they were so frighteningly easy to play against that Brighton looked like scoring almost every time they went forward, scoring three goals in the opening 45 minutes of a Premier League game — a feat they never achieved under Potter.

– Report: Brighton 4-1 Chelsea | Premier League table | Upcoming fixtures

Chelsea were much improved in the second period as Potter switched to something approximating 4-1-4-1 with Ruben Loftus-Cheek at right-back, but the damage had already been done.

“The responsibility for [the wing-backs] wasn’t to defend against their wing-backs but I understand that whenever you do something and it doesn’t work, you look a bit of a fool.” said Potter. “That’s how it is. I have to accept that and deal with and do better.”

As good as Brighton were, the feeling that Chelsea shot themselves in the foot grew from the outset. They had already required Thiago Silva to clear off the line twice by the time they fell behind after just five minutes.

Silva gave the ball away cheaply and suddenly Kaoru Mitoma was driving towards the Chelsea box. He slipped a clever pass for Leandro Trossard, who kept his composure to round goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and fire low into the net with Cucurella helpless on the line.

“Potter, Potter what’s the score?” sang the gleeful home fans in response.

Two own goals followed. First, Loftus-Cheek stuck out a knee and inadvertently diverted March’s 14th-minute corner into his own net. Then, in just one of so many examples where Brighton overloaded their opponents in wide areas, Estupinan got in down the left and crossed. Trevoh Chalobah, on the slide, could only turn the ball into his own net.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning,” rained down from the stands as supporters continued to target Potter, who stood arms folded on the touchline, presumably in disbelief at how his side were capitulating. Cheers rang out ever louder with each replay of Chalobah’s mistake on the big screens.

Yet Chelsea had chances of their own even before the break. Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez saved well from Conor Gallagher, before Pulisic steered a volley wide on the rebound. Sanchez then brilliantly palmed away a Gallagher header from Raheem Sterling’s left-wing delivery.

But the risk-reward ratio was not in their favour. Potter has abandoned the 3-4-2-1 shape in previous league games and was forced to do the same here. Loftus-Cheek was a driving force for their second-half improvement, yet it was acutely clear how much Chelsea miss Reece James, sidelined by a knee injury.

Three minutes into a second period which also began with Edouard Mendy replacing Kepa in goal because of a foot problem, Loftus-Cheek pushed on and found a pass back to Gallagher, who delivered a fine cross which Kai Havertz emphatically headed past Sanchez.

Chelsea began to dictate proceedings but worked Sanchez only sporadically. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, on for Sterling, forced the Spaniard into a diving stop to his left with 20 minutes left. Havertz blazed over in the box after more good work on the right from Loftus-Cheek. But it was Brighton who had the last laugh — literally — as Mendy saved from substitute Julio Enciso only for Pascal Gross to force home the rebound.

Prior to this game, Chelsea had conceded just four goals in 810 minutes under Potter. Brighton scored four in one afternoon, which ended with Potter, occupying the eye of the storm, warmly embraced by several of his former players when the heat of battle had passed.

It was a rare convivial moment on an otherwise dismal afternoon. Potter must quickly consign this to history, just as Brighton have done with him.