Analysing Graham Potter’s tactics at Chelsea and what they mean for Raheem Sterling
Raheem Sterling scored Chelsea’s goal in the 1-1 Champions League draw with RB Salzburg on Wednesday night, however it was his role on the night that has sparked the most discussion
Graham Potter gives instructions in his first game as Chelsea head coach, against Salzburg in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge.
Graham Potter’s reign as Chelsea manager started with a 1-1 draw against Red Bull Salzburg on Wednesday night, leaving the Blues with an uphill task to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages.
It was a steady enough start for the former Brighton manager though who was appointed just six days ago and arrives with a good reputation, despite having only managed in the Premier League for three years.
Wednesday’s game was the first chance to see what we might come to expect from Potter’s Chelsea, and he wasn’t shy in making a number of notable changes to his first starting XI.
The 47-year-old dropped Wesley Fofana, Kalidou Koulibaly and Ben Chilwell from the side that lost at Dinamo Zagreb last week. Thiago Silva and Marc Cucurella instead made up his back three with Cesar Azpilicueta. Jorginho sat just ahead of the defence, with Mateo Kovacic and Mason Mount operating as number eights while Kai Havertz and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang spearheaded the attack.
When the team news initially broke, there was some uncertainty initially about whether we’d see a back four or back three from Chelsea. It eventually proved to be a back three, with Raheem Sterling somewhat surprisingly playing as a left-sided wing-back.
We’ve seen Potter adjust the roles of other players in the past, with a similar example being Brighton’s Leandro Trossard who often found himself playing as a wing-back at Brighton. Although there’s a perception that playing wing-back is a more defensive role, Potter used Sterling in this way specifically for its attacking benefits, with the England international often playing high and wide, creating plenty of 1v1 situations as possible with Amar Dedic, Salzburg’s right-sided full-back.
Potter elaborated on the same during his post-match press conference: “Whatever you do, there’s always a plus and a minus, but we were at home, and we wanted to be on the front foot and get some attacking ideas in those positions.
“Raheem is really good at attacking a backline and scored a fantastic goal. I thought he was really good in the game. Reece (James) balances it off a little bit, and we can still defend in a four if we need to, so that was the thinking.”
That balance Potter talked about often came in the initial phases of build-up play. James would often drop deeper, allowing Chelsea’s back three to shift across and create something that better resembled a back four, giving them an overload against Salzburg’s aggressive press and plenty of options in the wide areas, which Potter identified as being key when trying to overcome their Austrian opponents.
Chelsea in what looks to be a back four, with James just out of the picture allowing the back three to spread out
“Salzburg are very strong in the middle with their 4-3-1-2, so it’s not easy to play through the middle of the pitch,” said the new Chelsea boss. “We wanted to get some dangerous width, and Reece and Raheem were that.”
Supporting Sterling on the left was Cucurella, who would regularly make good overlapping runs despite officially playing as a centre-back. The benefit was that he could get into good crossing positions and aim to find the likes of Aubameyang and Havertz attacking through the middle. The Blues attempted 24 crosses on the night, in only one other game since April have they attempted more.
Although Chelsea were forced to settle for only a point after Sterling and Cucurella were dispossessed near the halfway line leading to the equaliser, Potter would have been satisfied with his side’s overall display. They dominated for large periods, saw plenty of the ball and created more than enough chances to win the game.
His tactics on the night, though, centred around exposing Salzburg’s structure, therefore it’s likely that we could see other approaches from the new Chelsea boss in the coming weeks and months, depending on who the Blues are facing. This might mean that Sterling isn’t set to be a regular fitting at wing-back.