When any manager walks into a new club, the first thing they will tell the players is that there’s a clean slate. 200 games for the club or two, a £100m signing or an academy product, whether they keep their vow or even mean it, managers will always tell players that they will be making their selections on merit.
It’s a key tactic to achieve that all-important new manager bounce. Individuals who were playing frequently feel the need to up their game to keep their place, while those out in the cold under the previous regime sniff their chance to earn a starting spot. Intensity in training and in games increases; performances follow.
Often this results in most of the same players keeping their place. Favourites under a previous manager may have gone off the boil, leading to said manager’s dismissal, but they were favourites for a reason. And that’s fine – the new boss can makes gains through physical, psychological and tactical means rather than with personnel changes.
But Graham Potter is in an unusual situation at Chelsea. He has an extraordinary wealth of talent, arguably too many options, but very few nailed on starters. Other than Reece James and Raheem Sterling, is there a member of the Chelsea squad who could have a justifiable gripe over not starting their next game against Crystal Palace?
Confidence has been lacking in the Chelsea forwards for some time. And like the ghosts at the feast, their misery has seeped steadily into the rest of the squad, culminating in the Dinamo Zagreb nadir which spelled the end for Thomas Tuchel.
There will be members of the squad who will expect to be starting most games. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, signed less than a week before Tuchel’s dismissal and considered to be very much a Tuchel signing, will be one, but there will likely be a steady stream of very well-paid footballers knocking on Potter’s door in the coming weeks, staking their claims to be in the starting lineup with the World Cup looming.
Dealing with egos is perhaps the biggest challenge for the manager of a top football team. Pep Guardiola has done a solid job of keeping all his superstars happy, but that balancing act between rotation and maintaining a winning ethos is something Tuchel never quite got to grips of at Stamford Bridge.
The big attraction of Potter, besides the flowing football his teams have typically played, is his ability to make those teams greater than the sum of their parts. Brighton have some fine footballers, but it never felt as though they had a star player. Even Marc Cucurella, whom Chelsea spent £62m on this summer, was a cog in the machine.
Potter can’t ignore the elephant in the room. Pretty much every player in the squad has won more than him. Some, like Silva, N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta, have won more titles than Potter may ever win.
He would be daft not to lean on those individuals and their experiences at Chelsea and elsewhere, but must also avoid becoming dependent on them. A football dressing room is a delicate ecosystem which can so easily be fractured by a manager picking favourites or allowing cliques to form.
The poor form of the vast majority of that squad will be a concern, but gives Potter an advantage in that he can say there’s a clean slate and actually mean it. Eyebrows may be raised but few could quarrel with a front three of Sterling, Armando Broja and Christian Pulisic in the upcoming games, for example.
18-year-old Carney Chukwuemeka scored a brace in a behind-closed-door friendly with Brighton last weekend and could be given a chance in the Premier League. Trevoh Chalobah has seen £100m worth of centre-backs arrive at the club and do little to suggest thus far that they are more worthy than he is of a place in Potter’s team.
Potter’s skills in man management will be crucial in these first few weeks as he looks to find a system that works and allows all of his squad to feel as though they have a chance of game time, while keeping those who believe they have a God-given right to start games happy when they’re not.
It’s not a good thing that so many individuals are playing poorly, but in this instance, under a new manager with fresh ideas, the circumstances allow Potter to build a Chelsea team from the ground up.