Coaching Insights

Potter's flexible formations will pay dividends

29 Nov 2022
Potter, Kovacic, Chelsea

Adrian Clarke explains how Graham Potter's different approach to team selection will give Chelsea more options

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Graham Potter’s proven ability to build tactically adaptable sides that are sophisticated and dynamic in their work in and out of possession, earned him a well-deserved opportunity to become Chelsea's head coach.

Chelsea identified the 47-year-old Englishman as someone who can create a sustainable culture and tactical identity for the long-term.

Conforming to some of the process changes may take time for the players – and results in the early weeks have been mixed – but Potter's imprint on the team is showing already. 

Major rotation

In his previous role at Brighton & Hove Albion, Potter was consistent in his team selection at the start of this campaign.

He made just three changes to his starting XI in the five matches that followed the opening weekend.

Averaging 0.6 changes per match, at that stage he was the least likely head coach to alter his line-up in the division.

After three and half years at the helm Potter had constructed a settled side that was comfortable in their identity.

Fewest changes per match 2022/23*
Manager Team Matches Changes Ave. per match
Graham Potter BHA 5 3 0.6
Roberto De Zerbi BHA 8 6 0.8
Mikel Arteta ARS 13 11 0.8
Gary O'Neil BOU 11 14 1.3

*Minimum five matches

Since moving to Chelsea, Potter has taken a different approach.

A series of midweek UEFA Champions League fixtures are likely to have played a part in his thought process, but so too has his desire to quickly assess a variety of tactical options.

Challenging his players with fresh ideas right from the get-go, he has rotated individuals and mixed up his ideas in search of the right formula.

Potter is on a fact-finding mission to learn about his players, and where they are most effective on the pitch.

The head coach has averaged a competition-high five changes to his line-up per match in his determination to to trial different combinations and systems.

Most changes per match 2022/23*
Manager Team Matches Changes Ave. per match
Potter CHE 8 40 5.0
Klopp LIV 13 39 3.0
Davis WOL 7 18 2.6
Hasenhuttl SOU 13 33 2.5
Cooper NFO 14 35 2.5

*Minimum five matches

Potter successfully deployed Belgium forward Leandro Trossard as a wing-back at various intervals for Brighton, and he has already experimented with Raheem Sterling in a similar position at Stamford Bridge.

Dan Burn was also converted from a central defender into a quality left-back with the Seagulls, while winger Solly March has also thrived as a full-back.

Changing positions

Chelsea’s players will be asked to take on new responsibilities if Potter believes they have qualities to offer in varying positions.

He is a head coach who wants to empower his players to develop rounded skill sets.

Potter's use of Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a defensive midfielder echoes how he successfully deployed another strong and versatile attacking player, Alexis Mac Allister, in a role that seemed unusual at first.

The Argentine has since flourished and been outstanding in his new midfield position this season.

Tweaking systems

Potter has always kept opposition managers guessing with his formations – and this has continued at Stamford Bridge.

Although 3-4-2-1 appears to be his first choice, Potter has regularly flitted between a back three and back four.

His willingness to make decisive tactical changes during a match has not wavered either.

In Chelsea's 1-1 draw with Manchester United Potter reacted to his team being outnumbered and outmanoeuvred in central midfield by making a decisive 36th-minute substitution.

Replacing left-sided centre-back Marc Cucurella with midfielder Mateo Kovacic, he addressed that problem swiftly and with success.

That substitution, coupled with a switch from 3-4-2-1 to 4-3-3, was a bold call that swung the match back in Chelsea’s favour. His players will quickly realise that changes of shape mid-match could be commonplace.

Potter's favoured formations at Chelsea
Starting formation Total
3-4-2-1 3
4-2-3-1 2
4-2-2-2 1
3-4-3 1
3-5-1-1 1

Injuries to N’Golo Kante, Ben Chilwell and Reece James have limited Chelsea’s tactical options in the early part of Potter’s reign.

If this trio had been fit and available, Potter may arguably have adopted a controlled style of play with a harder focus on their strengths out wide.

Utilising pace

In the trio's absence Potter has opted for a more direct approach, designed to utilise the speed of Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Chelsea now move the ball quicker and play a slightly more vertical brand of football than under previous head coach Thomas Tuchel.

There has been a 25 per cent reduction in the number of successful passes made inside the final third, compared to the first six matches.

The number of ‘direct attacks’ per 90 minutes has also doubled under Potter.

Potter v Tuchel Chelsea comparison
  Matches Direct attacks
Potter 8 16
Tuchel 6 6

This shift could also partly be due to Chelsea’s fixtures since Potter took over at Stamford Bridge.

As the percentages reflect, in three of Chelsea's last four Premier League matches, against Newcastle United (11.3%), Arsenal (16.4%) and Manchester United (12.1%), they have attempted a higher-than-usual number of longer passes.

With his players adjusting to new ideas and patterns when playing out from the back, it made sense to alleviate risk-taking and bypass the press in those contests.

Closing down on the rise

While Chelsea’s work off the ball remains a work in progress, their new head coach has already extracted greater intensity in the way they press opponents.

At Brighton his team were outstanding at squeezing space in an organised and energetic manner, and the early signs suggest the Blues will follow suit.

Responding to Potter's instructions the Blues are producing an additional 44 player pressures per 90 minutes than they did for Tuchel.

They are also recovering possession inside the final third more often.

Final third possession per 90
  Matches High turnovers Player pressures
Potter 8 9.4 163.5
Tuchel 6 8.5 119.7

The team’s work ethic is also better under former Swansea City manager Potter.

Uplifting his players with fresh energy, Chelsea are covering around 3.3km extra per 90 minutes since his arrival.

If this is maintained and their tactical connection grows, an upturn in results is to be expected.

Km/sprints comparison
  Matches Km/match Sprints/match
Potter 8 106.2 138.0
Tuchel 6 102.9 134.2

Right now, Chelsea’s players are absorbing a lot of fresh information, and Potter himself is learning plenty about which parts of the field his players are most productive.

Over the next few months, he will continue to develop a greater understanding, and adjust his tactical approach accordingly.

Potter is a proven tactician and innovator and certainly has the acumen to improve individual players, along with Chelsea's team.

As their decision-making and new patterns of play, on and off the ball, become more natural, Potter’s vision will come to life.

Also in this series

Part 1: How Man City changed to accommodate Haaland
Part 2: 'The Elite Heads Of Coaching programme is a game-changer'
Part 4: Matt Wells on his development as a coach

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