Sports

Why Chelsea fired Thomas Tuchel, hired Graham Potter after just six league games


It was assumed that the end of Roman Abramovich’s ownership would be a good thing for the longevity of Chelsea managers. No English club won more than the 21 trophies amassed in 19 years of the Russian’s tenure, but 13 different managers — two of whom came back for a second stint — rarely enjoyed any lasting comfort in the Stamford Bridge hot seat.

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Thomas Tuchel knew what he was letting himself in for when succeeding Frank Lampard in January 2021. Or at least, he thought he did. Many of his predecessors (including Lampard) spoke of building a dynasty, but Tuchel embraced the capricious nature of the job he had taken. Grateful for an elite infrastructure built to win, he was going to make the most of it.

Some were wary of the void created by Abramovich’s distance as an owner, yet Tuchel revelled in the freedom to work and coach the team as he saw fit, without outside interference and internal politics. The 47-year-old’s previous employment came at Paris Saint-Germain, where many managers have departed reflecting that the same could not be said of the Ligue 1 club. At Chelsea, Tuchel was “head coach,” not “manager,” and for all the subtle yet clear distinction the differing title implies, that was fine by him.

And so, in the final reckoning, it was the change that did for Tuchel at Chelsea — change that began with the club placed in unprecedented circumstances as U.K government sanctions relating to Abramovich’s alleged links to Russia president Vladimir Putin restricted the club’s day-to-day activities.

Tuchel assumed a quasi-ambassadorial role as the public face of the club during a period fraught with tension when Chelsea’s very existence felt threatened. When the consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital eventually completed their £2.5 billion takeover in May, the job changed again. Tuchel was asked to take on greater responsibility for transfer strategy, engage in a regular dialogue with the new owners, consider external input and an alteration of his ideas.

That shift led to tension, which eventually brought on the German’s dismissal this week. It also explains why Boehly and Clearlake settled on Graham Potter to replace him.

With additional reporting by Julien Laurens

A changing role leads to an untenable relationship

Tuchel is not entirely a victim. Chelsea’s performances dipped in general during his 100 games in charge, a swoon perhaps best exemplified by their clean sheet record. Tuchel’s past success — the apotheosis of which came in winning the Champions League just four months after taking charge — was largely founded upon a remarkable defensive record, a sudden and dramatic improvement on what went before.

During his first 50 games, Chelsea conceded 24 goals, registering 24 clean sheets. No team in Europe’s top five leagues did better. In his final 50, the Blues conceded 53 goals. Scoring became more of an issue, too, dropping from 2.53 goals per game to 1.74 per game.

Chelsea hire Potter from Brighton to replace Tuchel
Sources: Chelsea want sporting director before World Cup

The more Tuchel was charged with moulding his own team, the more Chelsea began to struggle. Wider circumstances undeniably took their toll, and by the time the new owners were in place, Tuchel was not immune to scrutiny despite his Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup triumphs.

Sources have told ESPN that upon completing their takeover at the end of May, Boehly and co-owner Behdad Eghbali set themselves a task of conducting a 100-day review of all aspects of Chelsea’s operations, including the first team and its coaching staff. So rather than a period of calm following the uncertainty of Abramovich’s exit, Tuchel’s role quickly began to alter, partly out of necessity.

The departures of director and lead transfer negotiator Marina Granovskaia and technical and performance director Petr Cech left a shortfall in football expertise. With that, Boehly sought to hand Tuchel more responsibility in the club’s transfer strategy. It was seen by Boehly as recognition of Tuchel’s status as an elite coach, yet Tuchel himself believed the additional meetings and persistent interaction was impacting his work with the team.

This dissonance led to friction. Playing catch-up in the summer transfer window as a result of those U.K. government sanctions relating to Abramovich, Chelsea missed out on some transfer targets through naivety; for example, failing to learn the intentions of players before bidding for them: Leeds United forward Raphinha always wanted to join Barcelona, but the Blues pursued him anyway.

Generally speaking, sources say Boehly and Eghbali wanted to sign players with a longer-term view — Carney Chukwuemeka from Aston Villa and Gabriel Slonina from Chicago Fire FC are teenagers acquired for the future — while Tuchel saw more immediate issues with the team, which resulted in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s deadline-day arrival from Barcelona. Senior sources at Chelsea refute this, arguing that data informed their decision-making more than the club previously employed. Analytics staff were more influential in transfer policy even in the case of Aubameyang, with whom Tuchel enjoyed a close working relationship at Borussia Dortmund several years ago.

But there were also problems elsewhere. Tuchel is in the middle of a divorce and sources say the players felt him become more distant in recent months. Boehly was a regular presence in the dressing room after matches, and sources suggest he picked up on certain players feeling alienated as time wore on, particularly this season.

Several attacking players became frustrated with Tuchel’s tactical approach, particularly the emphasis on work without the ball rather than what they did in possession. One source also suggested that after blaming the pitch following a 4-2 defeat to Arsenal in April, staff and players were left bemused by his explanation.

Tuchel’s rift with the owners widened further when choosing to play Hakim Ziyech at Southampton on Aug. 31. Almost out of nowhere, the Dutchman made his first start of the season despite the club being in talks to either loan or permanently transfer him back to Ajax. Sources say Tuchel wanted to keep Ziyech over Christian Pulisic, whose departure had been blocked by Boehly. Pulisic was introduced as a substitute in the defeat at Southampton in the unfamiliar position of right wing-back.

The overall performance in the Champions League at Dinamo Zagreb a week later, in a 1-0 defeat was even worse, but still, the end came as a surprise for Tuchel.

A risk-taker and innovator who can over-perform

Tuchel was informed in a face-to-face meeting at the club’s training base in Cobham on Wednesday morning that he was no longer required.

Sources say Tuchel argued for time to try to improve the situation, but Boehly and Eghbali had completed their 100-day review, and the decision had been made. The pair then gave a 15-minute address to the players before turning their attentions to the identity of Tuchel’s successor.

Sources have said that Boehly and Eghbali first began considering other coaches soon after taking over the club in June, without actively thinking at that point they would make a change. Potter’s name was one of the first to be mentioned: his work at Brighton has attracted attention from other possible suitors, including the Football Association as a potential future successor for Gareth Southgate with the England team.

When the process began this week, Boehly and Eghbali had what senior sources describes as multiple in-person meetings with various candidates. Chelsea approached Brighton to speak to Potter, indicating they would be willing to pay his release clause, which sources say stood at around £16m.

There were also unsolicited calls from managers not on their shortlist who expressed an interest in being considered.

Sources have told ESPN that Potter was viewed internally as a risk-taker, having taken the decision to leave England for Sweden and manage Ostersunds, taking a small club from the fourth tier to Europe during his seven years in charge. Senior Chelsea sources also described Potter to ESPN as an innovator who can improve players around him, and that they recognise his ability to over-perform with limited resources.

Comparisons have been drawn internally with Andrew Friedman, who helped the Tampa Bay Rays compete with much bigger teams in Major League Baseball’s Eastern Conference — reaching the World Series for the first time in the franchise’s history in 2008 — before later being given a chance to transform the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team part-owned by Boehly. It is also understood that as they acclimatised to top-level football, senior figures at the club expressed their surprise at the same handful of managers being given repeated opportunities at the highest level. For example, Jose Mourinho managed Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United in England with varying degrees of success.

Senior sources at the club say they wanted to give a chance to a man they considered a leader performing at a high level at Brighton, but with the potential to grow further. Potter may even be viewed as a more malleable head coach for that reason.

Tuchel’s proven pedigree perhaps made him less receptive to new ideas, or contributed to an unwillingness to involve himself in areas away from coaching. There is certainly a sense Potter is viewed as a more collaborative coach for a regime that is focused on long-term aspirations, stability and growth.

One obvious difference here is in the prospective appointment of a sporting director. Tuchel was on record only last week month voicing his relief that he was not involved in Chelsea’s search for suitable candidates. “I had the feeling for one-and-a-half days: I shifted back to 100% being a coach, which I enjoy a lot and where my full energy will go from now on,” he said after Chelsea beat Brighton last weekend. “We need that energy going into the team.”

Boehly and Eghbali clearly disagreed. Sources have told ESPN that Potter will be involved in the recruitment process for a new sporting director, with an appointment expected before the World Cup begins in November.

Meanwhile, Tuchel is left to lick his wounds, but he will surely continue his management career at the highest level. A skilful tactician, amiable with the media and still under 50 years old, Tuchel will emerge somewhere more suitable — ironically on the merry-go-round Chelsea’s new owners seemingly dislike.

Potter formally agreed to succeed Tuchel on Thursday morning and travelled to London to finalise and sign his contract, though the club opted not to stage an unveiling press conference out of respect for the news that Queen Elizabeth II had died that afternoon.

The subsequent postponement of all football matches in England this weekend has given the national pause for thought. It also gives Chelsea a moment to steady themselves as a new chapter begins.



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