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Chelsea in free fall as new leadership faces early problems

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By Associated Press


LONDON: It’s hard to know what would have cut deeper for the men in charge of Chelsea — the ineptitude on the field or the chants in the crowd.

Fed up with seeing their team being given a clinic in yet another loss to Manchester City, Chelsea fans started pining after the people who had delivered them some of the best moments of their lives over the last few years.

In among the sarcastic cries of “SHOOOOOT!” whenever a Chelsea player got into City’s half toward the end of the 4-0 loss Sunday were chants from sections of the 7,000-strong away contingent about former manager Thomas Tuchel and the club’s previous owner, Roman Abramovich.

Graham Potter, who replaced Tuchel four months ago, heard them — “You understand the supporters’ frustrations,” he said afterward — and Todd Boehly, who bought Chelsea from Abramovich for $3.2 billion in May, will certainly be aware of them by now.

Less than two years ago, Chelsea was winning the Champions League under Tuchel — beating City in the final, no less — and into the 18th season of the trophy-filled reign of Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who turned the southwest London club into one of Europe’s finest.

Now, the team finds itself in 10th place in the Premier League approaching the halfway point of the season — 19 points off leader Arsenal and as close to the relegation zone as the top four — and already out of both domestic cup competitions.

Boehly oversaw unprecedented offseason spending on players of nearly $300 million in his first transfer window as owner and has already bought three players in the January window.

He also replaced Tuchel with Potter, a highly rated manager but someone who had never previously coached at this level. The pressure is already mounting on Potter after just one win from Chelsea’s last eight matches.

Here is a look at why it’s all going so badly:

INJURIES

It’s hard to get away from the fact that Chelsea has been beset with injuries for most of this season. The key absentees are Reece James and Ben Chilwell, who shape the way the team plays as its attacking wing backs, and central midfielder N’Golo Kante, who covers so much ground he is like an extra player. Add in injuries to Wesley Fofana, who has played just four games since his $80 million move from Leicester in August, and most recently Raheem Sterling, Christian Pulisic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Edouard Mendy and it’s understandable why Potter is saying he has never known anything like his current injury problems.

BOEHLY’S GAMBLES

Boehly made a whirlwind entrance to English soccer, implementing sweeping changes to the playing squad, the coaching staff and behind the scenes — some necessary after the downfall of Abramovich but others maybe naive. Was removing senior personnel like Petr Cech (technical advisor), Bruce Buck (chairman) and Marina Granovskaia (director), seemingly to ensure the club was breaking free from the Abramovich era, a wise idea? It deprived the new ownership of so much soccer knowledge. Did Tuchel really need to go after one month of this season? Has money been spent shrewdly in the transfer window? Fofana was signed for a huge fee despite a recent long-term injury; Marc Cucurella joined for $65 million after one good season at Brighton; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was brought in partly because of his links with Tuchel, who was fired days later. Boehly is learning on the job and the Premier League is proving a tough school.

POTTER’S STYLE

Potter is attempting to implement his own style on an injury-riddled squad during a disjointed season when the schedule is jammed as leagues continue to play catch-up after COVID-19 and a first-ever midseason World Cup. He often has a quirky approach, too, like playing Raheem Sterling as a wingback, rotating more than most managers, and changing between a back four and a back five seemingly every week. It is going to take time for players to get used to Potter and his methods.

MIDFIELD ISSUES

Central midfield is a big problem for Potter. Kante has played just two games this season because of injury and can no longer be relied upon. Jorginho has regressed and has essentially been found out by opposing teams, who know they can nullify his threat by putting a player on him and stop Chelsea starting attacks through its deep-lying Italy playmaker. With Mateo Kovacic often in and out of the team because of injury, Potter keeps having to change his central-midfield pairing, which has a ripple effect on the defense behind it. Losing center back Antonio Rudiger has been huge, with the 31-year-old Kalidou Koulibaly struggling to adapt to the pace of English soccer and proving to be a downgrade. Cesar Azpilicueta and Thiago Silva are now 33 and 38, respectively.

BAD LUCK

Some help in cup draws would be helpful. Chelsea has been handed arguably the toughest assignment in English soccer — an away match against Man City — in the early rounds of both the English League Cup and the FA Cup and lost both times. Its opponent in the last 16 of the Champions League could be easier, too: Borussia Dortmund.