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Their reign has another six weeks to run. Chelsea can still brand themselves world champions until 11 February, but it is probably best if they do not. It would highlight the gulf between past and present, between supposed status and sad reality when, below Fulham on goal difference, the table suggests they are not even the top team in west London. If 2022 started with a crowning glory that came before the dramatic crumbling of Roman Abramovich’s empire, 2023 began with further evidence that Todd Boehly’s is a reign of error.
It was not so much the fact Chelsea drew with Nottingham Forest as the manner of it and the context. “It was below par for us,” said Graham Potter, but par for Thomas Tuchel’s team used to be startlingly high and now it feels altogether lower. “It’s a performance we are not happy with,” Potter added. Since beating AC Milan in San Siro, there are none that should really satisfy him.
At the City Ground, Chelsea mustered one, off-target attempt in the second half against the side with the second worst defensive record in the league, and just seven from 72 percent of possession overall. A seven-game spell has produced a solitary win and, as two of the three sides Chelsea are yet to face in the league this season are Manchester City and Liverpool, their position could deteriorate again. Meanwhile, there is the backdrop of January that, like the summer before it, promises scattergun bidding and excessive spending.
Their overall expenditure under the new regime will soon top £300 million but, Champions League winners in 2021, Chelsea are unlikely to be competing in it in the autumn of 2023. Rarely has a club paid so much to regress. It is only partly because they keep paying over the odds. As the first of those signings to arrive on Potter’s watch, the £12 million striker David Datro Fofana, was in the stands at the City Ground and yet to debut after his move from Molde, the manager is scarcely the sole culprit.
Yet, in its own way, it is astonishing that, as Benoit Badiashile is set to become the second January signing, their spending on centre-backs or, in Marc Cucurella’s case, those who are sometimes deployed as such, is set to reach £200 million in six months. Their best central defender nevertheless remains a 38-year-old they acquired on a free transfer, in Thiago Silva. They still miss Antonio Rudiger and Badiashile could end up in competition with Cucurella and Kalidou Koulibaly, two other recent additions, for one spot on the left of a three. Meanwhile, Serge Aurier’s equaliser was a reminder that that they continue to concede too many goals from set-pieces, just as they look to susceptible to pace.
The interest in Alexis Mac Allister and Enzo Fernandez, whose release clause stands at an eye-watering £105 million, are further signs of Chelsea’s expensive evolution: from Club World Cup winners to world’s biggest spenders. Judgments can be made prematurely but, given their ownership’s seeming willingness to turn to the flavour of whichever month it is, they have to be. Thus far, none of their summer signings is a success: Wesley Fofana is invariably injured, Cucurella is often substituted early, has been a major let-down and was far better for Potter at Brighton, Koulibaly has a lengthy contract but has shown signs of decline amid an erraticism. Raheem Sterling’s goal at Forest was his first in the league since August. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a fringe figure for Potter.
In each case, there are mitigating factors. Each is hampered by the seeming lack of strategy. Potter knows neither his strongest side nor his best formation, and a flatness make it hard to see a defined style of play. Nor is it easy to spot possible and suitable combinations. As Chelsea rank in the bottom half for goals, expected goals and shots, their attackers look both underachievers and incompatible. It is an indictment of Potter that, thus far, he has got the best of none of them. His 10 league games have brought just 12 goals for Chelsea.
Elsewhere in the side, the reputations that are rising are among the injured. N’Golo Kante, Reece James and Ben Chilwell can seem more important with every game they sit out. As Chelsea pour more money into the transfer market, they struggle to compensate for the loss of the players they have. The team is less than the sum of its parts; so, too, a squad of ever more parts.
Chelsea’s vast outlay and the length of the contracts they give signings is supposed to set them up for the future and there can be a long-termism to Potter. But it is a short-termist club with a new regime who have made knee-jerk decisions, where results imperil their immediate prospects, and perhaps Potter’s. They may be the reigning world champions of the club game but they have not beaten any of the current top-half sides this season. And if that is an issue for them going into two meetings with Manchester City, a problem for Potter is that, for much of 2021, Tuchel was the ultimate big-game manager.