Chelsea news: Graham Potter faces his sternest test yet as Chelsea head coach against an in-form Manchester United in the Premier League on Saturday evening.
For Chelsea, the wait for a win over Manchester United in the Premier League has lasted a baffling amount of time given the status of both clubs across the past five years.
Early next month will exactly hit the half-a-decade mark since Alvaro Morata headed one of his few memorable goals in a Blue shirt to defeat Jose Mourinho’s United at Stamford Bridge. Back then it was Antonio Conte in charge, Timeoue Bakayoko actually looked like a promising addition to the Blues midfield and Mason Mount had recently embarked on his first senior loan to Vitesse Arnhem.
The two coaches who will fill the same dugouts on Saturday evening were also in radically different places. Graham Potter was into his final season with Ostersunds whilst ten Hag was into his final weeks as coach of FC Utrecht before being approached to take over at Ajax at the end of that year.
For Graham Potter, Saturday provides the first blockbuster test of his time at Chelsea. Although it is flippant to suggest any match Chelsea play goes under the radar, this will be the one where most eyes will likely be pointed towards his team. An early measuring stick for progress following his arrival in September.
Ten Hag has already faced several high-profile clashes in the hot seat, winning three of them at Old Trafford with the latest coming on Wednesday night against Conte’s Spurs. Wins over Liverpool and Arsenal have given United a new purpose and energy following a dismal campaign last year that seemed to sap any sense of energy out of the club, with disdain for an underperforming squad and anger towards unpopular ownership.
But ten Hag has offered a much-needed antidote to that negativity, tactically showing a shrewd ability to reconfigure a squad that looked devoid of confidence in the first two weeks against Brighton and Brentford. “I think the first two games were a culture shock for ten Hag.” Casey Evans, Manchester United fan and football writer tells Sportupdatehub.
“He came out of the starting blocks guns blazing trying to play his style of football and he paid the price. So, in these past few weeks, I think he’s adjusted and tweaked his style. Against Liverpool and Arsenal, we saw a more counter-attacking style of play, but against Everton, Newcastle and Tottenham I think fans saw something closer to what ten Hag wants in the longer term.
“A fluid forward line, a midfield that can play under pressure and a team that can build out from the back. And personally, United’s performance against Tottenham was one of the best I’ve seen in years. However, whether we will see the ‘Ajax Brand’ of play or a more pragmatic approach from ten Hag against Chelsea is still anyone’s guess.”
The search for a clear identity is something United have arguably been chasing since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, flipping through four permanent coaches before landing their new hope in the former Ajax boss. Like ten Hag, Chelsea supporters are hoping to see a similar replication of the style Potter so shrewdly implemented with Brighton at Chelsea, although as the draw with Brentford in midweek suggested, it is still at an embryonic stage.
“Graham Potter is the big one,” Evans says on the biggest threat United face from Chelsea on Saturday evening.
“I was a massive fan of his Brighton side and of course, they already beat United 2-1 this season. If Chelsea give him the time and resources to build something similar at Stamford Bridge then they’ll be a real contender in the next few years. However, it’s still early doors at Chelsea, so in some ways, we’re not facing the most dangerous version of Potter’s side, the mystery of a team that’s still finding its feet creates its own problems.
“In terms of players, for me it’s got to be Raheem Sterling. He’s never really shown up against United at Liverpool or Manchester City, but if I was writing the script for the Premier League season, then the winger finally breaking his curse to endear himself to Stamford Bridge faithful would definitely be in there.”
Although ten Hag’s early work is helping United forget about the scars of last season, the shadow cast by an unused substitute in Cristiano Ronaldo remains a cultural issue that has loomed in the background since the start of pre-season with reports of a potential exit to Chelsea suggested. It was confirmed on Thursday evening that Ronaldo will not be involved in any capacity on Saturday evening at Chelsea after the 37-year-old reportedly refused to come on as a substitute against Spurs, then being seen walking down the tunnel alone.
“Of course, Ronaldo has been snatching the headlines after walking off in the closing minutes of the Tottenham game. But instead of getting caught up in it, ten Hag simply said ‘I’ll deal with it tomorrow, tonight we focus on the win’ and before the match he eloquently explained why he had chosen to play Rashford over Ronaldo,” Evans explains when asked about the challenge of convincing players to buy into ten Hag’s methods.
“I think this has been the thing that has impressed me the most about ten Hag. He has not approached the situation as if it is some big task to convince the players of how he wants to play, you either do it or you don’t play. As I said before, United’s performance against Tottenham was one of their best in years and every single player who was on the pitch, whether they started or came on as a sub, looked like they had completely bought into what ten Hag is trying to do.”
Potter will be hoping to better his three predecessors by ending a hoodoo over a United side that are slightly ahead of Chelsea in terms of their progress under a new voice. Three points on Saturday would give either coach significant buy-in for the journey ahead.