The Athletic

Sterling the winger: What Potter’s plan means for the Chelsea striker

Graham Potter’s first game in charge of Chelsea will have seemed oddly familiar to anyone who regularly watched his Brighton side.

There were elements of Brighton over the past two seasons: dominating but failing to win. And there were bits of Brighton from the start of this season: the highly unusual form, where Potter’s side defended with a three-man defence, but without proper full-backs protecting wide areas.

On paper, Potter’s side could have been either a back four – with Cesar Azpilicueta paired with Thiago Silva in the center of defence, and Reece James and Marc Cucurella on either side – or a back three with Azpilicueta, Silva and Cucurella . It turned out to be the latter, with James pushing forward to become a wing-back. That left Raheem Sterling, in theory, as a wing-back on the opposite flank.

But in reality, Sterling had nothing to do with a wing-back. Take this situation, for example, after a throw to the other side. Cucurella is in a position that suggests he is responsible for covering the entire left side of defence…

…and it wasn’t until Red Bull Salzburg had definitively won possession of the throw that Sterling came inside from a wide-open position. This, clearly, isn’t a proper “rear wing” – but, for lack of a proper term, let’s leave it at that for now.

Indeed, it sometimes felt like Sterling was more of a top three, alongside Kai Havertz and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Midway through the first half, he ran behind to collect a pass from Havertz over the Salzburg defence…

…and, in this position, looks more like an inside left.

Sterling’s only real defensive contribution was when he rushed to help dispossess Salzburg from the touchline, but the most notable feature of that move was the way Cucurella came from a full-back position. left central and how Jorginho had fallen for effectively. maintain the defense at three.

And the main feature of Sterling’s game wasn’t really hugging the touchline and dribbling straight forward, but rather waiting at the far post to collect crosses. Ten minutes later, James’ deep cross at the far post…

…was slightly mishandled by Sterling, but he did well to recover…

…and put Cucurella on the overlap.

Eight minutes later it’s the same – this time James comes in for the signature…

…and plays a deep cross to Sterling at the far post to knock the ball down and try to make room for a shot.

The next situation came after a wonderful turn from James – and, spotting Sterling all alone at the far post, he tried to fire into a powerful low cross…

… but he was played beyond Sterling and Aubameyang.

And then there were some variations – James returning the ball to Azpilicueta, whose deep cross…

… invited Sterling to fly towards goal, with his shot blocked.

But, on Chelsea’s first move in the second half, the plan finally paid off. This time, Mason Mount made a run past James and received the ball running.

It’s unclear whether this somewhat clumsy cross, who somehow escaped four players in the middle, was actually destined to reach Sterling. But, based on the aforementioned deep crosses in the first half, it looks like there’s a good chance that’s the idea…

… Sterling took a touch to set himself up, then curled the ball perfectly into the far corner. 1-0.

And, at this stage, Chelsea hadn’t encountered too many defensive problems.

Suddenly, however, perhaps when their pressing dropped a bit, Salzburg entered the game. And Chelsea’s defensive form started to look a little crazy – that’s basically how they played, with something approaching a midfield five but the notional wingers actually in front of midfield.

This may be a completely wrong interpretation of the system, and it’s actually a 3-3-2-2. Either way, however, in this situation, Chelsea give Lucas Gourna-Douath time on the ball in midfield and lack width in their defensive form.

And, of course, Gourna-Douath has time to pass the ball to Maurits Kjaergaard. Here, it looks like it’s actually Mount and Mateo Kovacic who have the responsibility of defending the wide areas, but Mount isn’t able to stop that pass.

Salzburg easily found space outside the Chelsea defence.

Nine minutes later, Chelsea have possession and it’s worth assessing the positions of the two ‘full-backs’ – both James and Sterling are tall and, in Sterling’s case, surprisingly wide. The other notable player in this picture is right centre-back Azpilicueta, from the closer side.

And when Chelsea lose possession, James and Sterling are both unable to step back and help. Azpilicueta is unable to defend the right side of the field. Again, Salzburg put men behind the near side and could have handled this situation better.

Two minutes later, the goal arrives. Again, Sterling and James are unable to support the defense – they are halfway there – although they may just not be expected to support the defense. Yet that again means Chelsea are exposed on one side when a wide centre-back – this time Cucurella – is sucked onto the pitch…

… and after Silva missed a tackle on the other side and Azpilicueta were caught off guard by Noah Okafor’s move, Salzburg snatched an equalizer which leaves Chelsea bottom of Group E.

It felt as if the goals flowed directly from Chelsea’s approach – extremely high full-backs (or wingers) in combination with a three-man defense meant Sterling continually received deep crosses outside, but also meant Chelsea never just couldn’t cover the width of the back ground.

But that’s clearly what Potter wanted, based on how his Brighton side have played this season and how Chelsea have positioned themselves throughout this game. It’s too early to judge whether Potter’s approach will work at Chelsea, but either way it’s unlikely to be boring.


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