LONDON — Just when Graham Potter needed it most, something may have stirred at Chelsea. All of those disparate, finely tuned parts, the expensively but randomly acquired fruits of the club’s lavish transfer-market abandon, slotted together enough to keep his team’s season alive. And they did so just in the nick of time.
Potter, for the last few weeks, has had the air of a manager desperately trying to keep his head above water. Chelsea had won only twice all year. His team had not scored more than one goal in a game since December. First, it had lost ground in the race for a top-four finish in the Premier League, and then it had lost sight of it completely.
As a rule, all of that ends only one way for a coach: not just at Chelsea but especially at Chelsea. The club’s fans had not quite turned on Potter, not en masse, but there has been for some time a definite sense that they are thinking about it. The club’s owners, meanwhile, have been assiduous in reiterating their ongoing faith in the 47-year-old Potter, but there comes a point where the frequency of those reassurances is itself reflective of a problem.
Potter will know, of course, that edging past a somewhat depleted Borussia Dortmund, 2-0, on Tuesday to qualify for the quarterfinals of the Champions League is not a panacea. It will not make him immune to dark talk of crisis should Chelsea stutter in the Premier League. But it is preferable to the alternative: Winning this game was not conclusive, but losing it might have been.
It was fitting, really, that the game, and the round-of-16 tie, hinged on a five-minute period in which nobody actually played any soccer. Chelsea had gone into halftime with the lead on the night and parity restored on aggregate, Raheem Sterling canceling out the advantage Dortmund had established three weeks ago in Germany.
The circumstances in which Potter’s team went ahead, though, were not soul-stirring and blood-pumping; they were, instead, strange and disembodied and somehow remote, as if the whole event had been settled by decree elsewhere.
It started with a handball from Marius Wolf, the Dortmund right back, one confirmed only after the intervention of the video assistant referee and a long gaze at the pitch-side monitor by the on-field official, Danny Makkelie. The players idled around as they waited to find out their fate.
It would get stranger. Once the penalty had been awarded, Kai Havertz missed it, his effort clipping the post with his teammates already celebrating. A moment later, he had a reprieve. Three Dortmund players had encroached into the penalty area as he prepared to take the kick. After another V.A.R. check, Havertz was given another go. He got it right this time.
Still, it was apt, because even in victory it is not immediately possible to discern a clear, distinct pattern in this Chelsea team. There is nothing, as yet, that marks it out as characteristically Potter’s, no glowing signpost toward the future of this team as he has envisioned it, no particularly idiosyncratic stamp.
Perhaps that is inevitable. After all, there has been continual upheaval at Stamford Bridge over the last year, a flood of new players arriving first in the summer and then, more eye-catching still, in January. Potter, it has to be assumed, has approved most of those signings, but fostering and nurturing a coherent team takes time and patience.
And it is only natural, given the sheer number of players at his disposal, that Potter has been unable to resist the temptation to cycle through all of his options. As results and performances have waned, rather than waxed, he has tweaked his personnel and his formation and then his personnel again. He has not, yet, hit upon a formula that works reliably, or that he feels confident may work reliably.
That can, of course, be a signifier of a creditable versatility, a chameleonic streak that he displayed in his previous job at Brighton and that will stand the club in good stead in the long term. But more immediately it can also betray an uncertainty, a restlessness and a lack of clarity, all of which have a habit of making the long term irrelevant.
Potter may, in time, come to look back on this game as an educational experience. Maybe the front line of Sterling, Havertz and João Félix does offer the best balance of all the combinations available to him. Certainly, finding a way to empower Chelsea’s two raiding fullbacks, Ben Chilwell and Reece James, should be as much a priority for him as it was for Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel.
Those notes of cautious optimism, though, will be offset by the fact that Dortmund had Chelsea on the ropes for periods of the first half; with a little more precision and composure, the German team might easily have punished Chelsea for its failure to take control of the game. This was not sweeping, serene progress into the land of Europe’s giants. It was nip and tuck, taut and tense, almost until the end.
Still, for Chelsea, that will have to do. For now, at least. Far more important than how the team qualified was that it did so, that for a few more weeks, at least, the impending sense of doom can be lifted just a little, that there remains a purpose in a season that might otherwise have started to drift, that all is not yet lost. For Potter, in particular, that is what matters. It is better, of course, to win in the way you want to win. Until that can happen, though, any type of win will do.