“Which way do you want to die?” That was the question Graham Potter posed his players in the pre-match meeting before his Swansea side tackled Manchester City in the FA Cup three years ago. “It was: ‘They can either beat you with you laying on your back, tickling your belly, or they can beat you if you give it a right good go,” says Matt Grimes, a fixture under Potter during his sole season in charge of Swansea and now captain of the club.
“Because if you sit in a 10-man block, they’ll break you down and beat you anyway, so you might as well make a fist of it while you’re doing it. That’s how he sold it, we were all on the same page and in the end we ran them really close.”
Swansea were unfortunate to lose, with Pep Guardiola’s side awarded a soft penalty and Sergio Agüero’s winner offside. Those who have played for Potter reference his meticulous approach, be it carefully mapping out workloads or taking an interest in their personal lives, and on that night he gave Grimes the task of playing centre-back for the first time in his career against the Premier League champions.
“He said that their striker would always drop deep, so then you’ve got two centre-backs doing nothing, so it was about utilising one of the centre-backs,” Grimes says.
“Graham wanted me as a left-sided centre-back to step into midfield to mark Bernardo Silva, who was playing as a right-side No 8, high towards the striker. When the ball was on the other side I needed to step in to mark the player because if I didn’t and I was stood in line with the other centre-backs, they would find him and soon be at our back four, and we all know what happens when City and Bernardo Silva pick up balls in those positions. There were a couple of instances in the first half where I stepped on to him and nicked the ball back a couple of times and that gave us so much confidence in the game that the plan we put in place was working. No one else had tried it.”
Potter had arrived in south Wales with a burgeoning reputation after leading Östersund from the fourth division to the top tier of Swedish football and the Europa League knockout stage, in which they beat Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, and his list of admirers only snowballed at Swansea. Grimes recalls a period towards the end of the season when Potter’s side swatted aside Stoke, Brentford and Middlesbrough (by an aggregate of 9-2) en route to finishing 10th in the Championship.
“They were quite big teams at the time with some big players and they were screaming at each other saying: ‘How is this happening? What is going on? I don’t know who to pick up,’” Grimes says. “That gives you so much confidence and that is how we ended the season, with teams turning up and not knowing how to play against us. I truly do believe that if we had had a second season under him at Swansea that we would have got promoted.”
Potter’s next challenge is to transfer his possession-based philosophy and liberating approach to maximise the potential of an undoubtedly talented Chelsea squad. A masters in leadership and emotional intelligence doubtless helped him to hone his man-management skills. Jamie Hopcutt, who worked under Potter for seven years at Östersund, recalls an eye-opening moment on a pre-season training camp in Tenerife, just before their Europa League adventure.
“We had a player on trial who had a bit of a bad reputation in Sweden and [Potter] was hearing whispers of the players saying like: ‘What’s he doing here?’” Hopcutt says. “So he brought us all in a room, sat us all down and started saying to each player: ‘You’ve come from here, you’ve come from there, who are you to judge people?’ He was essentially explaining that all of us were nobodies, really, so who were we to judge someone just because of their background? It was a ‘wow’ moment. It made us remember where we’ve all come from. It made our bond even stronger and made us work harder.”
The 47-year-old is typically calm and reserved with his players, the perfect tonic for his more extroverted long-standing assistant Billy Reid, who previously managed Hamilton. Equally those who have played for Potter insist he is “not all nicey-nicey” and more than capable of dishing out the odd dressing-down. Hopcutt tells a story of a training session at Östersund following a surprise opening-day 3-0 league defeat. “He took us out on the training pitch and made us run line to line and he didn’t tell us when he was going to stop because he was like, ‘on the pitch the players gave up’, so he was testing us mentally,” Hopcutt says.
“The players were in shock. It was digging into the mental side of the players: how long can you go without knowing how long you’re running for? We were just going line to line. He didn’t say a word to any of the players and after about 30-40 minutes he just blew the whistle, that was enough. We won the next game.”
Potter is unafraid to think outside of the box. In Sweden he and former chairman Daniel Kindberg were behind the end-of-season culture projects that saw Potter perform the Lapland national anthem a capella before his squad. He also gave one of his players, Curtis Edwards, a book by the Dalai Lama to try and prevent the midfielder from beating himself up after making mistakes.
Hopcutt makes a point of saying how Potter’s backroom staff, including Reid, first-team coach Bjorn Hamberg and Kyle Macaulay, who was assistant head of recruitment at Brighton, also deserve immense credit for Potter’s incredible journey to this point. Brighton’s highly-regarded goalkeeping coach Ben Roberts and Bruno, the former Brighton captain and first-team coach, have also followed Potter to Stamford Bridge.
“I came from the lower-leagues in England, I’d totally lost my love of football and he brought that back to me,” Hopcutt says. “Because I had him as a manager for so long, I probably didn’t realise what I had at the time. I’ve gone through managers who don’t really care about the player. They’re desperate to win, ‘I need to win, my job’s on the line,’ and it makes you realise that I had a special manager really and I’m lucky to have spent that many years with him. Graham cares about the human being and not just the footballer. He wants to know the person off the pitch.”
That game against Guardiola’s City is one example of Potter’s smart thinking and Chelsea will hope to gain from his methods. “He believes in what he is doing and he just won’t waver,” Grimes says. “I think that is the perfect mentality to be a top-class manager and he’ll have exactly the same mentality at Chelsea.
“If things don’t quite go how everyone expects, everyone will say he needs to change this and that, and he’ll say: ‘No, we just need to do what we’re doing better.’”