We are 45 mins into the new Premier League season and Graham Potter has already started receiving criticism for his team selections, so far so normal. However, after some changes at half time, a remarkable second half turnaround followed and many have subsequently claimed this as a Graham Potter tactical masterclass by the end of the 90 minutes.… really? I’m not so sure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to criticise Graham Potter’s team selection after a victory, but neither am I going to suggest he’s some kind of tactical genius after a comeback from near comprehensive defeat in the first half. The reality, as ever, is somewhere in the middle.
It’s going to be a long season; 45 minutes shouldn’t be enough for us to class him totally right or totally wrong. This is all part of a bigger picture in terms of the process of management that is required at our club in order to succeed at the highest level.
I’ve seen a fair few people suggest Graham Potter was mad for playing a few players in less familiar positions on Saturday… because he has never done that successfully before?
Playing Pascal Gross at Left Back in the first half caused the largest consternation and proved to be a short-lived experiment. But was it really such an awful or unexpected selection?
Yes, it was unsuccessful, but we should also consider why he played Gross there before we all lose our minds after just over 1% of the season has passed.
Setting up against Burnley’s front 2 with a back 4 makes sense tactically and is something Potter has often done to match teams who play a 442, rather than use his favoured 352. Partly I assume, because of the well-known advantages down the flanks that a 442 has over it.
So, then you are looking for someone to play at Left Back, and we know we are short in that position, especially with Burn out injured and with Albion’s transfer target Cucurella not having been secured, in part due to his participation at the Olympics with the Spanish national football team. And I wouldn’t be surprised is the unexpected absence of Joel Veltman changed the plan too, a player who has filled in at Left Back and Left Wing Back in the past.
Then you’re left with the fringe and development players (those who haven’t already been sent out on loan that is). None of whom I would think would ideally want their debut to be away to Burnley on the first day of the season. Probably the most prominent of these options is Michal Karbownik, young, inexperienced, and yet to make a Premier League appearance. I can understand Potter’s hesitation in using him, but his inclusion on the bench suggests Potter wanted him available as a backup just in case.
So, then you’re looking at other options, those to be played out of position. And you’re looking at players with a degree of positional intelligence and versatility. For this you need look no further than Pascal Gross.
A huge part of Potter’s coaching since he arrived at the club has been the requirement asked of his squad for adaptability. In particular the likes of Pascal Gross and Steven Alzate, who have both been asked to play in a number of less familiar positions during that time, just as they were on Saturday.
Last season Gross played in most areas of the pitch, including at one point playing a run of games at Right Wing Back, so you can understand why Potter would turn to him as an auxiliary option in this area of the pitch.
Ultimately, Potter took a few risks in his team selection, sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. But it’s taking those kinds of risks and being slightly unconventional that makes him the coach that he is.
For example, playing Solly March at Left Wing Back or Dan Burn at Left Back were similar risks in that area of the pitch which paid off. And helped both players go from fringe players who were being spoken of having possible exits, to crucial members of Albion’s squad over the past two seasons. Unlikely turnarounds seem to be the mark of the Potter era in change of the first team.
I suspect this higher level of tolerance to taking risks and trust in his players are also part of the reason why the club appointed him. The club has long realised it isn’t likely to succeed by fortitude alone and needs to out-think other clubs in various ways, not just on the pitch each Saturday afternoon.
This goes back to examples like the investment in the academy and the recruitment team back in the Championship days. This isn’t all about Graham Potter after all, it’s about the club as a whole, and the culture it is trying (and successful achieving) to implement across the entire club.
This culture goes right to the top, with Tony Bloom’s wealth originating from the gambling industry. As Sam Cunningham described in an interview with Bloom for the Daily Mail, “Bloom talks — and thinks — in edges and gains, in fortune and favour. He pauses before answering questions, always calculating.”
Tony Bloom is a discreet person, but is widely considered to be a risk-taker by nature, but a calculated risk-taker. By all accounts this appears to have been where Bloom and Potter’s predecessor Chris Hughton didn’t quite see eye to eye, particularly in terms of recruitment. Bloom knows what he wants and is willing to change if he’s sure it’s necessary.
No matter what I say, I’m sure us football supporters will continue to critique Graham Potter’s team selections, like some kind of annoying backseat driver. Particularly every time something goes wrong. And that’s ok to a degree, no one is exempt from criticism and all supporters, particularly those who’ve invested years of their time and money into following the club, deserve their opinion to be listened to.
But we also need to consider the wider context of the decisions that are being made and the thought-process behind them before we throw criticism towards senior management at the club, especially the highly scrutinised Graham Potter.
Some have likened Graham Potter’s team selections to a Roulette Wheel, but in line with the culture set down by owner Tony Bloom it is less Graham Potter’s Tactics Roulette and more Graham Potter’s Tactics Poker. This is not a random spin of the wheel, but a calculated gamble based on the limited number of cards he has in his hand. And just as in a poker game it isn’t all about one hand, in a football season is not all about one game. Sometimes you have to accept a beating for the better of your chances in the longer-term.
Risk taking of the type which saw Pascal Gross start at Left back on Saturday are part of the modern culture that the club continues to practice and will likely continue despite both the extreme disapproval of many supporters when experiments like this go wrong or the extreme praise when they work.
Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. But as they say, don’t trust anyone who hasn’t failed.