In the minds of the optimists occupying the boardroom at Stamford Bridge, there will come a point when Chelsea will be able to look back on the night when they lost to Fulham for the first time in 17 years and laugh about the time their new signing from Atlético Madrid took it too far with his attempts to prove he was capable of handling the rough and tumble of English football.
Yet the problem with that theory, the one that involves west London’s third-best club being rewarded for allowing Graham Potter to lead them through this most awkward of transitions, is that it clashes with the current reality. There is trusting the process and then there is the spectacle of Chelsea lying in 10th place.
This, even if allowances must be made for injuries, is lurching into crisis territory. By the end Chelsea had slipped six points behind Fulham and, while there were encouraging glimmers from João Félix before his debut ended in a rash red card, the fact is a squad assembled at such great expense should not be on a run of seven defeats in their last 10 games.
It is going to be a long road back for Potter. On the bright side, at least he could talk up some positives for Chelsea. There had been some flashes of the old defiance, typified by Kalidou Koulibaly lifting another rickety defensive display by smuggling in an equalizer just after half-time, and there were flashes of enterprising football.
To give Potter credit, it may well have turned out differently had Félix kept his cool instead of chopping down Kenny Tete when the game was locked at 1-1 after 58 minutes. But Chelsea lost, the 10 men cracked when Carlos Vinicius headed in the winner on 73 minutes. It was another soft concession, with Thiago Silva and Kepa Arrizabalaga both at fault, and Fulham could cherish rising into sixth place.
The gloating from Fulham’s fans, who cannot believe how well Marco Silva’s team has played since winning promotion, was tough to take. It is not supposed to be like this for Chelsea, although their demise is about more than whether it was right to replace Thomas Tuchel with Potter. After all, it was not Potter who signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who did not even make it off the bench when Chelsea were chasing a late point.
The balance is not right. Koulibaly has been a poor signing, while Marc Cucurella’s late cameo underlined why an 18-year-old, Lewis Hall, was chosen at left wing-back instead of the £62m Spaniard.
Chelsea made weird choices. Koulibaly’s attempts to play out from the back were ridiculous and a terrible error from Trevoh Chalobah led to Bobby Decordova-Reid pinging a shot against the bar. As for Fulham’s opener in the 25th minute, it came from Hall conceding possession to Reid in a dangerous position and Chalobah failing to clear his lines. The ball fell to Willian, who evaded César Azpilicueta and saw his fizzing shot beat Arrizabalaga thanks to a deflection off Chalobah.
Willian did not celebrate deepening his old side’s misery. The sight of the Brazilian running at Azpilicueta had stirred memories of better times for Chelsea, although at least there was some hope for the future. Potter’s 3-5-2 system gave the visitors control of the midfield during the early stages, there was some welcome assertiveness from Kai Havertz after his dismal showing during the defeat to Manchester City in the FA Cup and there were plenty of nice touches from Félix, who spent most of his time on the pitch floating around, dancing past defenders and creating chances.
A slender presence, Félix was not overwhelmed by the physical challenge. The Portuguese forward is an expensive loan signing but he could be an inspired one. Félix was ready despite only having one training session following his move from Atlético. His first involvement almost led to a goal for Hall and there was danger whenever he got on the ball.
The only disappointment is that Félix, who came close to scoring on several occasions, will be suspended for three games. His dismissal was the turning point. Chelsea had just canceled out Willian’s goal. Hall had won a free-kick on the left, Mount had almost caught out Leno at his near post and Koulibaly had forced the ball over the line.
At that stage the momentum was with Chelsea. Fulham, who needed Leno to deny Hall, were nervous. But nothing is going Chelsea’s way. Their injury list grew when Denis Zakaria, who was playing well in midfield, limped off. Félix’s brainless lunge soon followed.
Down to 10 men, Chelsea tried to stand firm, threatening when Havertz extended Leno. With 17 minutes left, though, Andreas Pereira’s cross flew over Silva and Arrizabalaga’s shoddy positioning was punished by Vinicius. The hardest job in football, as Potter had put it, had become even tougher.