Chelsea FC v Fulham FC - Premier League
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LONDON -- At last, Chelsea's fresh start dawns. Here was the moment that Graham Potter's players could finally begin to unknot the ties that had bound them, to make amends for the mistakes and banish the taste of that great disastrous moment in Stamford Bridge history. The summer transfer window of 2022 was cast into the depths of memory. Now for the fresh start.

Ultimately, a 0-0 draw with Fulham was all too in keeping with the disastrous run of form of the preceding mini-era. The attacking talent came with gaudy price tags but seemed to have been assembled with no real inkling for how it would fit together. All the possession Stamford Bridge could offer was turned into slightly fewer shots on target than their opponent, who defended well but were rarely forced back to their penalty area in pursuit of a point that means Marco Silva's side retain bragging rights in West London.

The experience was little changed for those who grumbled their way down the Fulham Road at the final whistle. The personnel, at least, were different. Only one player who arrived in the summer splurge of £278 million retained his place in Potter's starting XI and it is fair to assume that Marc Cucurella will soon be joining the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly and Raheem Sterling -- an expensively remunerated veteran who serves as a direct contrast with the recruitment blueprint Chelsea have established thus far this season -- on the bench when Ben Chilwell is fit and firing. It could be worse. He could be discarded from the matchday squad Friday night and Champions League group entirely as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been. 

Instead, Graham Potter's forward options included one January signing on the pitch and two more on the bench. Midfield too is radically reorganized. The signing of Enzo Fernandez, seemingly calling for a permanent shift of system away from wing backs and a midfield duo towards a formation that at least could get the best out of Conor Gallagher, a player the club hierarchy was only too prepared to sell. This isn't just an entirely different side from the Roman Abramovich era, it is one that has been remodeled mid-journey.

"We didn't do enough in terms of our attacking play to create more," Potter acknowledged. "You saw a team against us who defend very, very well. That bit of connection, fluidity and understanding you need, we probably lacked. That is understandable when you consider we've got players coming back from injury and new players in the team."

In such circumstances, it is perhaps easy to understand why Chelsea took so long to find their footing against their West London rivals. It was the visitors who made the early running at Stamford Bridge, a side rich in physicality that they coupled with rapier speed on the counter. Midfielders in blue bounced off Joao Palhinha, whose well-timed through ball teed up Andreas Pereira to sting the palms of Kepa Arrizabalaga. Aleksandar Mitrovic's grappling with Enzo Fernandez at an early corner screamed "you're not in Estoril anymore, kid."

It did not take long, though, for Fernandez to cotton on to the pace of the contest. He did not shy away from his battle against Mitrovic when the Fulham striker dropped off Chelsea's robust center back pairing. When he got his boot on the ball, his passing was precise and progressive. He had clearly grasped from just one training session that it is rarely the worst idea to get the ball out to Reece James on the right flank. 

With Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher needing no second invitation to drive forward, there were plenty of options ahead of Fernandez but none with any great authority in front of goal. Mykhailo Mudryk built up quite the head of steam to hurtle into the brick wall of Kenny Tete for 45 minutes. Noni Madueke, another January addition, and then Sterling had little more joy against one of the Premier League's most underappreciated gems.

Ahead of them came the travails of Kai, Chelsea's record signing from an era long since passed (some time after the Sarriball civil wars but before the doomed romance with Thomas Tuchel came the Germanic influx that Frank Lampard had no idea what to do with). Much like Timo Werner, there was something to admire in his ability to get in the right place so frequently, more to pity in how skittish his finishing was. The technical quality was there to lob Bernd Leno, the luck nowhere to be found as the ball bounced against the post.

Boehly could burn a lot more than £600 million employing the world's leading scientists, philosophers and religious leaders without finding an answer to the great question of our age "what is Havertz's best position?" He and so many of those around him did not look like they could amortize a goal over an eight-year payment plan right now. Substitute David Datro Fofana went closer than anyone else, rounding Leno and sending Issa Diop sliding to the floor before Tim Ream saved Fulham on the line.

With 21 games played, Chelsea have just 22 goals to their name. Erling Haaland, a quarter-century already up, is streaking off into the distance. Meanwhile the No. 9 who was supposed to solve the scoring blues under Tuchel is not required. Aubameyang may not be the force he was, but with three to his name in all competitions, he is still third in the Stamford Bridge scoring charts.

Those close to Aubameyang were baffled and angry by the decision to dispense of his services for the European games ahead, noting that Potter had opted not to include any experienced, orthodox number nines in the squad. Instead, spots were given to Wesley Fofana, N'Golo Kante and Christian Pulisic, all of whom are expected to miss at least some of the games that begin against Borussia Dortmund on Feb. 15 (on Paramount+).

The 33-year-old's fall from grace since the sacking of Tuchel, planned before the signing was finalized, has been vertiginous though it is fair to note that his 841 minutes with his new club have come in fits and flashes. More than any other decision, his signing brings with it serious questions as to whether the new owners can be relied on to disrupt this sport in a way that benefits Chelsea. When Aubameyang picked the Blues over Manchester United, two of the key selling points had been working under a coach who regarded him so highly and playing in the Champions League. Within six months neither of those are available to him.

"Pierre's a professional, of course I understand he'll be disappointed," said Potter. "It was a tough call. He has done nothing wrong at all ... Pierre's just unfortunate and he'll be fighting for his place for the rest of the season. 

"It was my decision. It was a tough decision but something you have to make these calls. It's tough because I'm empathic, I understand his disappointment but I've got a responsibility to make these tough decisions and articulate them as honestly as I can and respect the fact he's going to be disappointed.

"He handled it very well, trained fantastically today. He has been a top, top guy for us. He can [fit into this team]. Everything is up for grabs. He has to keep working, training like he did today and ready to play. Football changes quickly."

Perhaps, the greater issue for Aubameyang comes in the supportive words of his manager. Multiple sources echo Potter's assessment of the veteran, who has had his bust-ups with past coaches but has been a model professional in trying circumstances. It is just that the manager of Chelsea, a team who cannot buy a goal (and you have to assume Boehly is prepared to pay top dollar for it), does not rate him highly enough. He is not going to change to become the player his boss wants, no matter how much Potter might need someone to put the ball in the net.