‘A very bright prospect’ – why Chelsea starlet Lexi Potter must be on your watchlist – scout report
The WSL is an ever-developing league and one in which no club can ever sit still, and any team who wants to continually challenge at the top needs to be constantly adding to and improving what they already have if they want to avoid a drop in performance levels.
One side who have particularly heeded that this summer is defending champions Chelsea Women, with no fewer than nine new faces coming through the Kingsmeadow door over the last months as manager Emma Hayes looks to freshen her squad up and to replace those who moved on at the end of the 2022/23 campaign.
However, it’s not only been about the present regarding Chelsea’s transfer policy, with a significant focus always being on the future too. This summer has been no different, with 18-year-old defender Brooke Aspin joining from Bristol City Women, Netherlands midfielder Wieke Kaptein (also 18) signing from Twente Vrouwen and Spanish left-back Alejandra Bernabé (who is 21) being added from Real Sociedad Femenino (although all of them will spend the coming season back on loan at those sides).
The academy is also a focus of Hayes’ attention each summer, with Chelsea looking to bring through their own talent where they can, and this summer has seen the emergence of a very exciting midfielder with colossal potential. At 17 years old, Alexia Potter, known as Lexi, has become the youngest female player to put pen to paper on a professional deal in England, and, although she will spend 2023/24 with Women’s Championship side Crystal Palace Women, there is already a lot of interest in her future and where she could best fit in when her time does come to put on the famous blue jersey as part of the senior squad.
This tactical analysis will look to shed some light on that, breaking down firstly what Potter offers in different match situations and then comparing her to current first-team players to see where she could best be used by her parent club.
Something that Chelsea Women U21 did a lot of last season was to get on the front foot and try to give as many opportunities to their forward players as they could, and, whilst there were a few areas where they could have done better, they were generally a strong offensive side who offered a genuine threat inside the final third.
Lexi Potter was essential to that being the case, with her constantly making intelligent runs and trying to unlock spaces around the field for her team to use to their advantage. Her determination and desire in possession were clear for all to see, and the fact that she rarely hesitated when chances presented themselves meant that she was often able to catch opposing defences out, getting behind them before they could react and close her routes off.
In this case, West Ham United Women U21 midfielder Caitlin Duffy has come too far forward and has allowed Potter time to control the ball, turn and run at the West Ham goal area, and that was always a mistake and something that any team wishing to contain her threat needed to avoid doing.
It wasn’t easy for Potter to shoot at goal here, and there were still obstacles for her to overcome, but these are the areas where she is at her most dangerous, and that confidence showed in the way that she moved the ball around the defenders and gave herself an angle from which she could test goalkeeper Katie O’Hanlon.
On this occasion, the West Ham stopper did come out on top, with her getting a strong palm to Potter’s curling effort. Still, the intent was there, and it again highlights why Potter is such a highly-rated player and one that a lot in the Chelsea camp are excited to bring into the first-team fold.
She did only score just four goals last season, so her ability to finish chances off is something that will need working on, but the fact that she continually gets herself into those areas of the pitch means that the goal tally will increase as time goes by.
Even without the goals, though, there are other ways in which she poses a threat, including her ability to create chances for teammates. Here, she has got into a similar position to the previous example but knows there is no way for her to test Durham Women U21 goalkeeper Anna King due to the compact defensive line and not leaving the same gaps open as West Ham did.
Therefore, Potter turns her attention towards creating a chance for a teammate, with Aimee Claypole ahead of her and in a prime position to shoot at goal if the ball comes to her. To find Claypole, Potter shows cleverness and decides to hold onto the ball for a fraction of a second longer than she might otherwise have done, with the intention of tempting the Durham players into abandoning their shape and allowing the ball to be played through to Claypole.
It is a plan that doesn’t take long to come to fruition, with Sarah Wilson unable to resist the temptation and allowing Potter to feed the ball through and Claypole to score. However, it would have been easy to rush the construction of the opportunity and give Durham an easy way out of trouble. Not doing so was down to Potter and her ability to read the situation and manipulate the opposing players into giving her what she needed.
While Potter is primarily used in central areas, she is versatile and can be deployed in the wide channels, too. This is not her favoured position, so she is not able to play as a winger for an extended run of games, but she could drift into the channel for a match if her team were short of wide attacking options.
Being in this role does allow her to demonstrate another of her key final third qualities, though, which is her ability to beat defenders in close-quarter battles and to take them out of the game at ease. Here, Arsenal Women U21 have three players around her, knowing that it is not a position she is especially comfortable in, and she seems to have her contained.
However, Potter turns on the afterburners and gets past all three players as she takes the ball into the open space ahead of her, using her strength to hold off any attempted challenges and giving her team a good opportunity of creating a chance in the middle. Arsenal have no answer to her and are therefore unable to prevent the cross from being made.
On this occasion, they were saved by the central defender reading the play and making an interception before the ball could reach Claypole, but this again demonstrates how Potter is not only a central threat but is just as dangerous in other areas of the pitch, showing again why Chelsea have high hopes for her in the future and why many are now questioning where her best position might be.
Protecting the defence
However, with Lexi Potter being a box-to-box player by trade, she needs to balance out those positive attacking characteristics with a strong defensive knowhow, and anyone who felt that she would not have that due to her desire and tendency to be involved in so much of their creative play at the other end is mistaken.
It comes mainly from her positioning during matches because, whilst she was used in a multitude of roles as the 2022/23 season went on, she was more often than not deployed as part of a double pivot and, therefore, was able to drift between attack and defence as required.
As a result, situations like this were not uncommon to see, with Potter inside her own goal area and playing her part in breaking up an opposing attack. It was vital in this game that she did help out when her team lost the ball, with Durham posing a significant forward threat, but their mistake here was not being aware of where Potter was and, therefore, playing into her hands when attempting to pull the ball back here, allowing her to make an easy interception and to end the threat.
Getting in between opponents in this way is another aspect of the game that Potter has continually thrived in, with her averaging 5.95 interceptions last season, and that does highlight how breaking up opposing attacks and stopping chances from turning into anything will be something that teams can rely on her for as her career goes on.
She does enjoy doing it, with her constantly biting at opponents’ heels whenever her team is out of possession and never giving them a moment to make a decision or to look up and find a pass. In this case, Manchester United Women U21 have found that out, with them trying to test Chelsea’s resolve but holding onto the ball for just too long in the process, allowing Potter to get once again tight and win the ball to bring the chance to an abrupt end.
Manchester United were another team last season who liked to play on the front foot and whose tactics revolved around their ability to move the ball up the field, so it was again vital that Chelsea had Potter on the field and that they allowed her to drop back and make these defensive contributions to slow them down.
For Crystal Palace, it is a quality that they will really appreciate, with the second-tier side last season conceding the third-most goals of any side in the division (34) and primarily as a result of individual mistakes and players being too easy to beat. Therefore, anyone who can come in and improve their defensive play will be a welcome addition, and the fact that Potter ended last season with 73.2% of her defensive duel attempts being successful shows how she can aid their attempts to be harder to score against.
When looking at why Potter has been such an effective defensive player, it comes down in no small part to her ability to think ahead of everyone else and to make sure that she gets into the right positions as early as possible.
It also means planning ahead, and that is shown here through her first winning the ball back and then linking up with Alice Higginbottom to move it forward and launch a counterattack. As with West Ham in the first section of the scout report, Arsenal were caught out here by the speed of Potter’s play and could not break up the one-two that she and Higginbottom instigated. The result was that Potter could move into the space behind their high back line and get Chelsea back on the front foot by relieving the pressure they had been under.
Therefore, whilst winning the ball at the back is a key aspect of any defensive midfielder’s game, it is her ability to launch attacks almost instantaneously that makes Lexi Potter such a highly regarded player, and that quality that she shows in transitions is something that Chelsea will really come to rely on as her career at Kingsmeadow goes on.
However, it doesn’t have to be purely when playing out from the back that Potter plays a crucial role in finding spaces and launching attacks, with her also capable of sitting higher up the field and waiting for the ball to come to her. In this case, she has done just that, with her seeking not to overcrowd the Chelsea third and instead trusting her teammates to bring the ball out and to feed it into her path.
That faith was rewarded when she did receive the pass. At that point, she knew she had time to turn and find another teammate deep inside West Ham’s third, ensuring that Chelsea could maintain their momentum and not allow their opponents to get numbers back and close off all available passing routes.
These are the moments when Potter’s aforementioned decisiveness and ability to read the game early really come into their own, as the time she has would make it easy to hold onto the ball and assess the options available to her. However, she doesn’t hesitate and makes the obvious pass towards the far side of the field, having identified a gap in the West Ham line that she can exploit.
Even though this chance doesn’t end up in the back of the net, Chelsea had time to control the ball and shoot, and that was down purely to Potter and her role in connecting the play during the build-up to it.
Any player who wants to operate in a box-to-box role needs to be good at passing the ball around with good accuracy (Potter’s passing accuracy last season stood at 81.5%). Still, two other vital qualities are essential, which need to either come naturally or to be developed, with the first being a good touch of the ball when it comes to their feet.
This is something that Potter has demonstrated on plenty of occasions during her career in the youth teams, and it comes down to technique and players knowing how to open up the pitch to provide as many passing options as possible. In this case, Potter does the right thing and uses the inside of her left foot to control the ball, allowing her to send the ball forward with her next touch if she wants to. Her body position also aids this as she is already facing up the field and so doesn’t need to waste precious seconds turning when the ball does come to her.
These might be tiny details, but they go a long way when looking at why Potter makes such moments appear so natural during matches. It would not have been a poor decision if she had used her right foot to control the initial pass into her, but it would have certainly made things more difficult due to the greater risk of the ball going astray and of Manchester United regaining possession, and that shows again how impressive Potter’s footballing mindset is at such a young age.
The second essential quality that any box-to-box player needs to have is decisiveness, and, as has been mentioned throughout this analysis, that is not something that Potter has ever lacked.
Here, she is in a tight area of the field. So time is once again of the essence if she is to set up a chance before Manchester United can track back. Potter recognises that hesitating and holding onto the ball for too long could be the difference between finding her teammate and being intercepted by a defender.
As a result, whilst others in this position might look to wait and then switch the play to the far side of the field, where Katie Dungate is making a run and has less resistance to deal with, Potter makes the shorter pass towards Claypole, sending the ball between Emma Taylor and Mayzee Davies and taking both out of the game.
Again, that highlights that Potter is not a player who wastes opportunities. That ability to link up with teammates and carry the ball forward means that she will be a crucial player for any team that acquires her services now and in the future when they are in transition.
Future Chelsea roles
So far, this analysis has focused on the different characteristics that make up Lexi Potter’s game, but what now needs to be looked at is where those qualities could allow her to fit into Hayes’ tactics with the Chelsea first team and where she could best be used positionally when she returns to Kingsmeadow in a year.
One role that the 17-year-old could be utilised in is at inside forward, just behind the striker, with Hayes favouring a 3-4-2-1 system over the last two campaigns as she has tried to find a way of bringing more key players into their games.
This system was introduced primarily because Denmark captain Pernille Harder, who moved to Bayern Munich Frauen along with Sweden defender Magdalena Eriksson this summer, was struggling as a striker and a winger. Chelsea needed to find a way of positioning her inside her favoured half-spaces. It proved so successful that it has been embraced by the Chelsea squad even when Harder has not been available because it gives them more defensive protection and allows key players like Fran Kirby to have an even more significant impact on the attacking side of things.
The fact that Hayes started with wing-backs in their recent pre-season friendly win against Roma Femminile does indicate that Chelsea will persevere with it even though Harder and others who made it work have moved on. They have added new players to fill those gaps, so it is not likely that Potter will be used in that role, but Hayes may look to exploit her creative qualities and the fact that she assisted 12 goals last season to give her side another option inside the final third.
If she did play that role, her performances have highlighted how it would not be something that she would need a lot of time to adjust to, which will encourage fans that she would be capable of holding her own in such an essential area of the team.
However, what does seem more likely is that Potter will be used as one of the two central midfielders, and, given her box-to-box qualities, it would allow her to play with the freedom that she enjoyed so much for the U21 side last season and to drift between the thirds to impact both attacking and defensive play as needed.
It would also allow her to make the same variety of passes that she demonstrated at times last season, with this graphic indicating the range of distances that she covered every time she sent the ball up the field, and that is critical for any team who wants to make a wing-back system work.
For Chelsea’s first team, it has generally fallen to Scotland playmaker Erin Cuthbert to find teammates and connect the play. Still, the fact that Potter has the same basic profile, with the two players’ progressive pass graphics being broadly similar, shows that she could step in and rotate with Cuthbert and make that role her own in the long term.
As mentioned, playing in that central role would enable her to protect the back line, too, making the same tackles and closing players down in the same way as she did for the youth teams and as Crystal Palace will no doubt ask her to do during the current campaign.
This has been an area that Chelsea have generally had a good amount of quality in, with Germany midfielder Melanie Leupolz and Wales captain Sophie Ingle both taking on the thankless task of making interceptions and launching attacks from deeper positions, but the fact that they are 29 and 31 years old respectively now means that Hayes has been on the search this summer for long-term replacements for them.
Whilst another Germany midfielder, Sjoeke Nüsken, has signed from Eintracht Frankfurt Frauen and the aforementioned Kaptein has also been added, it could well be that Hayes has seen Potter’s ability to read the game and break up opposing attacks and sees her as an excellent defensive midfield option, especially as she tends to occupy the same defensive territory as Ingle and so would fit the mould that the Welsh player would leave behind. Therefore, that will be something else to look out for when the starlet returns to the club next summer.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at up-and-coming Chelsea Women star Lexi Potter, a highly regarded prospect at the club and who they feel has a future at the game’s highest levels. At the moment, she is still a very raw player, and there are things she needs to keep working on, but there is an understanding that she is still young and has time on her side so those things will come with continued development.
There is little doubt that Potter is an up-and-coming box-to-box midfielder, and the fact that she can lead teams, having captained England’s U17 team at this summer’s Euro tournament in Estonia, and constantly wants to get involved in games will make her a popular player among the Kingsmeadow faithful. If she can continue to work on some of the weaker areas of her game, then she has every chance of achieving even more success during her career, and her progress will be well worth monitoring as the years go by.