Just over a month in and Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea remain defiantly a work in progress. There has been no cutting loose of the shackles that have restrained the Blues early in this latest revolution, no concessions to the suggestion, raised by some after Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Manchester United, that this team ought to have more attacking punch.
That is perhaps how it should be. It seems curious that anyone at Stamford Bridge should have a long-term vision, least of all a man whose contract expires in just over a year’s time, but if Tuchel is going to make a success of his time in west London (and earn himself an extension) he is going to do it his way.
That means setting the foundations for a defined style of play first, one that Antonio Rudiger offered perhaps the most succinct explanation of: “The coach has a different idea [to Frank Lampard], which is to keep the opponents up in their own half and try to win the ball back there rather than winning it further down in our half.”
With nine games played under new management, it is naturally too early to say that Chelsea have taken on the identity of their new manager. But as Tuchel prepares to face Liverpool and his Borussia Dortmund predecessor Jurgen Klopp, he is showing signs of molding this team to his vision.
As is customary with managerial changes at Chelsea, where once they zigged they are now zagging in a remarkably different fashion. Lampard’s final press conferences saw him insist it was not “4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1” that would save his job but “passion and desire and togetherness”. Doubtless, Tuchel appreciates those more interpersonal qualities, but the German is as vocally tactical a manager as the Premier League has seen, his propensity to discuss final third recoveries and counter-pressing tailor made to infuriate “proper football men” across the land.
To be able to do what Tuchel wants — chase opponents energetically and win the ball back sufficiently high up the pitch that it only takes a few touches to get to goal — Chelsea’s forwards need to be assured that what is behind them is a defense that knows what it’s doing. The harsh reality is that for most of Lampard’s reign, bar a brief golden period following goalkeeper Edouard Mendy’s arrival, those at the top of the pitch would not have been wise to trust those behind them.
Hence Tuchel’s approach early in his tenure has been at best conservative. In nine games spanning across Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, his side conceded just two goals but scored only 10. Subtract penalties from the equation and you end up with a record of seven from 10. The past week in particular, where Tuchel faced his two toughest tests so far against Atletico Madrid and Manchester United, has been turgid at best even if Chelsea did get a priceless 1-0 win in the away leg of the first match.
His early approach does not bode well for neutrals watching Thursday’s game against Liverpool, but ultimately it is getting results. Chelsea are just a point off West Ham in fourth; Tuchel’s brief was to ensure his new side qualified for the Champions League again and he is progressing in the right direction.
“It’s very complex to be solid and still capable of scoring, how to not just be offensive thinking and open up three or four big chances for an opponent,” he said in his pre-match press conference on Wednesday. “We are on it. It’s not so easy.
“If we find a solution hopefully everybody will see it but right now it’s the advantage to be absolutely competitive on the highest level. From there on we start to find solutions. Honestly I have to say my players were so confident in ball possession that we also closed spaces down for our strikers because they were not too open, the last games we played.”
If you are a Chelsea fan you might have no desire to be bored in what is supposed to be your release from the monotony of everyday life. If you are a manager trying to retain your job for longer than a year then some temporary boredom may not be the worst idea if it is effective.
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So far, it undoubtedly has been. Under Lampard, Chelsea were conceding goals at an alarming rate, with 91 against in 70 Premier League and Champions League games. In part, those defensive issues were outside the new manager’s control, particularly in Year 1 under a transfer embargo. Look back on why that team conceded so many goals then and the clear picture is that they were beaten by a string of long range shots that most goalkeepers would save. Willy Caballero and in particular Kepa Arrizabalaga, who according to Opta conceded nearly 11 more Premier League goals than he should have based on the shots he faced in 2019-20, made it harder for Chelsea to be a defensively solid team before Mendy’s signing.
They scored plenty as well and the Englishman’s teams had a positive goal difference of 36 across a season and a half in those competitions. But that is good, not great, and Roman Abramovich is not one to settle for that, particularly after a summer where over $300 million was spent on this squad.
As for Tuchel, his two goals against in eight games is impressive and crucially it is not necessarily reflective of a period of bad finishing or inspired defending by Chelsea. Across their eight league and European games, opponents have registered shots with an expected goals (xG) value — a metric that assesses the likelihood of any shot resulting in a goal — of just 4.35.
In total, so far opponents have had just 11 shots on target on the Chelsea goal with a curiously high number coming from relatively mediocre attacking teams; both Newcastle and Sheffield United drew three saves from Mendy.
Opponents have not taken many shots at Mendy and those that have have largely done so from bad angles or long range. Indeed over half (57.5 percent) of the shots on target that have come the Blues’ way under Tuchel have been from outside the box. Compare that with Lampard’s first season when 75 percent were from inside the penalty area.
Teams are not having many shots in the box because they are not having many touches in the box. As the graphic below indicates, the Chelsea penalty area is a pleasantly sedate location. In seven league games since Tuchel’s appointment opponents have ended 51 sequences in the attacking penalty area, no other team does better than 62. Under Lampard teams averaged 17 touches in the Blues’ box per game. Since the change of management that number has fallen significantly to 11.
How has Tuchel done that? Largely by packing the defense, adding a center-back. In the second half against Manchester United Chelsea lined up in a 5-3-2 with N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic largely focused on screening the defense and leaving the front three to fend for themselves.
Chelsea were passive and conservative to the extreme at Stamford Bridge, typified by a fine breakaway by Mason Mount that saw him drive from his own half to the Manchester United penalty area, where he looked up to see only Olivier Giroud up near him and four defenders between him and the ball. Kovacic, you suspected, was keeping a close eye on Bruno Fernandes rather than making a late dart into the box.
This may not seem like the natural approach for a self-professed disciple of Pep Guardiola and Ralf Rangnick, the latter teaching Tuchel at third tier German side Ulm such revolutionary concepts as “you don’t need to follow your striker to the toilet, you can play in a back four”.
At Dortmund, Tuchel would define what he learned from Rangnick as “hard work, compact defending and quick transitions.” So far, Chelsea’s focus has been on those first two, hence the addition of a third center-back. It may not last forever, though, and it is easy to see the impressive Andres Christensen eventually graduating to a similar role Marquinhos played in Paris Saint-Germain.
Adding a ball player like Christensen in a deeper role also helps to solve what was the other Achilles heel of Lampard’s defense, its tendency to fall foul to quick attacks that began near to their goal. In the Premier League, 51 of the goals Chelsea conceded during the previous manager’s reign came from attacking moves that began in the Blues’ defensive third; only Aston Villa and Brighton conceded more. The addition of a third center-back offers not just another defender but another outlet for passing moves, negating the threat of possession being carelessly conceded close to goal.
As Tuchel himself has acknowledged, his current approach at Chelsea is not the end point. Before his opening game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, he spoke of the back three being a quick fix that he could swiftly implement to shore up the defense.
That being done, one has to wonder how long it will take to add some attacking punch to this side. After all, the talent is there. Backing up Olivier Giroud, Hakim Ziyech and Mount on the bench against United were Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. Tammy Abraham could not even earn a place in the squad. That such talent has mustered up a relatively paltry goal return so far seems hard to explain.
Tuchel sees signs of progress. “Have we created too many chances? No,” he said. “But I think we have created enough touches in the box. We have enough recoveries in the last third. We have enough half chances, deliveries, to create more.”
When it comes to getting into the box, he is right, Chelsea are doing well. According to Opta data, they average 20.57 sequences per game that end in the opponents’ penalty area in the Premier League under Tuchel, a tally bettered only by Manchester City and darlings of the xG discourse Brighton and Hove Albion. Their problem is the pace at which they’re getting to where they want to go.
Those sequences that end in the penalty area take an average of 15 seconds — only Manchester City are slower. And while Pep Guardiola’s sides are experts at the slow burn, Tuchel’s approach is more about quickly winning the ball back near the goal and striking from there. So far that hasn’t come into play, there is no huge upswing in ball recoveries near the opponents’ goal so far but there are signs of a step in the right direction.
In the seven league games before the change in management, Chelsea recovered possession in the opposing half 93 times, in the same time frame since they have done so on 114 occasions. It is hardly enough to set the Premier League alight, but feels like a step in the right direction from a manager who will consistently espouse the importance of pressing high up the pitch. Once Tuchel feels able to remove the defensive training wheels and add more players further up the pitch, it seems fair to assume that those numbers will improve swiftly.
As the manager himself would note, we remain in the small sample size stage of his tenure where a few games can have an outsized impact on his side’s profile. He was keen to emphasise the difference between Chelsea’s solid performances against Manchester United and Atletico Madrid as opposed to a lacklustre approach in the draw with Southampton.
“We have to put into relation who we are playing against,” Tuchel said. “That will maybe not change tomorrow, whoever expects us to create 10 big chances and go out of this match with six expected goals has a high possibility to be hugely disappointed. I don’t [expect] that. Will it become easier tomorrow for our No.9s? No, probably not. “
There is work to be done in the penalty area too, Chelsea would certainly not be doing themselves any harm if they converted more than one of the nine big chances they have created since Jan. 25, five of which have dropped to the feet of the wayward Werner. His assists and scrappy goal against Newcastle at least offer hope that he is dragging himself out of his recent slump, something he credits to Tuchel’s staff.
“[Tuchel] knows me and his assistants know me from the Bundesliga,” Werner told Sky Sports last week. “He gave me trust back and confidence back to be the Timo from the Bundesliga, to be back at the top and scoring goals.”
Werner perhaps finds himself in a position analogous to where Chelsea are right now under new management. Not performing as they want to be nor as their talent suggest they might but with growing evidence that they are heading in the right direction. With the defense seemingly improved, Tuchel is already ensuring the journey ought to be a relatively smooth one.
CBS Research and TruMedia assisted with this article.