Chelsea’s starting lineup for last night’s FA Cup final didn’t contain too many, if any new surprises, a perhaps uncharacteristic move from head coach Thomas Tuchel, who loves to tinker and tweak — though as he himself reflected prior to the match, a final ins’t necessarily the most opportune moment for big changes.
That said, once the game started it became apparent that Tuchel did have at least one trick up his sleeve. Instead of what we all assumed when looking at the starting XI, Reece James was not at wing-back but rather at right-center back, having swapped places with César Azpilicueta. It seemed an odd choice considering that right-center back is generally accepted as Azpi’s best position and James can make very good impact from the flank with his quality crosses.
But as Tuchel explained after the game, the switch was made with defense in mind, and part of our gameplan to nullify Leicester’s world class counter-attacking abilities.
“Reecey played in the back three and we put Azpi up higher. They changed the position because we know about the favourite position of Jamie Vardy in transition and we wanted to have Reecey’s power, Reecey’s acceleration, and top speed against him to eliminate this threat. He did fantastic today. Very very happy.
“On the same side, we wanted to have Azpi a bit higher because with his experience and his character he takes a bit more risk than Reecey in the last line. If Azpi could have scored the first goal and it was not deflected before him, it would have been a great decision.
“Now it is a normal decision, but it is a decision for tactical reasons and for Reecey’s top speed and I’m very happy how we defended in general today.”
-Thomas Tuchel; source: Football.London
“Reecey” did in fact contain Jamie Vardy very well — just as Antonio Rüdiger contained Kelechi Iheanacho on the other side — so that part of the plan worked out pretty well. And like Tuchel said, if the ball isn’t taken off of Azpi’s head (or if Pérez’s handball is called, or if Chilwell’s equalizer stands, or ...), the decision would be shone upon in more glorious light. Alas.
That said, it is perhaps notable that Tuchel made this change now. Many of us have wanted to see James in the back-three for a while (though probably not with Azpi stuck out wide), where he could use his physical attributes to match up against strong, fast, and strong-fast center forwards, while also joining the attack opportunistically and putting in a few delicious deep crosses.
It is also a sad indictment of Azpi’s quickness, which used to be among the team’s best for many a year. Dave has lost a step. Time waits for no man. If Christensen remains out for much longer, James in the back-three could be a key option moving forward.