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Thomas Tuchel’s first month at Chelsea

What was expected and what has happened so far

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

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And round and round, we go.

Chelsea have sacked another manager. We have hired another new manager. This time on the hot seat is the mad-genius, Thomas Tuchel, fresh out of a job in Paris.

That was one month ago. Let us take stock.


WHAT WAS EXPECTED

POSITIVES

Chelsea Unveil New Manager Thomas Tuchel Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Tactical Knowledge

As tactically nuanced and capable as they come, Tuchel’s basic idea of football involves pressing, passing, creating overloads on one side and then switching over to the other side to exploit space. Add in crosses, through balls and quick counter-attacks and you have the basic Tuchel prototype. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking, though what separates him a bit from others, is his use of different formations.

At Mainz, Tuchel stuck to a long-ball tactic with pressing at its forefront to compensate for their relative lack of technical quality, especially in his first few seasons there. Later, after promoting goalkeeper Loris Karius and midfielder Yunus Mallı from youth, they started playing out from the back. During his time at Mainz, Tuchel mostly fielded 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-1-2/4-1-3-2 while also surprisingly with a 5-2-2-1 against Bayern.

At Dortmund, rather than just keeping Klopp’s gegenpressing system, Tuchel made tweaks that turned them into a refined version of his last Mainz team, focusing on passing and quick interplay first, instead of pressing.

While, gegenpressing and quick counters were still part of their game, a lot more emphasis was placed on passing and possession. Hence why Tuchel replaced Klopp’s trusted Sven Bender with the technically gifted Julian Weigl — his own Sergio Busquets/Rodri to help recycle possession, often by dropping in between the centerbacks, and help start attacks (hello, Jorginho!). At BVB, Tuchel played 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and even a 3-2-5, and he even used a 3-3-2-2 (a weird 3-5-2) lineup in the final of the German Cup.

At PSG, Tuchel had to incorporate Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, two immensely talented players who at first glance stand in stark contrast to his philosophy of team-play. Tuchel would end up churning over ten different formations in order to accommodate stars such as Neymar, Mbappé, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria, and many more.

At the same time, he did not shy away from conceding possession and putting out a team to grind out results, as was especially evident in last season’s run to the Champions League final (where they fell just short, 1-0 to Bayern, with 38% possession but with 3 shots on target compared to Bayern’s 2).

This ability and awareness to go pragmatic when need be is what makes Tuchel unique. While he has a very clear first plan, he has second and third plans in reserve as well.

Chelsea Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Frameworks, Not Structures

Another difference between Tuchel and managers like Pep Guardiola, Maurizio Sarri, or even Antonio Conte is that Tuchel’s teams don’t have a set or strict pattern of play, certainly not to the extent of those others. Tuchel believes in and cultivates individual brilliance, intelligence, and decision-making. His trainings are not just focused on repetition.

Instead, Tuchel does situational training, “guided discovery” as he calls it. He puts his players in situations that may arise in a match — or scenarios that mimic certain aspects of games, with different-sized pitches, balls, etc — and then asks the players to find solutions to them. While he also provides guidance like many other coaches do, often going into small details like which foot to use and where to turn, the idea is to develop and encourage players to find their own solutions.

Tuchel knows he doesn’t have all the answers. He has some, but not all. So he provides the framework, and asks the players to explore their full potential within that framework.

If you’d like to hear more about Tuchel’s philosophy from his own mouth, here is an interview at Aspire4Sport summit. It’s roughly 48 minutes long, but worth your time.

Emphasis On Diet

Soda is back off the menu, boys! While Tuchel might allow some freedom on the pitch, off of it, he is a well-known control freak, who focuses on everything related to his players, their diets, sleeping pattern, social life. Here are some of the rules enforced by Tuchel when he arrived at PSG:

  • No pasta, fast food, sweets and soft drinks
  • No nightclubs on weekdays
  • Must rest on rest days and have no parties, or face the consequences

This is very reminiscent of Antonio Conte and his holistic approach, though some of the rules are inherently easier to enforce in a pandemic lockdown!


NEGATIVES

Paris Saint-Germain Training Session Photo by Aurelien Meunier - PSG/PSG via Getty Images

Clashes With Club Hierarchy

Tuchel has always been ready to pick a fight with club hierarchy.

He publicly lashed out at Mainz for being stingy with their budget and left after guiding them to a 7th placed finished. He famously banished Dortmund scout Sven Mislintat over the failed signing of Oliver Torres. At PSG, he first called out the hierarchy over not signing any fullbacks, and then had a huge fallout with sporting director Leonardo over the signing of Danilo Pereira.

Tuchel has also shown to be not very diplomatic, and it’s his honest and blunt approach towards club politics, which often makes him the bad guy. He’s very much interested in the coaching aspects over the managerial aspects of the job, and that often leads to him being easily annoyed.

Emphasis On Diet (again)

While Tuchel’s meticulous attention to detail can lead to good results in the short-term, it’s also a double edged sword — just as it was with Conte.

Players are only humans, after all, and rather well-paid ones who can easily get tired and annoyed by such strict regimes. Sure, players shouldn’t be coddled, but most of them will outlast any given manager (especially at Chelsea), and the club will almost always back the players over the more easily disposable coaches.


WHAT HAS HAPPENED

Sheffield United v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Lee Smith - Pool/Getty Images

UNEXPECTED

Contrary to expectations so far, Chelsea have played almost exclusively with three at the back, and have in turn looked way more solid than free flowing, a complete opposite of Tuchel’s Dortmund for example. Similarly, Tuchel’s personality has been much more easy-going and affable, rather than the infamous angry version seen before.

Chelsea have played eight matches thus far, resulting in two draws and six wins. While the start wasn't too impressive, a 0-0 draw against then relegation-threatened Wolves, the Blues have followed that up with four wins on the bounce, including dominant performances against Burnley (2-0) and Spurs (1-0 wherein Spurs didn't threaten at all), as well as more scrappy wins as we huffed and puffed past Sheffield United (2-1) and Barnsley (1-0 in the FA Cup).

That was followed by a 2-0 win against Newcastle United at home, before the winning run came to a cashing halt last weekend at Southampton in the 1-1 draw. But Chelsea followed that up with an excellent 1-0 away win over La Liga-leaders Atlético Madrid in the Champions League.

Atletico Madrid vs Chelsea: UEFA Champions League Photo by Stefan Constantin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Six wins out of eight is certainly good, but we’re still within the realm of the new manager bounce, so we shouldn’t read too much into it. What is perhaps more telling — even given the small sample size — is that the beautiful football that was promised has not arrived yet.

Chelsea enjoy the lion’s share of possession in nearly every game but struggle to score more than a goal or, on better days, two. Against Southampton and Spurs, we needed penalties to earn points, while against Atlético we needed a wonder-goal. Werner may have broken his scoring drought, but the forwards have struggled in general, and Tuchel finds himself in the familiar situation of being overly reliant on super-Mason Mount.

While it’s important to acknowledge that Tuchel hasn’t had a preseason of any kind — his first match was barely 24 hours after his arrival in fact — it’s still surprising that he has crafted a team that looks more like a solid Conte team with extra possession rather than a stereotypical Tuchel team. And considering that we’ve had a relatively easily schedule for most of the past month, that’s potentially concerning.

Another surprise has been Tuchel’s demeanour. The 47-year-old’s feistiness has been kept well in reserve, and it’s all sunshine and rainbows, at least for now.

“What I like now and why I am very positive is that I am self-aware that this is a thing to improve, to be also more relaxed and not to be too stubborn in my beliefs. The structure that I find here is very clear and a very easy structure. It is easy to understand there are not many people who make the decisions and I can absolutely live with that.

“When things are clear it is on me now as the head coach to adapt and to make my opinion clear and to give the analysis of what I see, what I feel and where I also think that we can still improve and I hope this comes along in the right way.”

-Thomas Tuchel, January 2021

FBL-ENG-PR-CHELSEA-BURNLEY Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

EXPECTED

What has been predictable, however, is Tuchel’s tactical knowledge and eccentricity.

First of all, in his very first game, the madman started Callum Hudson-Odoi as a wing-back in a 3-4-2-1 formation, which also featured two No.10s playing in the half-spaces in support of a lone striker.

Chelsea lineup against Wolves

He stuck with the Hudson-Odoi experiment against Burnley to great effect, and it’s become a regular feature of Chelsea teams over the past month (with Hudson-Odoi occasionally also playing further forward).

Another smart move by Tuchel has been to bring back Marcos Alonso at wing-back from the shadow realm. Of course, Alonso has done what he does best at that position, which is to provide goals and attacking thrust from the left flank. He’s starting to develop a great understanding with Timo Werner as well, often underlapping the forward to end up in the box instead.

Alonso might be an underwhelming left back but as Conte proved, he is an overwhelming left wing-back.

Of cours, this is unlikely to be Tuchel’s final version of Chelsea, either this season or going forward. We’ve seen hints of different looks up front, and he cannot always rely on Mason Mount to knit everything together or his midfield pivot of Jorginho and Mateo Kovačić to be able to defend suitably well in some games simply by passing the ball a lot.

Chelsea’s defensive record is encouraging, but the same cannot be said for our attacking play. As expected, Tuchel’s appointment hasn’t solved (all of) Chelsea’s problems overnight. But also as expected, he’s showing clarity of purpose in trying to solve them, and appears to be making progress.


FINAL THOUGHTS

In Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea have an eccentric, meticulous, tactical genius of a manager. At the same time, his outspoken personality will eventually lead to drama.

Whatever happens, there will be fireworks.

You may love him or you may hate him, but you definitely will not be able to ignore him.

Tuchel-sea and beyond!

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