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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea transformation down to decisive change and open minds

Tuchel Chlesea changes
Tuchel’s changes have helped Chelsea recover their top-four bid. Richard Heathcote/EPA.

What a difference a fortnight makes. Two weeks ago, Chelsea’s prospects looked dim and their decision to part ways with Frank Lampard somewhat heartless, but the fast improvements made by new manager Thomas Tuchel have proved what’s possible in a short span.

Unbeaten in his first five games as Blues boss, Tuchel’s no-nonsense approach to a squad steeped in potential has yielded quick returns, none of which is down to luck alone.

Chelsea sat ninth in the Premier League when Tuchel took over, but rather than coming as a result of sweeping change, their climb to the brink of top-four status is down to more delicate differences in a select few areas.

Level Playing Field

It’s the type of line often insisted upon by managers coming to new clubs, in one form or another. “Everyone will get their chance” and “a clean slate” are popular ways to describe one’s willingness to give all players a shot, though it’s not always put into practice on a widespread scale.

Considering the investment that went into signing last summer’s salvo of superstars, Chelsea have as much reason as any other team (the most, arguably) to rotate with great frequency.

It was something Lampard struggled with to some extent given his attachment to certain players, homegrown assets like Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Reece James. Expensive purchases such as Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech aren’t signed to ride the bench, yet it felt as though Lampard risked damaging certain relationships if he swapped out his old toys in favor of the newer models too swiftly.

After all, no son could quickly forgive being dropped from the team if their father just happened to be on the coaching staff—some of us can say that from personal experience—and Lampard’s reputation at Stamford Bridge made for a similar story, particularly after the transfer-less summer of 2019.

Tuchel is blessed in the sense he holds no such allegiances and has been able to test almost the entire roster with a fair and impartial eye. It’s a small surprise that Christian Pulisic is yet to be handed a start in the new regime, but two appearances off the Blues bench indicate he’s certainly being kept in mind. As the USMNT star returns from time away from the squad, there are whispers that his former coach will turn to him as the sparkplug in the side, deployed as a false nine.

Billy Gilmour and Emerson were the only senior outfield players not to get minutes during the manager’s first four Premier League games (three wins, one draw), proof Tuchel is open to being impressed by anyone motivated enough to take their chance.

It stands to reason that Mason Mount has outperformed the reputation he held with some as a Lampard pet project and earned his way into Tuchel’s plans despite being dropped for his first fixture in charge. The England midfielder played only the last seven minutes of that 0-0 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers, but he’s since started in wins over Burnley, Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United:

After Arjen Robben, Mount is the second-youngest Chelsea player to have scored 10 Premier League goals. The 22-year-old’s promotion ahead of players like Ziyech and Havertz—who was absent from the squads that faced Spurs and Sheffield United—props up the point that reputation is playing no part in Tuchel’s thinking.

That logic extends to N’Golo Kante—recently back from injury—whose only league minutes under the new manager were cameos in those latter two games, though Tuchel insists he’s a fan of the 2018 World Cup winner:

Spanish pair Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso have also benefited from the shift to a five-man defense, which has been important in stemming the flow of goals that ran against Chelsea in the build-up to Lampard’s dismissal.

A four-man back line was perhaps prioritised as a means to fit in the club’s considerable options in midfield and attack, but the instant decision to move away from those commitments again demonstrates Tuchel’s calculation that results come above all. In today’s narrow FA Cup escape against Barnsley, it was Tuchel’s move to a back-four that steadied the ship. It was Abraham, a presumed third-fiddle at striker, that provided both a goal and a goal-line clearance. It wasn’t an impressive performance for the squad, but the right moves were made in the end. The question is whether Tuchel has the same touch for Chelsea’s newest stars.

Same Timo Werner, Different Direction

Of all the new arrivals at Stamford Bridge during the last summer window, Werner perhaps shouldered the heaviest expectations from his new fans given his exploits at RB Leipzig. It hasn’t worked in favor of the formerly free-scoring forward, whose profile exploded at Leipzig under Julian Nagelsmann, one of the most revered young minds in soccer (if not the most).

After failing to make a direct goal contribution in his last five league appearances under Lampard — three as a substitute — the $59 million signing has three assists in as many starts with Tuchel in charge. Werner set up Mount to score and earned his side a penalty in their recent victory over the Blades, with the new coach confident goals will return despite his last league strike coming on November 7:

Speaking after the trip to Bramall Lane, Werner told reporters how pleased he was with his new role as a “left No. 10,” a slight modification to his responsibility that already looks far more optimal for his talents:

“Every manager is different in how he wants us to play. He gives us a lot of ideas. Now I play as a left number 10, not a left winger, so I have more space for my runs in the middle and can play behind a striker, or with a number 10 behind me as a second striker. So it’s very good for me and I think there were also good moves from the manager in the last two wins.”

This new deployment relieves Werner of his touchline-hugging responsibilities but also means he isn’t expected to be a target man, which is probably the worst-suited of the roles he’s been given since moving to England. The move also makes it understandable that a more seasoned technician like Giroud should be reintroduced, more capable of holding up the ball to get Werner in the goalscoring areas he desires.

Fine nuances like this are where the difference between Tuchel and a less experienced strategist like Lampard come to light, the small tweaks that can often be so essential in getting the most from a player. Germany, and Europe as a whole, have already witnessed what Werner is capable of at his most lethal, and recent changes hint we may yet see him back to his best this season.

Christensen Is Reborn

Between Chelsea’s change to include three central defenders and Thiago Silva’s recent injury, it may have been expected that Kurt Zouma would be back in the XI. The Frenchman had displayed huge improvement given a run under Lampard over the past year and more, standing out as one of the side’s top performers at times during the first half of this campaign.

However, Andreas Christensen was the man appointed Silva’s successor in light of the Brazilian’s early blow against Tottenham, providing some suggestion regarding Tuchel’s priorities. While the Dane struggled to find minutes after the first several matches of the campaign, his passing display from the back was impressive, perhaps opening the door for longer-term occupancy by the 24-year-old.

It shouldn’t surprise that Tuchel has preferred Christensen as his alternative option after Silva, Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger. Named Borussia Monchengladbach Player of the Year in 2015-16—the first of his two seasons on loan in the Bundesliga—the Denmark international is a known quantity to his new boss, despite losing each of his four meetings with Tuchel’s Dortmund.

While Zouma is contracted at Stamford Bridge until 2023, Nizaar Kinsella also noted that Christensen, 24, has more to fight for:

Passing proficiency is of greater importance in a three-man defensive line when wing-backs are pushed further upfield, particularly if Callum Hudson-Odoi is to have any kind of long-term future in that modified role. One could argue Zouma’s biggest strengths are less pertinent in this system when there’s a greater chance of adequate cover being readily available at the back.

This is just another example of how deep the options run at Stamford Bridge and the kind of pleasant dilemma the head coach has on his hands. Rotation has been rampant early on in his tenure, but it may not be long before Tuchel eventually settles on his own favored setup.

It’s safe to suggest Chelsea and their new chief are caught up in the honeymoon period, that sickly sweet phase that so often follows a marriage between two willing parties. It’s often when business matters arise that stresses tend to emerge, and this summer’s transfer window could present the first ‘real’ run-ins between Tuchel and his new upper management.

Until then, the tactician will delight in tinkering with the substantial resources he’s inherited in west London, where Tuchel can resuscitate a sleeping giant to reclaim its place among the Premier League’s superpowers.

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