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What Will Thomas Tuchel Do With Chelsea?
if you ask me it could end about 100 different ways: 1) tuchel gets 0 points, 2) tuchel gets 1 point, 3) tuchel gets 2 po
Frank Lampard is gone and, with the greatest of respect, that’s about all we need to say about him. He’s done. History. Finito. We could do a big post-mortem about what happened, but instead I’m going to move forward and see where Chelsea go from here. Because, after trying something quite different with a manager who “knows the club” and could integrate the academy talent into the first team more easily, the Blues have reverted to type and gone for a big name foreign manager with no knowledge of Chelsea in Thomas Tuchel. Out with the new, in with the old.
There is a theory, advocated by Gabriele Marcotti and Julien Laurens on The Gab and Juls Show podcast, that there are two Tuchels. Twochels (sorry, I’m sorry, I’m trying to remove it). There’s the Tuchel we saw at Mainz and Borussia Dortmund. This Tuchel is the football scientist: part-manager, part-Spielverlagerung article come to life. This Tuchel employs complex pressing systems and ideas in possession but continually adapts them to the opponent. He’s an innovator in terms of tactical ideas, blending ideas from Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola to create something really distinctive.
But he’s not just throwing tactical instructions at players and expecting them to behave like robots. While at Dortmund, he told Henrikh Mkhitaryan (whose less impressive form under many other managers feels noteworthy) to read the book The Inner Game of Tennis. The concept behind the book, written by Timothy Gallwey, came about almost by accident but changed not just tennis, not just sport, but so much of how modern society thinks about learning and improving.
Gallwey, a tennis coach, was teaching a client to improve his top spin but on that day he was bored out of his mind. So he tried something. Whereas he’d usually tell the man exactly where he went wrong every time, he decided to say nothing and just see what would happen. And voila, the man was improving his performance just through the silence. The next time, Gallwey tried the method of saying nothing with a complete beginner, and guess what? “I’ll just drop a few [balls] and hit them”, he explained, without any previous instruction to a tennis novice, “and they’ll see me”. They’ll learn simply by watching the way he does it and instinctively picking it up. When Gallwey published his book on the subject, it made the key point to everyone: the right mental focus, and observation, can be the greatest teacher of all.
“Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game. The former is played against opponents, and is filled with lots of contradictory advice; the latter is played not against, but within the mind of the player, and its principal obstacles are self-doubt and anxiety.”
Tuchel obviously found these ideas to be very important, or else he wouldn’t recommend the book. It sums up exactly how he goes about his work: constantly bringing in different ideas, breaking football orthodoxies and re-engineering how to coach a football team. More recently, he’s integrated ideas of “differential learning”, which run on some of the same principles but emphasises learning through varying patterns of movement rather than continual repetition. He really is doing very interesting and out there things.
Just until he falls out with everyone. Unfortunately, like some of football’s other great innovators, he seems to have a tendency to want everything done his way, and tends to clash with those who get in the way of his vision. This is the thing that held him back at Mainz and Dortmund, and it’s the thing you can very easily imagine poisoning the well at Chelsea.
That’s the story for the first Tuchel, at least. The second is someone who went to Paris Saint-Germain and at least tried to rein in all his usual impulses. This was a Tuchel who tried to turn himself into a Carlo Ancelotti type figure (himself once an ardent Arrigo Sacchi disciple who saw the light and moved towards player-focused methods), aware that he had an incredible array of talent with some huge egos who might not appreciate him trying to reinvent the wheel. The football was less about complex pressing and positional play, and more about those brilliant individuals. He tried to use his outside the box methods to change himself this time, and it almost worked.
So which one do Chelsea get? You can imagine how either might be what’s needed. Chelsea are both a team with some big names that need handling properly and a club in search of a clear tactical identity on the pitch to maximise what they have. He just might be able to maneuver this exactly right to do something really special. Or it could go horribly wrong.
The choices begin in goal, but this is one where there is a right answer and a wrong answer. You don’t need me to tell you that Kepa Arrizabalaga has been poor. Since arriving in the Premier League, Kepa has conceded 92 goals from 77.9 post-shot expected goals. For every five goals the average Premier League keeper concedes, Kepa lets in six. This doesn’t sound like a huge amount, but it puts him as one of the poorest in the league. Edouard Mendy, meanwhile, has so far conceded exactly as many goals as expected. If he maintains this form, with the rate of good chances Chelsea are conceding, that’s about 7-8 goals over a full season in the league we’d expect Mendy to save over Kepa. Don’t mess this one up, Tom.
Right in front of the keeper, he’s already raised the question of three or four men defences. In his very hastily prepared setup against Wolves, he went with a three. Cesar Azpilicueta played on the right side and Rudiger on the left, while Thiago Silva did a pretty tidy job in between. This is a shape I think all three of those players are pretty comfortable in the shape, and as tactics writer Lewis Ambrose mentioned, possession-based managers often start with a three seemingly as a quicker way to implement ideas in the early stages, before slowly moving to a four.
Ben Chilwell started at left wing back, and surely he’s seen Marcos Alonso off for good at this point. The real story was with Callum Hudson-Odoi on the opposite flank. If you want my more in depth thoughts on him, I wrote about him in detail on the paid side, and I’m a huge fan. I don’t know how long this wing back experiment will last, but in some ways it really suits him. He’s often best coming from the outside and driving forward with more room to accelerate into, and if sides are going to leave the wing backs as much room as Wolves did, it’s not a bad idea to put someone of his quality there. I don’t think it’s his long term position because it puts a ceiling on his involvement in the final third and he’s too good for that, but it’s a clever solution right now.
In central midfield, Tuchel specifically brought Idrissa Gueye to PSG, so there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t immediately take to N’Golo Kante. Alongside him, the temptation is to assume he’ll love Jorginho for his possession-dominant style, though I have wondered if Mateo Kovacic’s better press resistance might give him the edge here. It’s one to watch, and don’t be too shocked if he converts players from elsewhere into central midfielders. Raphael Guerreiro did a terrific job moving there from full back at Dortmund, and it feels like Reece James could have all the same skills to make such a move. Mason Mount is obviously an option here, especially if they play a midfield three, but even if not, I suspect there will be times when Tuchel values his energy from a deeper role. He leads Chelsea in pressures per 90, so I’m sure a pressing advocate like Tuchel will value him.
That would at least free up some space higher up the pitch, which is where it gets really interesting as to how he formats the side. Tuchel will surely want to be getting more goals out of Timo Werner, but his best football has generally come in a strike partnership with more of a target man. Chelsea have such options in Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud, but it limits some of their other options. What I have wondered about is if Kai Havertz could be “unlocked” as a sort of false target man, holding up the ball and bringing Werner into play but also dropping deep to link up the attack and add fluidity to the overall play. There’s a world where Havertz is the key here to making the whole team tick, but it would obviously involve him showing much better form than we’ve seen from him so far.
I’m sure Tuchel will use a lot of different systems, but to be honest I’d be interested to see a genuine 4-4-2 shape with that pair. It was a system he used a lot at PSG, so he’s no stranger to it. And he’d be able to vary it up with his wide options. The aforementioned Hudson-Odoi is the “true” winger, and something of a throwback to the old days of English football. He could play that shape tomorrow, and it’s not that far off his wing back role. Christian Pulisic is more of a “modern” winger, who loves to dribble but comes from outside to in more often and disrupts defences that way. Hakim Ziyech, meanwhile, offers the creative passing threat weather he’s wide or through the middle. There are real options here.
And that might be the word that defines this. Chelsea’s squad is so stacked that Tuchel has a lot of options in terms of what he does. Both in terms of how he sets up the side, with so many attacking weapons, and in terms of how he coaches and works with the players. This is a flexible individual willing to learn new ideas and adapt. His abrasive personality really should be a long term concern, but in the meantime, if I were a Chelsea fan, I’d be really excited to find out what he might do here.