When Thomas Tuchel arrived at Chelsea as the club’s new head coach in January, time wasn’t on his side. Chelsea were ninth in the Premier League with their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League fading fast. An eventuality that had forced the Blues to sack club legend Frank Lampard midway through the season.
For many, the challenge for Tuchel was too big and that any tangible progress under him would be felt next season.
But four and a half months on, Tuchel has guided Chelsea to their second Champions League title having already secured a top-four finish in the Premier League. A remarkable turnaround that few saw coming apart from its chief architect, Tuchel himself.
Having guided PSG to the Champions League final last year, the German only had one goal when he came to Stamford Bridge – to win trophies. A fact he underlined quite early in his tenure as Chelsea manager.
“I am here to win titles, I am here to win games and as a result, win titles. This is what I demand of myself so why should we now say anything different? If you want to win in five years or three years, I don’t know what that is,” Tuchel had said.
The German was also ready to walk the talk. Even before he set foot in London before taking over at Stamford Bridge, Tuchel knew his plan for the first game against Wolves. Knowing well that he had to hit the ground running to accomplish his goals, the German prepared for the match in his flight from Paris to the English capital. A back three to stop counter-attacks and a forward block that will counterpress. The first bricks of the Tuchel era were laid even before he had seen his players in flesh.
His limited knowledge of the group led him to use the 3-4-3 formation that some of the Blues players had played in quite successfully under Antonio Conte. But there was to be a twist to it, a German one.
Unlike Conte, who was a lot more defensive in his approach, Tuchel was more aggressive while retaining the same level of organisation. Tuchel’s Chelsea kept hold of the ball a lot more than Conte’s side and used possession as a defensive tool. They controlled games without creating a lot of chances but virtually nullified the opponent’s threat. In contrast, to the Italian who relied mostly on organisation without the ball, Tuchel achieved the same with the ball.
Chelsea had conceded a bagful of goals under Lampard on defensive transitions and counter-attacks and the switch to a back three was a ploy to correct that by putting an extra man in defence. It gave them an insurance policy that slowly translated into confidence on the pitch. It also helped Chelsea’s attack that looked a bit toothless at the start but one that became sharper as the season progressed.
By the time, the Champions League final came around, the Blues had enough confidence to stifle a Manchester City attack that had an extra attacker in the line-up while carrying a threat of their own. Tuchel’s side reduced City to just one shot on target all game. They didn’t panic even as City threw the kitchen sink at them in the dying minutes and saw the game through comfortably. It was a template they had followed all through the knockout stages in the Champions League.
There was more to this stunning defensive revolution than just a formation change. Tuchel had the ears of every member of his squad, a position he had to earn through his excellent man-management skills.
Tuchel inherited a side with a group of youngsters left insecure about their futures after a slump in form and a bunch of senior pros that were sidelined by Lampard. The German turned this uncertainty into desire and determination by showing a clear path to first-team football for every player in the squad. Individual conversations helped the German earn the trust of his players and slowly Tuchel had a group with renewed vigour to perform and prove their doubters wrong.
This helped him pass on every detail of his tactical instruction. The players bought into every word of the manager and showed the desire and quality to execute it on the pitch.
From allowing struggling goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga to play the FA Cup games including the final to sticking with Timo Werner and Kai Havertz despite some poor performances, Tuchel showed the Chelsea players that everyone had a chance to play in his team.
At PSG, Tuchel was criticised for giving too many instructions to his players but his attention to detail worked in his favour at Chelsea. With complaints of a lack of tactical instruction under Lampard, Tuchel’s constant dialogue was a welcome change and so were his unique training methods.
Using smaller sized balls, cutting off the corners from the training pitches to making the players play in a concise diamond-shaped pitch kept the players on their toes apart from helping them hone their skills. It also cut out any kind of monotony in training.
Everything in training had a purpose and Tuchel allowed the players to figure it out themselves. It kept the players involved and thereby have greater beliefs in the coach’s methods. Their understanding of it was also better.
“Probably one of the strangest things he’s done, that none of us are used to, is playing with the small footballs,” Chelsea full-back Reece James told The Athletic.
“Do things like this keep us on our toes? Yes, of course. Sometimes when you have the same routine and just keep doing the same things, it can be a bit boring. A change every so often does you good and keeps you thinking,” he added.
Just like every successful coach, Tuchel managed to get the best of Chelsea’s very top players. N’Golo Kante who had not reached his best levels under Lampard and Maurizio Sarri partly due to being played in a slightly advanced role, was restored to a much deeper position in midfield. Kante instantly came into his own after the shift thus adding another layer of steel to Chelsea’s organised defence. He was man-of-the-match in four out of the seven knockout ties including the final where he totally controlled the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan.
On the other side of the central midfield, Jorginho’s resurgence has gone relatively unnoticed. Kante’s presence helped him a great deal as he was able to influence matches a lot more. His ability to keep the ball moving in midfield came to the fore as Chelsea were often able to build from the back even against heavy pressing systems.
Defensively, his positional intelligence coupled with Kante’s work rate made it a robust combination for Chelsea in midfield that helped the Blues control games both with or without the ball. That double-pivot thus allowed Chelsea to win matches in more ways than one.
Tuchel’s Chelsea despite their recent form were underdogs in the final against Manchester City but the manner in which they dealt with the threat of City’s attacking riches was remarkable. Every player knew the role he had to perform and did so like a machine both in attack and defence. Despite City enjoying more possession, it was Chelsea who were in control from start to finish.
It was an exhibition of German efficiency masterminded by a German coach. Fittingly, it had to be a German player to score the winning goal.
It was a triumph of German identity and ethos in an all-English final. Indeed, you can’t help but wonder who writes these scripts.
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