Where Thomas Tuchel failed as Chelsea boss

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Many of you will know my admiration for Thomas Tuchel. He accomplished remarkable tactical feats at both PSG and Dortmund, helping both to play some of their best football in recent memory. At Chelsea, he helped them to a formidable defensive record in his first season in charge, en route to a Champions League title and a top four rebound. It always seemed like a relationship that would be short-lived, but the Champions League title certainly gave him time to instill his ideas, find players that suited his style, and make the project his own.

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It’s worth noting that it takes a bold manager to completely change around the system of play from their predecessor. Tuchel came into Chelsea not even intending to play with a back-three, and only did so to match Wolves in his first week. But he stuck with the shape week in and week out, only providing minor tweaks to his 3-4-2-1 system. Often times it became 3-4-1-2 with Mount as the ’10’, and two ‘floating 9’s’ that maneuvered in and out of the centre-forward’s position. In some ways, this called into question Chelsea’s need for an out-and-out ‘number nine’ who could hold down the gauntlet up front. Lukaku didn’t suit the style, and they played better when Havertz featured as that ‘false nine’-esque presence instead. Sterling then came in with much promise to be the figurehead that could combine Chelsea’s incisiveness in the final third with greater goal-scoring panache, but still the combinations felt lost in translation.

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Going back to his first season in charge, as Tuchel tried to find the best recipe for success up front, his team completely solidified in the defensive department. He turned Edouard Mendy into one of the Premier League’s most accomplished goalkeepers, and achieved defensive solidity even in a Kante-less midfield, with Kovacic and Jorginho playing some of their best football under the German. His decision to restore the back-three vision set into motion by Antonio Conte’s title win a few years prior always appeared to be the right one, with the likes of Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and even Marcos Alonso looking fully comfortable as they wind(ed) down their Chelsea careers. But even despite continuing the positive development of Reece James and Mason Mount into two of the league’s top creators, Chelsea couldn’t find a route through the centre of the pitch to break down opposition defenses.

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Thomas Tuchel’s greatest crux as Chelsea manager will always come down to an inability to get his front-line firing on all cylinders. This was the subject of our very first episode of Futbol Masterminds when Tuchel first entered the door, and it never resolved. In the early days of his management reign, I spoke about the inability of the team to progress through the centre of the pitch.

Futbol Masterminds Episode 1 – Chelsea’s Tactical Concerns

Deploying Mount as a ’10’ to receive in between the lines was one mechanism for potentially solving this concern; but they still struggled to find adequate routes into the likes of Lukaku and Havertz to score goals via anything but wing-play, quick attacking transitions, and set-pieces.

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Teams like Bruno Lage’s Wolves could set up against them in a resolute 5-3-2, shuffle with the play, and completely stunt the Blues’ progress toward goal. When pressed vigilantly out from the back, they also struggled, with Jesse Marsch’s Leeds completely running Chelsea to the ground in August. They dearly missed Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante in Tuchel’s final weeks at the club, and the German will be ruing not having his full squad fit for those crucial encounters that cost him his job. Playing Reece James as a centre-back never helped.

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His speed can be helpful in instances of dealing with pacey attackers like Heung-Min Son and Jamie Vardy (as shown in the FA Cup Final), but they always looked more fluid in the final third with him racing forward down the wing.

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Other than that, it’s hard to point out too many glaring instances where he could have done more to get his team firing up front. Changing the system of play might have only caused more room for chaos and disruption, as the team have only gained consistency and chemistry in the 3-4-2-1. Good managers will always find a way to get the best out of their players, and in many ways Tuchel accomplished that feat with many of his superstars. But the writing was on the wall after their Champions League defeat to Dinamo Zagreb, with the team struggling to find the back of the net once again.

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Thomas Tuchel will be remembered as one of the greatest innovators of Chelsea Football Club, and someone that many managers will try and replicate the success of in the future. He brought them their second ever Champions League title in his first half of a season in charge, and fashioned one of the most resolute defensive structures in the league throughout his time in charge. We will miss Thomas Tuchel in the Premier League, and hope that he makes a swift return to management in the near future.

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