Thomas Tuchel has long been eyeing Chelsea as a possible job, and Roman Abramovich might be tempted to wonder what would have happened had he hired the German three years earlier.
Antonio Conte’s relationship with the Stamford Bridge board was irreparable and Tuchel was out of work between Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain when the idea was floated.
Pini Zahavi, one of Abramovich’s most trusted agents, was on the phone, but Chelsea stayed with Conte until the end of the season, when Tuchel was on his way to Paris and Maurizio Sarri was on his way to London.
Thomas Tuchel’s impact at Chelsea can be described as nothing short of remarkable so far
Three years later, Zahavi did indeed deliver him to the bridge – and the early signs are promising: unbeaten in his first 14 games, in the last eight of the Champions League, the FA Cup semi-finals and up to fourth in the Premier . League.
Under Abramovich, Chelsea have tested their infrastructure so rigorously that a change of head coach is little more than a change of music in the room, and now everyone is happily dancing to Tuchel’s tune.
Improve the mood
Frank Lampard’s exit allowed his successor to draw on the full depth of Chelsea’s strong squad. Persistent problems with disaffected senior professionals evaporated. Tuchel has cut a relaxed figure, easing tension and lightening the mood on the training ground in Surrey.
The laughter returns with positive results, of course, but he has shown confidence that he knows what the job entails. He is experienced, tactically astute and aware of this. After the unique push at PSG, the Roman Empire seems likely to be a breeze.
There has been some more flexibility and freedom in the daily routine, but there have been few major changes beyond a marked reduction in the number of nights spent in the team hotel on the eve of matches.
Tuchel can be intense, often focused on small details and players see a lot of tactical video clips. He is willing to delegate and relies heavily on assistants Arno Michels, Zsolt Low and data analyst Benjamin Weber.
The quartet has made a good impression on the staff with their friendly and inclusive nature, embracing Joe Edwards and Anthony Barry, who are left behind by Lampard’s backroom staff. Tuchel asked who drilled the set pieces and when told it was Barry he said, “Okay, keep going.”
Lampard’s confidence in the young players disrupted the natural order in the dressing room. Tuchel has carefully restored balance and made sure that no one freezes. He is proud of his reputation for developing young players.
He will be demanding. Tuchel was tough on Kylian Mbappé in their early days together at PSG. There were fires, but they came close and the superstar of France was sorry he was leaving. Callum Hudson-Odoi may have experienced something similar at Chelsea.
The German coach has improved the atmosphere in the camp and reassured the whole team
Tuchel has offered a little more flexibility and freedom with the shift routine
He has also solved lingering issues with disaffected senior players and roped them into it
The defense shield
The most obvious tactical switch has been to revert to a backward three, a decision driven by the fact that it best suits the defenders at his disposal, rather than high-end philosophies. The three left backs and Reece James all attack more effectively than they defend and the captain, Cesar Azpilicueta, is most comfortable on the right side of a central trio.
Tuchel worked hard on organization and instruction, and Thiago Silva’s loss to injury wasn’t the damaging setback it threatened to be. However, there remains a desire to choose the option of extending Silva’s contract for another year, even though the Brazilian mid-half turns 37 this year.
Andreas Christensen excelled in his absence and Antonio Rudiger has been transformed into the sum of his parts: strong, fast, aggressive and intelligent. Rudiger and Christensen have no contract next year, just like Tuchel. Convincing them to sign an extension may turn out to be closely tied to the head coach’s future.
They have only admitted twice in 14 games under the new boss.
Chelsea gave up just two in 14 games, thanks to Tuchel’s great impact on the defense
Perhaps the most influential player in the Premier League for two years after joining Leicester in 2015, Chelsea somehow managed to lose its impact. First, the odd tactical move to lock him down in the ‘Sarriball’ system to the right of a midfield three. Then a succession of injuries after the decision to play against him when he was not fully fit in the Europa League final against Arsenal.
Lampard promised he knew how to get the best out of him and yet Kante also rarely thrived under him, fueling the theory that senior stars fit around the stars of the popular Chelsea youth movement.
Tuchel made it clear from the start that he saw Kante at his best as one of two in central midfield. He can play other roles, of course, but his influence on title wins came in a central pair with freedom to roam and win the ball. His ability to win clean possession and see the first pass made Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea deadly to sales.
He was outstanding in the quarter finals of the Champions League against Atletico Madrid. The last goal of the draw, scored by Emerson, was vintage Kante. The joy was quickly dampened when he returned from international service early with another minor hamstring problem.
N’Golo Kante has been back at his best under Tuchel and thrived in a two-man team in midfield
The Frenchman was the star against Atletico in Europe and Tuchel hopes to keep him fit
The elusive striker
An important part of Tuchel’s brief was to bring Timo Werner and Kai Havertz to life. The German forwards represent an investment of more than £ 130 million and Abramovich is desperate not to expand the list of expensive attacking flops with Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres and Alvaro Morata.
Werner and Havertz flickered without exploding and Chelsea are back in the market for a more natural striker. They are part of the inappropriate battle for Erling Haaland, but fear if he ends up in England it will be in Manchester with City, one of his father’s old clubs, or United, managed by one of the long-time international teammates from his father.
Luring Harry Kane from Spurs through London would be brave and ambitious. A more attainable goal could be another move on Robert Lewandowski, who is 32 with a two-year contract with Bayern Munich and open to ending his career in England.
Always insisting that he is not for sale, Bayern is shortening Chelsea’s interest with a new contract in 2019. Three years later, they may be tempted if they can sign a replacement like Kane.
Roman Abramovich hopes that Timo Werner and Kai Havertz will not become expensive flops
Chelsea could lure Harry Kane (left) to Stamford Bridge or move to Robert Lewandowski
After the honeymoon
Two months later and Tuchel’s Chelsea have taken on every challenge: victories at Tottenham and Liverpool, and Atletico’s scalp. Even bigger tests await. They will face Real Madrid or Liverpool in Europe if they can beat Porto.
There is still work to be done to finish in the top four. Defeat will come somewhere and how will they respond?
Will players who are pushed to the edge lose motivation? Can he please Christian Pulisic and Tammy Abraham if they don’t start regularly? Will Olivier Giroud stick around? What now for Kepa Arrizabalaga?
Can they sell the ones they want to sell or will the changing rooms swell again from the disaffected swell after the summer?
What about the fans? When they return, will they expect more open and expansive football? Dumbfounded by Sarri’s low-risk passing style, they groaned him out of town. Perhaps Tuchel’s side offers more adventure and flair if he gets the time to evolve, but he couldn’t have delivered more in his first two months.
Chelsea was ninth when he was appointed. They are fourth for Saturday’s game against West Brom. They are on the hunt for two prestigious trophies. Everyone is happy and in step.
Tuchel faces bigger challenges and there are still some questions to be answered