Thomas Tuchel may have started to wonder what all the fuss was about. Managing in England should be difficult, the Premier League is the most brutal competition in the world.
But after five wins and a draw from his first half-dozen matches led by Chelsea ahead of the weekend, the German coach had gone all out.
Many managers enjoy a honeymoon – a time when the entire crew is given a clean slate, a new chance to impress, and all the bitterness of a previous regime is swept away by the new broom.
Thomas Tuchel seems less than impressed when Chelsea drew Southampton on Saturday
The manager’s decision to hook Callum Hudson-Odoi after just 31 minutes on the field in the second half was a clear confirmation of his authority.
For Tuchel, a goalless draw with Wolves in his first game was quickly followed by victories over Burnley, Tottenham, Sheffield United, Barnsley (in the FA Cup) and Newcastle United, putting the Blues back in the margins of the top four.
Despite limited preparation time on the training ground, Chelsea’s players seemed to have quickly embraced Tuchel and his flying wing-back system, forgetting the uninspired and error-ridden football that spelled the end of Frank Lampard’s tenure.
Players like Marcos Alonso came out of the woodwork to become starters, there was a renewed fervor across the front line, back sturdiness and clean sheets. Even Timo Werner scored again in a league game.
But the good times can’t go on forever, and with a test set of matches ahead, there are already signs that Tuchel’s honeymoon is over.
Only being able to play a draw with a Southampton side that lost their last six league games on Saturday came as a surprise.
The German was very impressed with the attacking creativity of his team at St Mary’s
Attacker Tammy Abraham (left) struggled to impress and was taken away during half time
But it was Chelsea’s demeanor that disappointed the most. When Tuchel first fell behind during Tuchel’s lead, they were at least able to save a point thanks to Mason Mount’s penalty in the second half.
However, on either side, they rarely looked like breaking down a stubborn Southampton defense. As the game progressed, Chelsea’s build-up got rougher as frustration took over.
In the end they collected just three shots on target and Tuchel summed it up nicely: “We controlled 80 yards, all counter-attacks, but the last 20 yards lacked quality and that’s the truth.”
But the performance was overshadowed by the manager’s relentless power play.
He first removed the largely ineffective Tammy Abraham at halftime. The English attacker then sat in the stands with an ice pack on his ankle during the second half, fearing he would be injured and questionable for Tuesday’s Champions League game with Atletico Madrid.
A bewildered Hudson-Odoi walks past Tuchel after taking off after just 31 minutes
Reece James forfeits a missed opportunity at Southampton, but Chelsea hasn’t created much
Tuchel’s results so far
January 27 Wolves (H) 0-0
January 31st Burnley (H) 2-0
February 4th Tottenham (A) 1-0
February 7th Sheffield United (A) 2-1
February 11 Barnsley (A) 1-0 FA Cup
15 February Newcastle (H) 2-0
February 20th Southampton (A) 1-1
Chelsea’s next games
Premier League, unless stated otherwise
Tuesday Atletico Madrid (A) CL
Sunday Man United (H)
4th of March Liverpool (A)
8 March Everton (H)
12 March Leeds (A)
17th of March Atletico Madrid (H) CL
But Tuchel said afterwards that Abraham was not injured and that “it was difficult for him to show his quality, he couldn’t put his mark on the game, so we changed the formation.”
Callum Hudson-Odoi came on to offer some more speed. At least that was the theory. 31 minutes later he was back in the stands because he was addicted to Hakim Ziyech.
Again, there was no injury. ‘I was not happy with his attitude, energy and counter pressure. I don’t feel like he’s in the right shape to help us, ”said Tuchel.
It was a bold move by a manager who was still relatively fresh on the job and apparently eager to show who’s boss. Being immersed in the rankings that were pretty high in indignities for footballers, Hudson-Odoi must have been smart.
Nor was there much sympathy for the failure of Werner and other expensive acquisitions such as Kai Havertz, Ziyech and Christian Pulisic.
Tuchel didn’t seem to have much sympathy for Timo Werner’s post-game defection
Werner ended his Premier League drought against Newcastle, but turned bad on Saturday
“My job is to win games, not to get some expensive guys together,” said Tuchel at St Mary’s, showing at least that he fully understands the first goal for any manager at Chelsea.
If they didn’t already know, Chelsea’s side now fully understand that Tuchel will not tolerate anyone not giving their maximum for the team.
Previous Chelsea bosses are a cropper after trying to assert their authority in the locker room.
If the former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain coach gets the desired response from Hudson-Odoi, Abraham, Werner and the rest of the team, it could turn out to be a masterstroke.
But if the locker room takes offense, there can easily be problems further down the road. Seeds of discontent could be sown.
Regardless, Chelsea now faces a string of matches that will likely illustrate just how much of a soft landing Tuchel had when he entered the track.
Tuchel celebrates Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Tottenham – the standout result of his reign so far
Chelsea remain undefeated under their new manager, but tougher assignments await them
The hardest on paper was the away game at Tottenham, but Jose Mourinho’s team has fallen dramatically from their pre-Christmas peak and Chelsea rightly claimed a narrow win.
Now comes the real acid test: Atletico Madrid, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Leeds United and Atletico again.
Atletico is undoubtedly one of the toughest Champions League draws Chelsea could have received. They flew high at the top of La Liga, lost only twice in the league all season and dominated the title race with Real Madrid and Barcelona.
As you’d expect from Diego Simeone, they’re hard to break down, know every trick in the book, and 34-year-old Luis Suarez score regularly.
While the maze of Covid-19 restrictions means Atletico will not be in their home stadium for the first leg – the draw has been moved to Bucharest – they will still hold up formidable despite a surprising loss to Levante over the weekend.
Luis Suarez (center) celebrates after scoring for Atletico Madrid in a recent LaLiga match
Manchester United returned to victories in the league against Newcastle on Sunday and will be Chelsea’s opponent at Stamford Bridge this weekend
Everton, who plays against Chelsea on March 8, celebrates the victory over Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday
After that, United will be a step up from any domestic opponent Tuchel has encountered so far. Their title chances may be fading, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men still need wins to secure their top four status in order to focus on cup competitions.
Liverpool have failed in their title defense and are ravaged by injuries, but sooner or later there must be a backlash as Everton chases Chelsea and has its own top four ambitions.
It then comes back quickly in the second leg against Atletico and we have a much clearer picture of the direction of travel for Chelsea under Tuchel.
Most of the early signs were promising, but nagging doubts remain that Tuchel hasn’t been properly tested yet. After the honeymoon, we are now completely in trouble.