Thomas Tuchel’s tactical tweaks give air to Chelsea’s wings
It is customary for any great trilogy to feature some sort of redemption, revenge or at least a fitting finale. In truth, the clinical nature of Chelsea’s three victories over Tottenham this month left no room for such drama. It has been a course of unerring superiority, requiring just five minutes for Thomas Tuchel ’s side to assert their dominance in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final and culminating in Sunday’s clinical 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge .
After what has been the most exacting period of Tuchel’s tenure, even if Chelsea’s title hopes are still all but redundant, it felt somewhat like natural order had been restored. And although victory offered few great revelations for the months ahead, as a fatigued squad now welcome a much-needed winter break, it did illustrate Tuchel’s continued attempts to evolve a tactical system that had turned a little stagnant.
The Chelsea coach described his side’s set-up on Sunday as a 4-1-4-1, with Malang Sarr and Cesar Azpilicueta playing as more traditional conservative full-backs. And while it is no secret how sorely Chelsea have missed the threat of Reece James and Ben Chilwell down the wings in a back-five, the new formation did give considerably more licence to Callum Hudson-Odoi and Hakim Ziyech to attack – as Mateo Kovacic and Mason Mount overloaded central midfield – without such an urgency to track back. The result, in terms of the opening goal, was the sort of firework that can help to pierce through and alleviate so much of the gloom that has encumbered Chelsea of late.
Of course, the highest praise was reserved for Ziyech’s breathtaking strike from the edge of the box, curling into the top corner with such precision that Hugo Lloris remained rooted to the spot. It was a cathartic moment for a player who for the vast majority of his time at Chelsea has blown hot and cold, often through various expressions of sulk and strop. “Maybe it was his best game, it was a very good game overall,” Tuchel said afterwards. “It’s probably the best position for him, we don’t normally have this position in a 4-3-3. The overlap gave him the space and the strike was brilliant.”
But almost as impressive was Hudson-Odoi’s run in the build-up. Those who watched the 21-year-old at youth level were regularly amazed by his ability to stand players up and take them on. It was a skilful and combative arrogance, so direct it would paralyse defenders. Whether it has been through a lack of confidence, instruction or a lasting consequence of his achilles injury, Hudson-Odoi seemed to have somewhat lost that instinctive threat. The manner in which he tore down the wing at the beginning of the second half better resembled those brazen days of old.
After what has felt like such a repetitive cycle of Chelsea dominating possession but lacking the imagination to make it count, the sense of urgency added underneath each wing felt like a breath of fresh air. The biggest and most obvious conundrum that remains unsolved for Tuchel, though, still centres on Romelu Lukaku . He had some bright moments against Spurs and should have scored in the first half, but still looked lost in the system for long stretches. And for all Tuchel’s expert tweaking against Spurs, his clash of styles with Lukaku remains without a simple solution. Unlike a few weeks ago, though, when Tuchel lamented Lukaku’s “service” to the team, the head coach was more effusive with his summary on Sunday. “Very good performance, very good team performance,” he said. “He was absolutely reliable and put in a huge effort. It was a good match for him.”
It will be the one-year anniversary of Tuchel’s tenure at Chelsea on Wednesday, and such a landmark provides a good point for perspective. The longer course of a Premier League season is likely to prove that Chelsea remain well adrift of Manchester City. But despite the immediate high of Chelsea’s Champions League glory, crafting something closer to a finished article like Pep Guardiola’s side is a meticulous process of tinkering and tweaking. Three efficient victories over a beleaguered Spurs might not have elicited huge excitement, but there was plenty of evidence Tuchel can continue to fine-tune his system away from its slump.