Image credit: Getty Images
CHELSEA’S NEW TACTICAL CHAMELEON
The Board members at Chelsea football club were longing to have their players being coached by a German manager. Little did they know, 2021 would be the year of this happening. Former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint Germain manager Thomas Tuchel is set to be new Chelsea Manager replacing club legend, Frank Lampard, over a run of stale fixtures as well as Lampard clashing with Board and players in behind the scenes. Tuchel’s performance at Dortmund is sometimes criticised because he didn’t win the league title; his performance at PSG is sometimes criticised because winning the league title was inevitable but, anyway assessing a manager through league titles alone has become almost futile. The philosophy of Chelsea’s new manager is somewhere between the two great coaching minds of the last decade, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
Interestingly, Tuchel hasn’t faced any manager more often than Klopp (14 games) and he hasn’t faced any manager more often without winning than Guardiola (five games). This article focuses on what Tuchel will bring at Chelsea.
1. Tactical Variety
All managers sit on something of a spectrum in terms of tactical flexibility. At one end there’s the unwavering coach, who uses the same formation and combination of players whenever possible, and at the other there’s the pragmatist, who thinks each opponent represents a different puzzle, and a solution is devised accordingly. Tuchel is definitely the latter — a tactical chameleon. At both Dortmund and PSG, he often tinkered with his team’s shape, never going long with a single formation. 4-2-3-1 was a common formation, used by him in just over a third of his games in charge at Dortmund. 4-3-3 — the default formation for Klopp’s Liverpool and Guardiola’s Manchester City — was only used in six games at Dortmund.
In PSG, 4-3-3 became his most common formation, allowing him to start three pure attackers and tweak the midfield trio to offer a balance depending on what was required. In 26 games, he used 21 different midfield trios, the most common being Idrissa Gueye, Ander Herrera and Marco Verratti, and even they only featured in four games together. Verratti, in particular, was complimentary about Tuchel’s tactical flexibility, by saying “I think all the players appreciate the way he conducts training sessions and his way of communicating with the team, especially tactically, because he is clear about what he wants. I think it’s an extra weapon to have multiple systems to adapt to our opponents. I think we immediately understood him, and we won a lot of games thanks to the coach’s changes.”
2. Controlling Possession
Tuchel succeeded Klopp at both Mainz and Dortmund, and therefore it would be easy to automatically consider him a disciple of the German school, based largely around pressing and transitions. But Tuchel was equally inspired by Guardiola’s work at Barcelona and Bayern, and places great emphasis upon similar elements of positional play.
At Dortmund, a club accustomed to Klopp’s “heavy metal” football, Tuchel instead focused on controlling the game through reliable midfield positioning and purposeful passing. He adored the deep-lying distribution skills of Julian Weigl, fielded in front of the defence, because he was capable of receiving the ball under pressure and playing penetrative balls when necessary. Tuchel also taught two unlikely players to play controlling central midfield roles to a high level. Raphael Guerreiro arrived at Dortmund after an excellent Euro 2016 campaign where his crossing from left-back was sublime, but Tuchel converted him into a fine central midfielder. He also transformed Gonzalo Castro, previously an energetic jack-of-all-trades at Leverkusen, into a more considered, methodical central midfielder capable of building play. “He exudes an incredible calmness and links with a lot of quality,” Tuchel marvelled about Castro.
At PSG, meanwhile, Tuchel worked well with Marco Verratti, his deep playmaker, calling him “one of the best midfielders in the world” and “an extraordinary player with a very rare mindset”, while often being linked with a move to sign his old favourite Weigl, who eventually ended up at Benfica. Jorginho, rather than N'Golo Kante, seems like Tuchel’s idea of a deep central midfielder. Statistically, Tuchel’s later PSG sides are those which most closely resemble Guardiola’s methodical use of the ball. Looking at build-up attacks — sequences comprising ten or more passes, and either resulting in a shot or containing a touch in the box — Tuchel’s not quite reached the heights of his Spanish mentor, but he’s closer than Lampard and Klopp in recent seasons. His numbers while at Dortmund and PSG may also not look that impressive, but are best for second in both 2015-16 and 2016-17, highlighting just how much styles can vary league-to-league.
3. Overlapping Full Backs
Tuchel is more Klopp than Pep in terms of his strong emphasis on the concept of aggressive, overlapping full-backs. While Guardiola used Daniel Alves to great effect at Barcelona, since then he’s become more cautious. “My understanding of the role of full-backs changed in Germany,” Guardiola once said. “I no longer think of them as overlapping wing-backs, but as inside midfielders.” Klopp, on the other hand, has built a side whose two most prolific assisters over the past two seasons have been Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, with Liverpool sometimes appearing to form a front five, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane tucking in as inside forwards.
That’s broadly comparable to Tuchel’s favoured approach. At Dortmund, he lacked truly dynamic players from those positions, with Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek a couple of years past their best, but at PSG there was a heavy emphasis upon overlapping. Thomas Meunier and Juan Bernat were usually his favoured options and often took up extremely advanced positions to collect balls played over the top of the opposition defence, rather than merely trundling forward to a crossing position and swinging in hopeful balls. However, he rotated in those positions more than elsewhere because of the physical the workload required to play those roles.
If there’s one section of the Chelsea side that will remain intact for years and be traced back to Lampard, it’s the full-back pairing. If there’s one section of the Chelsea side that will remain intact for years and be traced back to Lampard, it’s the full-back pairing. Reece James was a major beneficiary of Lampard’s determination to bring through youth, while Ben Chilwell was the one summer signing that Lampard was particularly delighted to welcome to the club.
Both have impressed going forward this season, with James’s fine crossing not always rewarded with clinical finishes from Chelsea’s strikers, while Chilwell has proved a master of popping up at the far post. It’s not difficult to imagine Marcos Alonso, bombed out by Lampard after an argument in a 3-3 draw at West Brom, returning to the fold as a back-up considering his ability to provide a threat on the outside of an effective front five.
4. Improving German Duo
A crucial parallel between Tuchel’s time at PSG and Dortmund is that Kylian Mbappe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had the best scoring seasons of their careers under his tutelage. Both are blessed with pace to threaten on the break, but also a good nose for knowing where the ball might drop, allowing both to notch plenty of “easy” goals.
Under Tuchel, Aubameyang scored 25 and 31 league goals, the latter being the record for most goals in a Bundesliga season — until Robert Lewandowski’s 34 in 2019-20. Similarly, Mbappe scored 33 in 2018- 19 and, in the 2019-20 Ligue 1 season which was cut short by the pandemic, scored 18 goals, averaging over a goal a game in the process. Extrapolating his form across a whole season, he might have ended up with 29.
To secure a tally like that, a player needs to continually get a constant stream of high-quality chances, profiting from the good work of their team-mates to knock home close-range chances. Although both players outperformed their expected goals in each season, the location of their shots is interesting. Aubameyang’s shot map shows an ocean of high-quality chances both to the right and left side of the goal, detailing him popping up at the back post to convert crosses into an empty net.
Werner must become the next in Tuchel’s impressive line of pacy poachers. Being stationed more as a striker, and getting more touches in the box than his current 6.2 per 90 (only the 21st highest of all Premier League strikers and wingers this season) are imperative to that.
Havertz’s future role is less obvious, particularly for a player who has been used as a No 8, a No 10, a false nine and from a wide starting position.
It’s not difficult to imagine Tuchel deploying him on the right, instructed to move inside into goalscoring positions — broadly the role Mkhitaryan played at Tuchel’s Dortmund in 2015-16. Tuchel, curiously, had attempted to improve Mkhitaryan’s performances by lending him a copy of a book entitled The Inner Game Of Tennis, which he found fascinating because of its emphasis upon visualisation and making calm decisions under pressure. It’s difficult to know whether the book boosted Mkhitaryan’s performance levels, but the Armenian recorded a combined 26 goals and assists in the Bundesliga in his sole season Werner must become the next in Tuchel’s impressive line of pacy poachers. Being stationed more as a striker, and getting more touches in the box than his current 6.2 per 90 (only the 21st highest of all Premier League strikers and wingers this season) are imperative to that.
However, Hakim Ziyech seems a more obvious fit for the right-sided slot, particularly given his fine relationship with James on the overlap, and his ability to cut inside and shoot with his left foot. Havertz may therefore be deployed as a No 8, a position he didn’t look comfortable in when deployed there by Lampard. Alat least Havertz — and his team-mates — will be able to depend upon more specific instructions under the new regime. Questions remain about Tuchel’s personal relationships with other key figures at a club, but few doubt his tactical intelligence.