Chelsea’s record of two wins in its last six Premier League games has been widely blamed on a growing injury list and the impact of COVID-19 on the club. While there is a lot of truth to that, it is interesting to note that few have suggested that Thomas Tuchel has failed to adapt to the situation.
The German coach is no doubt partly at fault for the Blues’ drop in form, and it is with some irony that the problem lies in changes to his starting XI that have come without changes to the overall strategy.
When Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge, he was renowned for being an anxious, even twitchy manager who constantly tinkered with his formation. He would create complex plans to negate opposition threats and strike at the chink in their armor, sometimes to the detriment of his own team. He was not one to sit still, not one to shirk on a bold formation choice in the search for a solution.
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How strange, then, that in his first 11 months as Chelsea manager, he has not once moved away from deploying a back three. To date, the 0-0 draw with Wolves that came 24 hours after his initial appointment is the only competitive match in which he has started with a back four.
Time for Tuchel to change his ways?
On a basic level, a 3-4-2-1 has more defenders on the pitch than a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, and though Antonio Rudiger’s charging runs and the commitment shown by Chelsea’s wingbacks to attack go some way to tipping the balance, it is a simple fact that the European champions generally have fewer creative players on the pitch than their title rivals.
Among the central issues here is too much organization. Chelsea is rigid in its movements, sitting in a tight structure that offers little wiggle room for creative expression, a problem exacerbated by the lack of numbers found in the final third.
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It is telling that Chelsea’s expected goals (xG) tally of 33.8 is significantly lower than that of their title rivals — and even below fourth-placed Arsenal.
Too often, Chelsea finds itself camped in the opposition half, but passing without penetration across the width of the pitch. With just two central midfielders, there is little room for verticality into the forwards.
Perhaps Tuchel has not yet worked out how to adapt to the Premier League, which forces clubs of Chelsea’s size to dominate possession and territory. This was a problem, at times, when he was at Paris Saint-Germain, though their technical superiority made it largely irrelevant.
Before his move to France, Tuchel’s coaching career was spent in Germany, where it is far easier to play on the counterattack; to break beyond a defensive line with piercing vertical football.
There simply is not the space as Chelsea manager to send players like Timo Werner and Kai Havertz in behind, and following Wolves’ and Everton’s draws against the Blues in recent days while playing ultra-defensive football, this is only going to become a bigger concern with time.
New formation could be a welcome change
Romelu Lukaku’s absence is a huge factor in the club’s stagnation, because Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 demands a target man, a striker with the strength to act as a wall pass for two buzzing inside forwards that remain tight to this fulcrum. Without Lukaku, there is a sense of drift and a tendency to move into less impactful wide areas.
But again, Tuchel should take responsibility for failing to adapt to the injury situation. Moving to a 4-2-3-1, with Mason Mount connecting the central midfield with a front three would provide Chelsea’s midfielders with an intelligent forward pass, avoiding the repeated scenario of opponents sitting deep and absorbing pressure.
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The knock-on effect of such a move would be a less suffocating structure in the defense — now one body short — which in turn would open up the games slightly and therefore allow Chelsea more space in the transition to play Tuchel’s Bundesliga-designed tactics.
If Tuchel can dial down his anxious need to control matches and entertain more stretched matches, that could allow the whole system to relax and permit Chelsea to seize the initiative with goals rather than territory.
Consistency in team selection is required
It is a little unfair to highlight all the personnel changes Tuchel is making at the moment considering Chelsea’s extensive list of absentees, since most of those changes are forced upon him right now.
Nevertheless, this is an issue that stretches back to the start of the campaign, as their goalscoring problem is not just a case of structure versus freedom or the pros and cons of the formation. Chelsea look disjointed and confused, gradually sinking as patterns disintegrate and the rhythms of the game splutter.
Thomas Tuchel says he may be forced to draft in players from the U23s and the academy for #CFC‘s Carabao Cup clash at Brentford.
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) December 21, 2021
Tuchel has not named an unchanged team all season, a record stretching across four months and 27 matches in all competitions. Within that, the same front three has played back-to-back league games on just a handful of occasions; it is fair to say nobody knows what Chelsea’s best team is.
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In the first third of the season, this felt like a strength, a sign that Chelsea could keep opponents guessing. In fact, the variation between attacking players meant that the Blues altered their positional play, despite using the same formation.
That is, however, no longer the case. Instead, Chelsea look like a team without enough experience together. It takes time for players to gel, to synchronize their movements and understand one another well enough to play instinctively and at speed. Tuchel could do with consistency, with playing the same few players together in midfield and in attack for a run of games. And alongside that, he could also do with some inconsistency, by changing the formation to refresh the team and loosen things up.
There is more than enough time for Chelsea to turn things around and win the Premier League title this season. But to do so, Tuchel needs to show a willingness to adapt to the challenging situation unfolding at Stamford Bridge.