Thomas Tuchel Is Exactly What Chelsea Needs, For Now
1:07 PM EST on January 26, 2021
Despite winning its FA Cup tie against second-division Luton Town on Sunday, Chelsea surprised no one by sacking manager Frank Lampard on Monday after 18 months in charge. The strangeness of this season is well documented, and Chelsea currently sits in ninth in the Premier League table, having won only one of its last five games. For a side that spent hundreds of millions of pounds this summer, that wasn't good enough, so it's not particularly shocking that Lampard got the axe, particularly in light of reports that he'd lost the dressing room. What's more intriguing is the man lined up to replace him: Thomas Tuchel, formerly of Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund.
Despite getting a sacking of his own in Paris on Christmas Eve, it's hard to say that Tuchel's tenure with PSG was a failure. He won Ligue 1 in both of his two full seasons at the helm—though that's almost a given for PSG each season. More impressively, he guided the club to the Champions League final after the coronavirus restart, a match that PSG lost by a narrow margin of 1–0 to the juggernaut that was Bayern Munich. The current PSG season got off to a shakier start, as the team suffered four league losses in the first half, more than it lost all of last season domestically. In light of those less-than-stellar results, and after a long power struggle inside the club, Tuchel was fired and replaced by Mauricio Pochettino right before the new year.
So, what will Tuchel bring to Chelsea as the London club tries to right the ship? Well, for one, actual tactics. By all reports, Lampard's management style didn't involve much hands-on tactical work, and some players complained that they were not given enough instruction to succeed. That is not the case with Tuchel. The German's reputation is built in large part around his tactical acumen, and he will surely bring his own style of high-intensity pressing and possession soccer to the English capital.
Tuchel isn't married to any one particular formation, and his comfort in using different set-ups is part of his general tactical flexibility. From a Chelsea point of view, the 4-2-2-2 formation his PSG teams often played in could offer an intriguing option to get the best out of his new club's array of talents. As unbalanced as Chelsea is, with a roster heavy on attackers but light on true midfielders and talented defenders, that system should allow him to cram a good number of the attackers—and boy are there a lot of them: Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud—onto the field at the same time. With a renewed commitment to counter-pressing—something of a Lampard hallmark in his first season that he strangely went away from this campaign—Tuchel might be able to have his cake and eat it too: an attacker-loaded lineup that can still protect its own goal.
Key to Tuchel's goal-protecting chances of success will be N'Golo Kanté. During his time at PSG, Tuchel was always in dire need of a true destroyer in the midfield, one that can clean up enough opposing possession to let his four attackers track back only as part of a group and not in desperation. Kanté is one of the best players in the world at that role, and keeping him healthy and in form will be critical to building a coherent Chelsea side.
Tuchel will still have to figure out the backline, though, particularly since fullbacks in his system have a lot of responsibility. Ben Chilwell and Reece James have been fine-to-good under Lampard, but their roles are about to get a lot more important. In the center, well, Chelsea doesn't have the best options, though Thiago Silva previously played under Tuchel at PSG and has a good relationship with the coach. Though the defensive personnel maybe isn't elite, having some real tactical instructions and a playing style that gets the best out of club's players should immediately pay dividends for the Blues.
None of the above is meant to imply that Tuchel is a perfect hire, because there are maybe only four or five coaches in the world who could slot into Chelsea's volatile situation and thrive long-term. And this might be Tuchel's eventual downfall. At both Dortmund and PSG, the German clashed with the clubs' brass on matters such as transfers and tactics. The day before his firing by PSG, Tuchel sat for an interview with German outlet Sport 1 where he complained about his relationship with his bosses, asking if he was still manager or if he had to become a "politician in sport."
PSG sporting director Leonardo had previously chastised Tuchel for a lack of respect, saying that he was not happy with public comments made by the manager: "Whoever is not happy, we have to deal with it internally. If Tuchel decides to stay, he must respect the sporting direction." Meanwhile, Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke called Tuchel a "difficult" person to work with, though he did call him a "fantastic trainer" in the same quote.
How does that square with Chelsea, a club famous for burning through managers like kindling? Will Tuchel's prickliness and penchant for speaking his mind in public get him trouble with Roman Abramovich? It's likely, if not certain, that the relationship will not be a pleasant one in the long term, and it's something to keep an eye on even if the results on the field improve from the struggles of the Lampard era.
That might be enough for now, though, with the club looking to climb back into a crowded top four picture after a month of disappointment. Under Abramovich, Chelsea has never been a club that concerns itself too much with long-term strategizing, instead prioritizing the now, often to great success. Lampard worked for a while, and when that changed the club replaced him. The same will likely be true of Tuchel, and we'll have to wait and see just how well it works when it's working, and how long it goes before it stops.