Chelsea’s first Champions League-winning manager met an untimely end after defeat at Juventus. Roberto di Matteo was sacked in the early hours of the following day. It was an undistinguished end for the man who had taken over a troubled team during a season and steered them to glory in inspired fashion.
There are certain similarities with Thomas Tuchel, but also distinct differences. The German remains at Stamford Bridge. He has far more managerial pedigree than Di Matteo, who forever appeared a catalytic caretaker.
But this has been the worst week of his time at Chelsea and not merely because it is only the second time he has suffered back-to-back defeats. That those losses came to Manchester City and Juventus can make them both more understandable, yet feel more significant.
Tuchel has been defined by his mastery of big games. His three wins against Pep Guardiola lent him the reputation as an extraordinary tactician with the sure touch to select the right option at the right time. This week has featured rare missteps.
Tuchel’s Chelsea were the kings of the 1-0, profiting by their ability to take one major chance and limit their opponents to few. Now they have experienced what it is like to be Tucheled.
Their return of a solitary shot in target over those 180 minutes, a tame early effort by Romelu Lukaku in Italy, was testament to the sort of defensive frugality and positional nous that Chelsea usually demonstrate.
They have been beaten by Tuchel-type tactics, by City’s high press that penned them in, by the timeless excellence of Leonardo Bonucci, the Thiago Silva of Turin.
The most incision Chelsea showed came in Tuchel’s post-match interview, in which he labelled defeat “strange”, said his side were “not sharp enough,” “mentally slow,” and lacked rhythm, intensity and runners. All of which illustrated the problems go beyond Lukaku missing two second-half chances against Juve. The £98 million ($132m) man has largely been starved of service.
Chelsea’s start to the season remains impressive: they have only conceded two league goals, and just one in open play, and they have won away at Arsenal and Tottenham. But the underperforming section of the side is the creative department.
The goals of Lukaku and various centre-backs and wing-backs and the assists of Mateo Kovacic have camouflaged their underachievement to some extent. But the various attacking midfielders and wingers have a combined total of two goals, from Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic, and two assists, courtesy of Mason Mount and Timo Werner, in the Premier and Champions Leagues this season.
Newcastle and Wolves have had more shots in the domestic competition. Some 47 players have made more Premier League chances than any of Chelsea’s supposed specialist creators.
Juventus 1 Chelsea 0: player ratings
Injuries mean Pulisic has barely been seen while Callum Hudson-Odoi’s opportunities in his favoured forward roles have been limited.
Hakim Ziyech has been especially poor but neither Werner nor Havertz has shed the inconsistency of his debut year. Havertz was substituted at half-time at Anfield, albeit after Chelsea went down to 10 men, and benched against City, signs potential isn’t being converted into enough performances.
Tuchel erred in going for 3-5-2 against City and, while Mount has not been at his best, his absence for the last two games has illustrated his importance, his ability to find space between the lines and connect different parts of the team. Without him, they have looked disjointed, predictable and prosaic. Chelsea’s attack was isolated against City. Tuchel felt too cautious as he fielded three defensive midfielders.
Lukaku prospered in a 3-5-2 for Inter Milan last season but their manager, Antonio Conte, said this week: “At Chelsea, they don’t quite understand how to use him.” That appeared harsh and Lukaku should score plenty of goals, but the reality is that Chelsea require more. Otherwise, their matches will remain games of small margins where a solitary defensive lapse comes at a huge cost. Even a team as defensively well-drilled as Chelsea cannot always keep clean sheets.
Tuchel’s attention to detail helped propel Chelsea to Champions League success, but without being prolific. Now others have been similarly flawless against them, it underlines why they need more flair and excitement. Tuchel’s Chelsea have been defined by control, but they ought to ally it with more creativity.