Thomas Tuchel says he cannot recall a pre-season from his managerial career with such an alarming sequence of defeats as this summer.
After Arsenal powered past Tuchel’s Chelsea in Florida, with a quartet of unanswered goals, the German erupted: “I don’t know if I ever lost a match in pre-season 4-0. I can’t remember not winning two matches in a row.”
Arsenal’s muscle-flexing followed the loss, on penalties, three days earlier against Charlotte, newcomers to MLS.
Tuchel’s memory was letting him down. Some four years ago, when he was head coach at Paris Saint-Germain, he oversaw three successive summer defeats in warm-up games, including a 5-1 against Arsenal in Singapore, although the circumstances then were different. The fixtures took place post-World Cup and PSG were missing a number of senior players. The Paris club duly went on to win their league nine months later.
Chelsea, a club under new ownership and finding their bearings after six months of institutional turmoil, cannot assume such success, or even a domestic top-four status, as a matter of routine.
They won the Champions League under Tuchel in 2021, but where they currently stand in the hierarchy of the Premier League, let alone Europe, is becoming a grave concern to Tuchel. During the difficult change of ownership, finalised in late May, he distinguished himself for his calm authority. That image of Tuchel vanished at the weekend as he aimed sharp criticism towards his players, and some acid remarks towards those at the club now in charge of transfer strategy.
“We were absolutely not competitive – the worrying part is the level of commitment, physically and mentally,” said Tuchel in Orlando, ahead of the squad’s flight back to London from their US tour. Chelsea meet Udinese, of Serie A, on Friday in a last close-season friendly, eight days before their first game of the new league season at Everton.
Tuchel made it clear he expects significant additions to his squad by then, on top of the arrivals of Raheem Sterling, signed earlier this month from Manchester City, and defender Kalidou Koulibaly, recruited from Napoli and praised for his first appearance for Chelsea, as a substitute, against Arsenal.
Koulibaly was the exception for earning plaudits from Tuchel. Others, long-serving players, were collectively scolded.
“We have the same issues because we have the same players,” he said. “So why should anything change?”
In the back of Tuchel’s mind was the patchy form of the tail-end of last season, when a 4-2 loss to Arsenal ushered in a run of just three wins from the last nine games of what had been a challenging campaign, shaped by the sanctions imposed on the club’s former owner, Roman Abramovich for his alleged links to a Russian government at war with Ukraine, and the complicated process of the sale of the club, at the end of May, to a consortium headed by the American businessman Todd Boehly.
Senior players had begun to arrange their departures during the limbo period, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen, the centre-backs, joining Real Madrid and Barcelona. Barca were on Monday also attempting to thwart Chelsea’s attempt to fill the gaps in their defensive roster by putting together an offer for Jules Kounde, the Sevilla and France defender admired by Tuchel.
Chelsea 1 Charlotte FC 1 - in pictures
Barca have already trumped Chelsea in the chase for the ex-Leeds United winger Raphinha. The Catalan club are interested in the experienced Chelsea full-backs Cesar Azplicueta and Marcos Alonso, whose contracts expire next year.
Romelu Lukaku, the major signing from 12 months ago, has returned from Chelsea to Inter Milan on loan, with Tuchel’s blessing, and while Sterling is a high-class replacement in attack, the re-fit of Chelsea for the post-Abramovich era is far from convincing – most of all to Tuchel, who shepherded Chelsea to third place in the Premier League in May, amid considerable external pressures.
Boehly and his new bosses now know he will be a demanding partner when he senses his standards are not met.
“Nothing felt good,” fumed Tuchel of the defeat to Arsenal, “a team that [will] not play Champions League football and finished behind us [fifth last season]. Players left us, we know some players are trying to leave us. We made an urgent appeal for quality players and a huge amount of quality players. We’ve got two [Sterling and Koulibaly] but we are not competitive, and unfortunately we could see it.”