Despite Porto’s efforts, Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final first leg never quite became a contest.
A Mason Mount turn of sheer brilliance preceded an intelligent take by Ben Chilwell, as Chelsea all but secured their progression into the Champions League semi-finals with a 2-0 win against Sergio Conceicao’s side. Between those two moments of quality, the Blues largely controlled the game with an unerring precision that’s become characteristic of the London outfit since Thomas Tuchel’s arrival.
From languishing in mid-table under Frank Lampard, Chelsea now appear to be one of the best teams in the Premier League, maybe even among the best in Europe. There are caveats to that, of course. This season’s Champions League appearing unusually scarce in supreme quality – with even Manchester City somewhat unconvincing in their first leg against Dortmund.
Chelsea also spent more than any other club in the summer transfer window, so perhaps they ought to be in the highest echelons of European football. Still, the scope of Tuchel’s impact and the remarkable speed with which it’s occurred affirms his status as one of Europe’s brightest coaches.
Tuchel’s most obvious tactical impact at Chelsea has been his switch from Lampard’s preferred 4-3-3 to a 3-4-2-1. In doing so, he immediately addressed Chelsea’s biggest weakness: defensive transition.
By always having three central defenders with a double pivot protecting them, the Blues are always secure through the centre of the pitch when they lose the ball. Contrast that to the approach under Lampard — which would often leave just one midfielder screening two centre backs to cover counter-attacks — and one sees the logic behind Tuchel’s system change.
The 3-4-2-1 has also allowed Chelsea greater control of games. While they tended to dominate possession under Lampard, mainly by virtue of their superior quality against most teams in England, they now build through the thirds in a more structured and measured way.
6 – Chelsea are yet to lose on the road under Thomas Tuchel in the Premier League (P6 W4 D2) – the only other Blues manager to avoid defeat in his first six away games in the competition was Felipe Scolari (unbeaten in first 10). Momentum. pic.twitter.com/0ajbTahUeS
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 10, 2021
Having three centre-backs and two sitting midfielders gives Chelsea ample passing options when building from the back in their own half. Edouard Mendy doesn’t always seem comfortable building from the back — something West Brom exploited with their high-pressing — but on the whole, this 3-2 structure gives the Senegalese enough passing options to avoid errors.
One of the downsides of the 3-4-2-1 though is that there can often be too much of a gap between the midfield double-pivot and the front three. One of the ways Tuchel has addressed this is by giving Matteo Kovacic greater responsibility in progressing the ball.
The Croatian completes 2.09 dribbles per 90, makes 6.79 progressive passes per 90 (passes that move the ball 10 yards closer to the opposition goal), and also makes 8.41 progressive carries per 90 (carries that move the ball 5 yards closer to the opposition goal). These figures place him amongst Europe’s elite midfielders in terms of ball progression. As such, Kovacic consistently links the midfield and attack through his varied qualities on the ball.
Mason Mount also helps Chelsea reduce the gap between the front three and the rest of the team by dropping into the midfield. He neatly knits the Chelsea midfield and attack together by either collecting the ball and driving into space, or combining with the wingbacks through quick one-twos. These wide passing combinations between Chelsea’s attackers and wingbacks are a central facet of their attacking play.
Mason Mount for Chelsea in the Premier League since Thomas Tuchel took charge:
✅ Most goals
✅ Most shots
✅ Most fouls won
✅ Most chances created
✅ Most passes into the box
There's a reason he's always the manager's favourite. 😤 pic.twitter.com/3hnIWFMzK2
— William Hill (@WilliamHill) April 10, 2021
On the right-hand side, Cesar Azpilicueta will often push up from the right centre-back position to create numerical superiority out wide. From there, Chelsea can either generate a crossing opportunity or switch the ball from right to left, with Jorginho excelling at these types of diagonal switch passes, and they will likely continue to be a central pillar of Chelsea’s play in the final third.
One of the other noteworthy aspects of Tuchel’s tenure has been the improved performance of Chelsea’s expensive acquisitions Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. Much was made of how the former PSG coach’s “German-connection” with the two players would help unlock their immense talent. Perhaps more than their shared nationality, Tuchel’s greater level of detail in his tactical instruction seems to suit the likes of Havertz and Werner better.
Werner has yet to hit the goal-scoring heights of his RB Leipzig days, but the improvement in his performances, in general, has been marked. He’s been effective in combining with Chilwell and Alonso on the left and gives them penetration in the final third with his forward runs.
Meanwhile, Havertz scored his first goal since Tuchel arrived in the 4-1 win over Crystal Palace, and from his false nine position, he is given license to drop in between the lines, drift wide, and make runs into the box to act as a goal-threat. It’s the sort of positional freedom that he thrived within at Bayer Leverkusen, and it could be the formula to maximising his potential at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea have one of the most talented squads in Europe, and under Thomas Tuchel, their performances are finally matching that talent. They may not lift silverware this season, but the future certainly looks bright under their new manager.