The appointment of Frank Lampard as Chelsea head coach never made much sense.
A club notorious for achieving success through astronomical spending and the rapid hiring and firing of managers was now taking a risk on a young, inexperienced coach in the pursuit of a romantic narrative that had no guarantee of being fulfilled.
Nominally, Chelsea were shifting gears, trying to implement a long-term plan for the club’s development. Yet as the relative success of Lampard’s first season and the early promise of this season faded from Roman Abramovich’s short memory, the club unsurprisingly fell back into old habits. Once again, we’re tasked with making sense of Chelsea’s latest managerial hiring.
Thomas Tuchel is different from Lampard in almost every sense. The German’s post-match press conference after the Blues drew 0-0 with Wolves perhaps serves as the clearest indication of that. Every answer was thorough and precise, indicative of the German’s cerebral approach to football that has little of the imposing charisma of his predecessor.
In terms of management, Tuchel is far more detail-oriented and specific than Lampard in his approach. He imposes clear rules for his players to follow and will not tolerate those who do not. His rules have always run the gamut, from demanding that every Mainz player eats breakfast together to reportedly contacting every night club owner in Paris and asking them to tell him if his players were partying there.
This shouldn’t give the impression Tuchel is a control-freak. On the contrary, he’s consistently developed a good rapport with players who are considered difficult personalities, such as Neymar or Ousmane Dembele. He excels at communicating his expectations with players in a manner that makes them genuinely want to follow them rather than feel constrained by them.
That same talent applies to his training methods. Tuchel espouses an intense and highly organized tactical philosophy, one that is difficult for players to grasp. At a speaker’s conference at the German think tank 2b Ahead, Tuchel gave insight into how he gets his players to understand that complex approach.
When he first took over at Mainz, Tuchel hated their tendency to play passes down the line to a winger. To him, it’s an inefficient tactic because it gives the winger barely any space to operate in. To change his team’s approach, he made Mainz’s training pitch a diamond with no sidelines by marking off its corners. As Tuchel explained, creating this unorthodox training field prevented him from having to “stop the play during every vertical pass along the sideline and say ‘NO! How many times did I tell you to play diagonally.'” Instead, his players had the freedom to problem solve while he could support them in that process in a more specific and constructive way.
This is just one example of his unique approach to coaching, and it’s why he is so lauded as an innovator in the game.
As previously mentioned, Tuchel has a highly specific approach to football, another way in which he differs from his predecessor. He isn’t wedded to a particular formation, and will frequently change his setup based on the opposition. At PSG he usually used a 4-3-3, but he has also used systems like a 3-5-2, a 3-4-1-2, a 4-2-2-2, a 4-1-4-1, and a 4-2-3-1 in Paris and at other clubs. Against Wolves, he used something resembling a 3-2-4-1 with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ben Chilwell as wingbacks, but it’s difficult to read much into that selection given his lack of time with the squad.
Irrespective of the system, he encourages his teams to play out from the back in a diamond structure with the center backs, defensive midfielder, and one central midfielder. The positioning of players in this diamond can change within and between games, which makes it harder for the opposition to press high up the pitch. This also creates overloads when building-up and allows the fullbacks to push higher.
To execute this type of build-up, Tuchel often deploys a central midfielder who is comfortable playmaking from deep or carrying the ball through pressure such as Johannes Geis at Mainz, Julian Weigl and Ilkay Gundogan at Borussia Dortmund, or Leandro Paredes and Marco Verratti at PSG. These are all different types of players, but their function in build-up is the same: to provide more passing quality when playing out from the back to penetrate the first line of opposition pressure.
Once higher up the pitch, Tuchel implements a 5-5 split of players with five players stationed deeper to guard against counters and five pushed up ahead of the ball, a similar ploy to the one Pep Guardiola uses.
There are some specific attacking patterns that Tuchel seems to favor in his teams. If the ball is on the right, for instance, two or three players will make runs to the right to drag the opposition defense over while one player will peel wide to the left to attack the available space. He also likes his fullbacks to be attack-minded and make runs in behind so that they can be found by switch passes from the forwards or midfielders. In these and other maneuvers, Tuchel encourages his players to make various movements and rotations off the ball to disrupt the opposition defensive structure and create space to attack.
Chelsea 0-0 Wolves. 🤝
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) January 27, 2021
Defensively, Tuchel wants his teams to press high. His sides generally press in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 shape. Having two players up front makes it easy to both press the opposition centre-backs and block passing lanes into midfield, while the two outer attackers press the fullbacks when they receive the ball and the midfield pivot pressurizes the opposition midfielders. This system enables Tuchel’s teams to compact the center of the pitch and forces the opposition to either go long or play along the sidelines where it’s easier to press effectively. It’s worth noting, though, that Tuchel will adapt his team’s pressing structure on a game-by-game basis.
Chelsea could do much better under Tuchel. He’ll bring far more organization to their pressing, making them less susceptible to counter-attacks than they currently are, while also making them more incisive against deeper sitting defenses. He also has several players with the necessary tactical intelligence and technical qualities to execute his tactical ideology.
Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have previously thrived for high-pressing teams with more detailed tactical instruction. Tuchel’s cultural connection and tactical similarity to their previous coaches will undoubtedly help them assimilate to Premier League life better. Callum Hudson Odoi and Hakim Ziyech are both adept at the horizontal switch passes Tuchel favors, while Christian Pulisic has previous experience under the German’s tutelage. Billy Gilmour is a promising young prospect for the deep-lying playmaker role, and Tuchel’s track record of youth development means the Scotsman could eventually play a significant role in his team. Reece James and Ben Chilwell are dynamic attacking fullbacks, and the likes of Fikayo Tomori, currently on loan at AC Milan, and Malang Sarr are promising young center-backs who should adapt well to his style.
Tuchel is a good fit for the Chelsea squad. Whether he’ll be given the time he needs to implement his complex ideas to full effect is an entirely different matter. Tuchel’s commitment to his own way of thinking both makes him a tactical genius and an extremely difficult character. All of his previous sackings were due to falling out with other club staff, and he isn’t afraid to voice his concerns if he’s unhappy with something or cause confrontation. At a club like Chelsea, it’s easy to foresee conflict arising sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, Tuchel’s success at Chelsea will depend less on the German himself and more on the club hierarchy’s willingness to be flexible to the demands of their new coach. If they are, Chelsea have a promising path forward under Tuchel. If they aren’t, that all-to-familiar Chelsea cycle will start again. It’s only a matter of time.