Thomas Tuchel’s first team selection as Chelsea manager relied on experience, but moving forward, the German should steer clear of two of the most experienced defenders, Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta. The Blues’ firing of club legend Frank Lampard and subsequent appointment of Tuchel has spelled one of the most acrimonious periods in recent history at Stamford Bridge. It also throws what has been a relatively settled back line this season into the air once again.
Rudiger and Azpilicueta featured prominently under Lampard in his first year, but with the arrival of Thiago Silva, the excellent form of Kurt Zouma, the signing of Ben Chilwell and promotion of Reece James, Chelsea formed a more formidable back line. As much as Lampard’s departure pains so many Chelsea fans, the show must go on under Tuchel. It just so happens that the Tuchel show should go on without relying on the services of the aforementioned veterans.
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Tuchel’s first Chelsea line-up was one that the German picked on experience, and there was little else he could do. Tuchel had spent just an hour or so with the players before the drab 0-0 draw with Wolves; without any time to implement his own plans or tactics, he picked a team of players who had been around the block and played through situations like this before.
Tuchel publicly stressed this would be his most unjust team selection. This is partly because he hadn’t spent enough time with his new squad, and also because the German tactician would undoubtedly know the frenzy that dropping Mason Mount—Chelsea’s and Lampard’s most consistent and tireless performer—would generate. Tuchel opted to go for three at the back with two wingbacks against Wolves. The choice of Callum Hudson-Odoi at wingback generated most of the news, while the return of Rudiger and Azpilicueta to the starting XI flew under the radar.
Azpilicueta featured more under Lampard this season, but Rudiger has mostly been absent from the pitch. Despite rumours swirling that Rudiger had bullied younger players, as well as playing a role in disrupting Lampard’s presence in the dressing room, Tuchel wanted to play it safe as losing would be catastrophic. Based on how Rudiger and Azpilicueta performed against Wolves, it is evident that the two should not feature prominently under Tuchel. In fact, Chelsea should look to move on from Rudiger sooner rather than later to try and recoup some form of decent payment for his services.
Looking at Tuchel’s back three of Azpilicueta-Silva-Rudiger, it is a lethargic and uncomfortable composition of players. Silva is perfect for that middle centerback role, marshaling the players around him, but his lack of pace needs to be covered by two quick defenders playing on either side. Waiting in the wings is Kurt Zouma, who has frequently been Chelsea’s best defender this season, and Andreas Christensen.
Azpilicueta has been a great servant to the club, but he just does not have the legs he used to have and playing him alongside Silva creates a major weakness in the back line. Zouma has to replace Azpilicueta. Not only is Zouma faster, so he can cover better for Silva, but his range of passing is better and his defensive positioning is top quality. He is only getting better, whereas Azpilicueta is on a downward trajectory and importantly, Zouma has established himself as a real aerial threat. The Blues need players who can play on both sides of the ball, and Azpilicueta simply does not possess the talents that Zouma does at this stage of their respective careers.
Rudiger is counting his lucky stars that Fikayo Tomori left on loan right as Tuchel arrived because Tomori would be the best choice to play as the third centerhalf in this back three. Incredibly quick, a strong defender and worth the time to explore and improve—Tomori would have been ideal. As it happens, Tomori is out on loan at AC Milan and if Chelsea loses him then it will be a blunder of insurmountable proportions and should result in the firing of whoever agreed to the option-to-buy clause in the loan.
That being said, there is still Christensen and here is why he should play instead of Rudiger: there are marginal differences between the two, so while Christensen holds the edge with a higher pass completion rate per 90 and a higher pass competition rate in his own half, Rudiger has completed more successful chipped passes and long balls. Christensen has made more notable blunders this season, but that’s partly because Rudiger has played less and when he has, he’s been so inconspicuous. As the two cannot be truly separated from an analytics point of view, it comes down to the finances and atmosphere at the club.
First and foremost, Christensen is three years younger than Rudiger, and if the rumours are to be believed, he is not a dressing room disrupter like Rudiger reportedly is. Of course, this is all heresy, but the old parlance of ‘if there’s smoke there’s fire’ usually rings true, especially in a Chelsea dressing room notorious for player hierarchy and control. More so than that, rewatch the Wolves game and Rudiger looks uncomfortable in the back three; the German is not at ease with how and when to push forward. Also consider that Rudiger has been itching for a move away, and clubs are willing to pay. If the Blues are believed to be in the race for Dayot Upamecano then Rudiger will need to be sold to raise funds.
If you want to add another wrinkle to this situation, where does Reece James fit in? Callum Hudson-Odoi deserves to keep his spot in the team after his MOTM performance against Wolves, and Tuchel is hardly going to drag Hakim Ziyech out of the attack. If Hudson-Odoi stays as a wingback then James could draw in as one of the three centerbacks with Zouma flanking Silva on the other side, still a better option than the slow Azpilicueta or the pondering Rudiger.
Understandably, Tuchel opted for the safe option in his first game, but now is not the time—nor is Tuchel is the manager—to play it safe. Going forward, Chelsea should offer a more peripheral role to Azpilicueta and move on from Rudiger entirely, for the sake of the manager, the dressing room and the future of the club.