It is Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel instead of Paris Saint-Germain’s Thomas Tuchel in part because of an interview at the end of his Paris tenure where he referred to himself as more of a “sports minister” than coach. The statement was simply too much of a truth to be ignored.
In a perfect world, a manager would be able to pick their XI with no outside influence. The players that did the best on the pitch or in training would play and the outside world would be kept outside. This isn’t a perfect world. Managers have to juggle the politics of a club. The board wants some players to get more minutes for whatever reason. Various upset players want more minutes and the fastest way to win them over is to concede to their demands at the expense of others. It is simply the game of managing a team of 23 to 25 footballers at a club like Chelsea.
Tuchel and the PSG board fell out in part due to politics. It seems he has learned from the experience because his first few lineups very much look as though he is playing the game. That is fine in the short term, but these decisions are entering the long term and he can’t play the game forever.
Simply look at the players who had been playing a lot under Frank Lampard to now and vice versa. Kurt Zouma barely sees the pitch but Antonio Rudiger is a lock again. Marcos Alonso was exiled after the Southampton match but now he has exiled Ben Chilwell from the starting XI. N’Golo Kante may have been injured, but he has seen Jorginho take away what starts he might hope to have. Timo Werner is playing well again, but it would be very hard to say he had earned starts on merit just a few games ago. Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham are only just starting to reenter the picture.
Callum Hudson-Odoi had earned more minutes than he was getting under Lampard and now Tuchel is all in on the English winger/wingback/second striker. Billy Gilmour was edging his way in to the starting XI and now he’s stuck outside the matchday squad entirely in lieu of three left backs. Reece James has gone from locked on starter to it becoming a question of where he’d play if he did at all. And while Christian Pulisic hasn’t been playing well, it is surely a surprise to see him stuck to super sub minutes.
And of course Kepa Arrizabalaga starting against Newcastle. Did he do well against Barnsley? Sure. Did he do so well or Edouard Mendy so poorly that their roles be reversed? No. Did it smack almost entirely of the board telling Tuchel who to play? Absolutely.
It’s not as though the board hasn’t done so before. Most recently it was ordering Maurizio Sarri to use Callum Hudson-Odoi more. More historically, it was bringing in player after player the manager didn’t ask for and then being upset that player wasn’t playing more. The Fernando Torres situation of play him until it works, buying play makers until they figured it out, and getting a few managers to bring the best out of him are all just other sides of the board sticking their fingers in the pie.
Maybe it is true that Tuchel actually does believe these players are his best XI. If so, it is awful coincidental that the majority of them were players Lampard didn’t use much or was actively trying to sell. And again, maybe that’s just management. Win over the guys that got lost under the last regime early, and keep the guys that were won over last time in reserve until the mood is lifted.
There could also be a fitness issue involved this season especially. Lampard’s rotations were erratic so the guys Tuchel is leaning on are the freshest while the now dropped players should be the most fatigued. And even on top of that, it is not as though results or performances have warranted changes.
But politics aren’t sustainable for two reasons. The first is the paradigm shifts quickly. The players that didn’t play under Lampard were unhappy and are happy now that they are playing under Tuchel. But how long before the players that played under Lampard but that aren’t playing now get unhappy? It’s a balancing act for Tuchel and lean too far to one side for too long and it all comes crashing down.
The second reason it isn’t sustainable is it quickly becomes clear that meritocracy is a farce. What did Mendy do to be dropped? Get scored on by Antonio Rudiger? Did Arrizabalaga really do enough to take his spot, even if for a day? How long can Werner go without scoring at a time before other options are considered?
For now, Tuchel has no reason to change what’s working but at some point that is going to have to shift or Chelsea is just going to get an unhappy half of the locker room that wants out. That would look little different than what happened before. Tuchel can play politics, but it won’t work forever and the board will only point towards one person to blame if things go wrong, even if they called some of the shots.