For years, Chelsea has tried to reach the mythical “Barcelona in Blue” plateau. They have tried to do so, off and on, since Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side took the world by storm. Since Antonio Conte’s sacking, the board has been more adamant about finally making the transition happen.
It hasn’t exactly worked. Chelsea has largely been a team solid in possession since Conte’s sacking but it is hard to say they look anything like Barcelona. Possession often becomes pointless and teams simply defend in numbers to make Chelsea look impotent in attack. The goal is to use possession to break teams down but Chelsea is no where near that goal after three managers in as many just over as many years.
Chelsea may dream of breaking opponents down, but it is the club’s DNA to counter teams into submission. Try as they might to change, counters still work. That might be why Chelsea targeting a German manager after Frank Lampard’s sacking was inspired, including the choice of Thomas Tuchel.
Ralf Rangnick is the god father of the German gegenpressing that managers like Thomas Tuchel, Jurgen Klopp, and Julian Nagelsmann build their tactics around. They all flavor it in different ways but at the end of the day it is about winning the ball back as quickly as possible and using the opponents openness in possession against them. An ideal gegenpressing situation would be winning the ball back off a midfielder or defender as soon as they got possession, followed by a vertical pass leading to a goal.
Of those in Rangnick’s coaching tree, Tuchel is perhaps the most possession oriented manager. He doesn’t actively court counter opportunities through risky plays like Klopp (though even Klopp is more conservative in recent seasons) or seek to suck the opponent deep like Nagelsmann. Instead, Tuchel prefers his team maintain possession and play back or sideways if they run into trouble trying to get forward.
The issue with this is the same as it has been in recent seasons: opponents simply shell up and give Chelsea no way through. The Blues still haven’t shown much, even under Tuchel, in the way of breaking opponents down. They either have players ill suited to it playing together or lack the finisher needed for it.
That is why the approach against Atletico, and particularly the two goals, is classic Chelsea. The Blues did try to break Atletico down but they found little avenues there. Instead, both goals came from blistering counters starting in Chelsea’s own box.
A counterattack very much benefits runners in behind like Timo Werner, Chrisitian Pulisic, and Callum Hudson-Odoi. It is no wonder Tuchel has either seen those three struggle or redeployed them as wingbacks as he went against more opponents where their pace was minimized.
Also noteworthy against Atletico was the speed Chelsea did buildup when they weren’t countering. One common criticism of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea was, no matter how much space they had, they would build up to slowly to make it dangerous. Both the Atletico goals came from counters, but nearly every chance came from advancing the ball rapidly before the opponent could get set up.
Not every opponent will create opportunities for that, but Chelsea can create their own just as much. One of the reasons Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea sides defended so deep was because it invited the opponent forward, creating space. Tuchel’s Chelsea doesn’t need to do that because they can simply take a page for Klopp’s play book of trying to court their own counter opportunites.
That can be as simple as playing the ball back to a player that is surely going to be pressed. If the Chelsea players are well trained enough, they can escape that press and then quickly take advantage of the vacated space. That is a situation that happened quite often against Atletico Madrid with Marcos Alonso luring a press before breaking it.
Perhaps the most important factor in this will be runners in behind in attacking positions. It should be no surprise that Timo Werner did so well when given acres of space to run into. Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi could do the same on either flank if that was what was required.
There will still be opponents that shell up and won’t come out no matter what, but Chelsea can make life easier on themselves against more opponents by tapping into their own DNA. Everyone wants Barcelona in Blue, but Chelsea is good at counters and that hasn’t really changed in nearly two decades.
If Tuchel can continue to make possession a means to counter like against Atletico, the Blues can crack open more opponents without having to do death by 1000 passes. There will still be situations for that but the fewer, the better.