It’s hard to fault Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel’s formation after his initial unbeaten streak and his big wins over top, tough opponents. Even those of us who have previously favored a 4-3-3 (guilty as charged) must now come to the conclusion that the formation that Tuchel has selected for this squad, at this time, has worked magnificently (West Brom excepted, but consider the international break there.). Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 has been implemented with an insightfully prescient understanding of his players, their capabilities, and their playing deficiencies. How he possibly got that correct, right from the start is a good question. I guess it’s called consummate managerial talent.
It’s not totally shocking, not really. Yet, it is still surprising that Tuchel almost immediately ascertained who in his squad fit his system and would make it work and who wouldn’t. It’s not unusual for a manager to enter into a side and make changes. But to do so as effectively and seamlessly is a horse of quite another color. It’s amazing. We saw Chelsea roll to a 17-game unbeaten streak under Frank Lampard (still miss Super Frankie), but it turned out to be more a factor of the strength of schedule (or lack thereof) than Chelsea’s excellence. That side couldn’t beat top clubs. But let’s not forget one indisputable fact, this new manager has coached in the big leagues at Borussia Dortmund of the 81,000 fans and the “Yellow Wall”, and at Paris St. Germain, perennial Ligue 1 champions. Finalist in the Champions League just last season.
The difference in this Tuchel side is that his club as constituted in the 3-4-2-1 has beaten almost anybody put in front of them. No matter the quality of that opposing club. It wiped out Atletico, the top club in La Liga, and still on top by a precarious point over Barcelona now. In addition, it has now taken a game from Porto (“away”) with a two-goal lead in aggregate. A good place to be, although it could have and should have been in a far better place. But that’s another story.
In addition, Tuchel has also beaten Spurs and Liverpool in the premier league. It can’t be denied that Thomas Tuchel’s system at Chelsea has worked. Yet, he still hasn’t opened up the scoring talents of his attacking players. None of them are scoring, much. The only forward who is to some extent is the indefatigable Mason Mount, who is, without question the Chelsea Player of the Year. He’d certainly have this vote.
So the challenge for Tuchel here on in this season is to try to open up at least a semblance of real attacking proficiency as the final stages of all three competitions in which the club is still participating are coming to a close. In the Premier League, Chelsea now sits in fifth place, one point behind West Ham of all teams with Spurs and Liverpool breathing down their necks two points behind. The West Brom loss hit hard. With a paper-thin margin of error and a tough schedule remaining, Tuchel will have to pull a rabbit out of his hat to finish top four. Can he do it? Yet to be seen, but any more West Brom-like debacles and it could be curtains for Chelsea’s Champions League chances.
In the FA Cup, they are on to Wembley on April 17 against the iron, the foregone conclusion champions of the Premier League team, Manchester City. This will be the ultimate test of Tuchel’s ability without a doubt. Beat City at Wembley and it’s a signature statement that no team, anywhere, or in any competition is safe from Chelsea. But that’s easier said than done. City is a juggernaut of talent. Far better talent-wise than Chelsea. Yet, the hope is that Chelsea’s smothering defense can stop City in its tracks and somehow eke out a goal or two to advance.
Can they? Who knows. We’ll have to wait until next Saturday to see which Chelsea side Makes an appearance, the Chelsea that dominated and should have blown out Porto (who beat Juventus to advance) in the Champions League this week or the club that was humiliated by lowly West Brom? And the third competition in which Chelsea is still alive and quite active is of course the Champions League. It has already advanced nicely to the semi-finals. Beating the aforementioned Atletico anytime is a chore and a super-challenge. They did it relatively easily. They face Porto again next week and if they can keep the advantage they now possess and maybe score an early goal, they will likely advance to the semi-finals.
That situation in itself would be a significant achievement. While it doesn’t guarantee too much, it is still a statement. It’s a statement that the club will be a future top contender for European titles. That Chelsea is back! It’s also a statement to players who think they can put this Blues side over the top should definitely apply. All good. So, here we are, at a crossroads, Tuchel’s turtle shell defense has been great, but can it withstand the excellence of the very, very best?
That question is yet to be answered. It may very well can. But, if somehow, Tuchel can unlock the nascent attacking power of his squad and translate that into goals, then it is clear that absolutely anything is possible. Any team is beatable. And any prize is winnable. Let’s hope he does.