Last season, Thomas Tuchel’s only big experiment was to go 3-4-3 right away. Very rarely did he try anything else at Chelsea with only a brief foray with 3-5-2 against Manchester City sticking out. It obviously worked to get Chelsea into top four and win the Champions League but it wasn’t perfect. The main issue seemed to be that the attack simply couldn’t be trusted to score.
There are usually a few solutions to that. The club could sign a top goal scorer or a top creator. They did the former when they signed Romelu Lukaku. The other thing the club can do is to change formation.
When everyone was fit earlier in the season, Tuchel seemed to see 3-5-2 as the answer. Injuries and Covid weren’t kind, however, and the 3-4-3 was kept in place until the wheels came off. Recently, Tuchel’s tried the 4-2-2-2. It worked to good effect against Tottenham. Not so good against Brighton.
Chelsea, nearly a year after Frank Lampard’s last game, took one out of his playbook to once again use Tottenham Hotspur as a controlled experiment. Yet again, Tuchel changed things up against Tottenham. This time, he used the formation Lampard chose to ride, and eventually, die with: the 4-3-3 with dual eights.
It’s pretty remarkable just how similar it was. Lampard’s 4-3-3 didn’t really do anything to reinvent the wheel, but one key unique trait was used by Tuchel. The back four, plus the holding midfielder, would stay very deep and create a large gap away from themselves and the attacking five. They also stayed relatively narrow. Spurs were forced to press a smaller area with greater numbers, which opened space vertically and horizontally for Chelsea to exploit on breakaways.
Something that was different from Tuchel’s iteration is how the front five shaped up. Lampard would often have both fullbacks push up with the eights staying in the back five. Jurgen Klopp favors this approach as well. Tuchel went with Pep Guardiola’s usual plan with the eights pushing up and the wide forwards being actual wingers. Callum Hudson-Odoi and Hakim Ziyech would stretch the play flank to flank as Mateo Kovacic and Mason Mount took up spots in the channels.
Of course, the biggest difference of all is the press. Lampard’s team would press, but often erratically and without a clear plan of what the press was for. Tuchel’s press has always been organized and about winning the ball in the second line, and that remained true in the 4-3-3 he opted to use. Whereas Lampard’s team would often see the centerbacks isolated on the break and the holding mid against the world, Tuchel’s press cut out most of the danger long before it got to that point. Spurs still found a few spaces through, but not nearly as often as Lampard’s teams allowed or even as often as Tuchel’s 4-2-2-2 did against Tottenham.
It was believed under Lampard that one strong defensive mid could patch the holes, but Tuchel showed that isn’t necessarily the case. The Blues may need more wingers to use this strategy the same way for the long term, but count it among the other tools in the tool box for now.