Thomas Tuchel was appointed manager of Chelsea almost a year ago to the day, on the 26th January 2021. Since then, he has steered the Blues to a fourth-place finish, an FA Cup final and, most impressively by far, the Champions League trophy.
The upturn in Chelsea’s fortunes was remarkable under Tuchel. Following his appointment, Chelsea lost just three Premier League games for the rest of the season, going from 9th when Frank Lampard was sacked, to fourth by the end of the season.
The FA Cup final defeat to Leicester City was the only real blot on Tuchel’s first half of a season in charge, due to the fact that they were favourites going into the game. However, they themselves were massive underdogs in the Champions League final against Manchester City, with a tactical masterclass from the fondly nicknamed ‘Tricky Tuchel’ securing a shock 1-0 victory for Chelsea.
The first six months in charge showed Chelsea fans just how good a coach Tuchel is, but also how impactful he could be. His ability to change tactics to suit the opposition was particularly noticeable in the run to Champions League glory, in the semi-final triumph over Real Madrid as well as the final against Manchester City. Chelsea fans warmed to him like any football fan does to a manager who is successful, but this season there a signs of cracks showing in both Tuchel and his players.
Chelsea are in something of a rut. They have qualified for the Carabao Cup final with little difficulty, beating London rivals Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 on aggregate, but their league form has been uncharacteristically poor. At the start of the season Chelsea were expected to push Manchester City and Liverpool hard for the league title. However, after just two wins in their last nine games in the league, Tuchel’s men are effectively out of the title race after defeat to league leaders Manchester City was followed by a draw against Brighton.
This sort of form will frustrate the notoriously difficult to please Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich; especially after the Russian invested heavily on Romelu Lukaku in the summer. This begs the question, after just a year, could Tuchel’s job be under threat?
Lukaku supposed to be missing piece of puzzle
Last season, goals were relatively hard to come by for Chelsea, despite heavy investment in the 2020 summer transfer window after their transfer ban was lifted. Abramovich loosened the pursestrings and signed the attacking talent of Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, and Kai Havertz, to add to the arrival of Christian Pulisic whose signing had been agreed in January. And yet, the club’s top goalscorer in the league was deep-lying midfield player, Jorginho. The Italian scored seven league goals, but as penalty taker this becomes less impressive.
Timo Werner endured a tough start to life at Stamford Bridge and was unreliable in front of goal, but did manage to finish joint top goalscorer in all competitions, alongside the now-departed Tammy Abraham. Chelsea spent £47.5 million to sign Werner, but his unfortunate habit of squandering a number of big chances is one that means he cannot be trusted to lead the line in a side that wishes to be competing for the Premier League title.
It was when Chelsea signed Lukaku in August that many concluded they would be a real contender in the forthcoming title race. The club spent £97.5 million to bring in the Belgium record goalscorer from Inter Milan, seven years after selling him to Everton.
Lukaku is a proven goalscorer and, after firing Inter Milan to their first league title in 11 years, it was hoped that he would be the man to bring the Premier League trophy back to Stamford Bridge. The ex-Manchester United man was devastating in front of goal last season, scoring 30 goals in all competitions. Add to this his ten assists, and the striker managed 40 goal contributions in 44 games.
Where Chelsea struggled for goals, Lukaku scored at will. From the progression that Chelsea had made under Tuchel, securing the Champions League without a regular goalscorer, the prospect of a prolific goalscorer added to the ranks was frightening. It has not worked out that way, however.
Lukaku has scored just five league goals this season. In a side with so much attacking talent, and chances falling his way on a highly regular basis, this is a far-cry from what was expected of the returning striker. The striker has missed spells through injury but he is yet to find his form this season. The problem here is not just Lukaku, though.
There was a media frenzy when an interview that Lukaku did with Sky Italy emerged in the run up to Chelsea’s match against Liverpool. Lukaku had made some negative comments about his manager and club and stated his desire to return to Inter Milan. He was wrong to do this, and it is unclear what he was looking to achieve from the comments, and subsequently was banished from the squad for the Liverpool fixture. The issue was said to have been dealt with in the days following the game and Lukaku has been back in contention since, but the problems do not seem to have disappeared.
This issue has brought to the forefront Tuchel’s ability, or lack of, to handle players on a personal level. He has faced these kind of issues before in terms of man-management, and it is one of the reasons he was a divisive figure at PSG. Dealing with the high egos of the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe is no easy task, but it is one that Tuchel struggled with. Tuchel is also notorious for having fractious relationships with club owners, having left Borussia Dortmund and PSG due to inability to see eye to eye with their respective owners. If history is to repeat itself, then this is a dangerous game to play with an owner as ruthless as Abramovich.
Whether the issues between Tuchel and Lukaku have been resolved or not is up for debate, but one thing that is for certain is that Tuchel must find a way of getting the best out of the striker if Chelsea are to revive their season. The striker is clearly struggling with confidence and is a player that needs to feel appreciated to perform. Whether Tuchel can be the man to restore Lukaku’s confidence, and crucially goals, will be key to the German’s longevity in his role. Without an alternative who is proven to score large quantities of goals in the Premier League, Tuchel is going to have to find a way to make it work in order to change Chelsea’s fortunes.
The issues that Tuchel may have with Lukaku cannot be allowed to escalate. If they do then it is highly likely that Abramovich will take the side of the striker, having spent so much money to secure his return to the club. Abramovich has historically shown just how disposable he feels managers are, and Tuchel shouldn’t expect his Champions League win to buy him too much time.
Hiding behind unavailability
Chelsea’s poor run of league form has coincided somewhat with players being unavailable. Injuries to Reece James and Ben Chilwell have certainly weakened Chelsea in both defence and attack, with the wingbacks’ delivery in the final third key to the way Chelsea play under Tuchel. Ngolo Kante has struggled with injuries, Lukaku has had spells out, as have a number of players at one stage or another. FIFA’s Best Mens Goalkeeper, Edouard Mendy, has also been away at the African Cup of Nations for this month.
Tuchel has moaned incessantly about how much his squad have suffered with unavailability. He stated after the disappointing midweek draw against Brighton that his players were “tired” and “need a rest”. While it is true that Chelsea have played at least one more game in the league than anyone else this season, it is difficult to feel sympathy towards Tuchel when he uses this as an excuse.
Chelsea have the most over-inflated squad in the Premier League, and perhaps even in world football. They have at least two players of real quality in every position, as well as a host of players out on loan. Tuchel bemoaned the fact Chelsea were made to play against Wolves in December, with the game ending as a 0-0 draw. However, in that game Chelsea had £137 million worth of talent on their bench, despite the fact they only paid a fee for three of their six substitutes, and had the luxury of bringing on Saul Niguez and Matteo Kovacic.
While Tuchel’s complaints about availability may fall on deaf ears for fans of opposition clubs, it is also likely that Abramovich will not consider this to be a valid excuse for being all but out of the title race in January.
If there is one thing we know about Roman Abramovich, it’s that he doesn’t care much for sentiment. Tuchel may have credit in the bank from the way he saved Chelsea’s season last time around, but if this season is a failure then he could find his head in Abramovich’s metaphorical guillotine.
With the gap now 12 points between Chelsea and leaders Manchester City, with City also boasting a game in hand, it is more likely now a case of looking over their shoulder at the teams pushing for Champions League football. While any manager would rather have the points than the games in hand, if Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur win their additional games, then they will likely both surpass Chelsea in league position.
This season was supposed to be a three-horse race for the title. It now looks like it is a two-horse race, but City have bolted out of the blocks and have a serious lead at the halfway point. For Chelsea to be out of the title race at this stage, considering their squad, is something of a travesty for Tuchel. He will have to find solutions quickly or things could get messy for the manager who started his professional coaching career aged just 28.
It was reported at the time that Tuchel was sceptical about taking the Chelsea job as it was midway through a season. Now it may be the success he had in that half a season that buys him more time. The Carabao Cup is unlikely to be enough to prolong Tuchel’s Chelsea career in isolation, but coupled with a positive Champions League and FA Cup run it could bail him out if the title charge fades away with a whimper.
If things don’t turn around quickly though, starting with Tottenham on Sunday, then Tuchel’s position could start to come under serious scrutiny.