Chelsea are slipping from view in the title race and the cracks are starting to show. How can Thomas Tuchel set them back on track?
In the post-match press conference following his team’s 1-1 draw with Brighton, Thomas Tuchel cut an increasingly familiar, tetchy figure. Chelsea had been largely outplayed by the home team and his team’s hopes of winning the Premier League, which had looked so strong at the end of November, are fading faster than Boris Johnson’s credibility. Tiredness, he explained, was responsible for his team’s sluggish performance. Chelsea have played 15 matches in all competitions since the end of November. There’s been no impromptu winter break for them.
But while fate may have dealt Tuchel an unfortunate hand in this respect – at least Chelsea will be unlikely to be on the receiving end of any fixture congestion come the tail end of the season – all the talk about fatigue and the imperiousness of Manchester City doesn’t explain why, if his squad is at some sort of exhaustion breaking point, he waited until there were just ten minutes to play before making any substitutions. There is a tendency to think that Tuchel is always playing 4D chess in his head, that he operates on a higher cerebral level to the rest of us, but sometimes perhaps he just makes mistakes.
The optimism around Stamford Bridge that was prevalent last summer seems to be rapidly draining away, though this may be an inevitable consequence of winning the Champions League last season. There are fundamental differences between being ‘the Champions League winners’ and being ‘the best team in Europe’ and, while Chelsea are definitely the former, it’s increasingly difficult to make a reasonable claim that they’re the latter too.
There is a distinct feeling of unhappiness emanating from the Chelsea squad. The players’ reaction to Hakim Ziyech’s 28th-minute opening goal was extraordinary. The goal had come against the run of play and with the assistance of a slight deflection, but rather than celebrating his good fortune, Ziyech almost seemed unhappy to have scored. As the players walked off the pitch at half-time, there was an angry-looking conversation between him and Romelu Lukaku, a player who seems to have become a singularly divisive figure over the last couple of months.
There comes a point at which the question needs to be asked. Thomas Tuchel has been an increasingly unhappy-looking presence over the last couple of months, both in press conferences and on the touchline – after their draw with Liverpool, he was memorably described by the Guardian’s Barney Ronay as ‘spending the afternoon leaping up like a furious clockwork woodpecker’ – and it feels as though this negativity is starting to transpose itself onto the players. If tiredness is kicking in, negativity certainly will not help, and it doesn’t feel as though the fall-out from the Romelu Lukaku interview affair has been fully resolved.
Problems within the Chelsea squad are something that Tuchel clearly needs to address, and with increasing urgency. Following a run of just one win in their last seven league matches, Chelsea are now closer to falling out of the Champions League than they are to the top of the Premier League, and even if they start winning in the league again, it’s already the case that Arsenal would be level on points and Spurs three points ahead, were they to win all of their games in hand. It still seems like a long shot that they might fall out of the top four altogether, but it’s considerably more likely than it was a couple of months ago. And it isn’t so much that Chelsea’s squad is thin, more that it looks unbalanced.
Such are the contradictions of the modern game that Chelsea have issues where they don’t seem to have issues. They have, for example, scored 46 goals in the league so far this season, an average of two per game. This is comfortably the third highest in the Premier League, but the top goalscorers list is revealing. Only three Chelsea players have scored five goals or more in the league so far this season, and two of those (including top scorer Jorginho) are midfielders. No-one has reached double figures so far this season in all competitions, and Chelsea’s forward players – defined here as Lukaku, Ziyech, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi – have scored just 11 league goals between them. By contrast, the six forward players who’ve scored for Liverpool in the league this season have managed 42.
Hindsight has 20/20 vision, and it probably wouldn’t spend £97.5m on Romelu Lukaku again. But this goalscoring issue isn’t new for Chelsea. Jorginho was their top goalscorer in the Premier League last season with just seven goals, every one a penalty kick, while their three top scorers in all competitions managed just 12, 12 and 11 goals, and two of those – Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham – have subsequently left the club. This was a problem that the expensive acquisition of Lukaku was supposed to fix, but it now feels as though his return may be causing at least as many problems as it fixed.
It’s not, as should be befitting any team in third place in the Premier League, all bad news. Chelsea are in the Carabao Cup final, have a comfortable looking home tie in the fourth round of the FA Cup against Plymouth Argyle, and are also still in the Champions League, where they play Lille in the round of 32. Furthermore, their next Premier League match is against Tottenham Hotspur, the team who’ve given them a degree of joy over their recent barren run, thanks to their one-sided Carabao Cup semi-final. There remains every chance that this could turn out to be a blip that is all-but forgotten by the end of the season when other clubs are frantically playing three times a week.
Chelsea’s players are showing signs of both mental and physical tiredness and Thomas Tuchel is too. Perhaps if they were to shuffle their pack in the way that has been rumoured before the end of the January transfer window, they’ll rediscover the inconsistency they’ve been lacking over the last few weeks, though this seems unlikely. But, while fatigue from a ludicrous schedule is an explanation for their recent downturn, the record books will not take this into account come the end of the season; Tuchel has to find a way to change the momentum if he is not to follow his 14 predecessors since Roman Abramovich bought the club. It’s all a long way removed from the optimism bred by last year’s Champions League win. Small wonder he was looking so tetchy on Tuesday night.