Outfoxing the best in the land, Thomas Tuchel has taken Chelsea to another level

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Jim White
·3 min read
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Thomas Tuchel has Chelsea chasing silverware - GETTY IMAGES
Thomas Tuchel has Chelsea chasing silverware - GETTY IMAGES

For Thomas Tuchel, Saturday represented a proper milestone: it was the first time in six attempts that he has beaten Pep Guardiola. But watching the manner in which his Chelsea side so studiously out-witted Guardiola’s Manchester City, it was hard to understand quite why he had taken so long to break the apparent hoodoo.

When Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard at Stamford Bridge in January, there was many a Chelsea fan wondering why. Lampard had refreshed the squad, brought in a raft of excellent young players, made his side exciting to watch again after the stultifying Mauricio Sarri era. His departure seemed capricious even by the standards of Roman Abramovich. Few think that anymore. By the application of system and organisation, Tuchel has taken Chelsea to another level, one which enabled them comprehensively to out fox the best team in the land.

After both sides’ midweek European exertions, Chelsea only had one more day to prepare for this fixture than their opponents. But it looked, from the cunning manner in which they addressed the challenge, that they had been working on it for months. In the build up to the game, Tuchel said he only spends 10 per cent of his time on the training ground putting his defence through specific drills. He clarified that in the aftermath of victory by saying much of the preparation is around multiple facets of the game, which includes - but is not specific to - defending. Whatever the demarcation in training, to watch the manner in which Antonio Rudiger and his colleagues subdued City was to see a masterclass of defensive organisation at work. Here is how good Chelsea’s backline was: Kepa Arrizabalaga, who Lampard reckoned such a liability he bought in a new goalkeeper to replace him, kept a clean sheet.

True, Tuchel has been blessed by the return of N’Golo Kante to fitness. The Frenchman, together with the excellent Jorginho, stifled everything City could conjure long before it became a threat. The solid platform allowed Mason Mount to prowl forward to such effect, City’s Fernandinho was lucky to remain on the pitch given the vigour with which he was obliged to curtail him.

But what was really revealing about Chelsea’s performance was the goal they scored. It was the result of a move that had almost - but for an eager early dash which caught Timo Werner offside - paid off in the first half. It was the result of Mount playing the ball into the space behind Joao Cancello as the City full back advanced. Werner accelerated into it, crossed and Hakim Ziyech converted the chance.

It was a move clearly much rehearsed, a move Tuchel had choreographed after identifying the flaw in City’s defensive plan, a move to utilise the space vacated by full backs encouraged by their manager’s system to play as auxiliary midfielders. Tuchel had picked his team accordingly, playing the combination of the fleet-heeled Werner and Ziyech specifically for any such swift counter attack. And, perhaps because of their previous encounters, he also knew that whatever personnel Guardiola employed that opportunity would present itself. Because whether it was Cancello or Kyle Walker on the right of the City defence, the potential gap would always be there. It was just a matter of finding a way to exploit it.

There is a chance now Tuchel may be in a position to repeat the trick on an even bigger stage at the end of next month. A Champions League final in Istanbul between these sides is entirely possible. After this performance, were it to happen, it might be unwise to bet against Tuchel buffering his personal statistics further by conjuring his second victory against Guardiola on the bounce.