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Sunday, January 16, 2022

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Thomas Tuchel yet to fully unlock clockwork Chelsea in title race defined by attacking football

After an upset like that at West Ham United, where Chelsea twice had leads overturned, it’s tempting to wonder whether an old truth has been overturned.

Defences may win you games, but it is attacks that win titles.

That may seem a curious point when Chelsea’s defeat primarily came from “too many big mistakes”, as Thomas Tuchel put it, but that is what happens when it feels like you are always just doing enough; never quite doing real damage. They take advantage of errors rather than really force them.

It marks one of the big differences between the European champions, and the last two Premier League champions.

While Liverpool overwhelm teams so they are suddenly coming at you from all angles, and Manchester City just cut you open with the ball so they’re finally passing the ball into the net, Chelsea so often seem to be playing within themselves.

That is almost literal.

So many Chelsea games seem to see them play so many passes within a defined structure, without ever really releasing.

It’s all clockwork without causing much alarm.

There are few fair caveats to this, of course, which is why Tuchel is right to say this is mostly about the “details” rather than any bigger worries about the “big picture”.

For a start, the German is still really starting out in the job, at least compared to Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Liverpool have been playing this system for more than six years, City more than five. It is little wonder their attacks are so in tune. Tuchel has only been in his job for 10 months, and his first task was obviously to sort the defensive structure. He has been resoundingly successful in that, as evidenced by the fact this 3-2 defeat alone saw Chelsea’s goals conceded worsen by 50% in the league, and that this was just the third game in all that time his team have conceded more than one goal.

It has traditionally been said that defences are much easier to fix than attacks, but this is where the shift towards the latter in the modern game is so important.

The best sides aren’t broken or disconnected in that way any more. It would similarly be an understatement to say Tuchel himself is an evangelist on the idea of a fully integrated team. It’s so inherent to his philosophy it’s self-evident.

But it can still be true that defensive work, being less complicated, starts to come easier than the final third. They require more than final touches.

It still feels like this is so influential to Chelsea seeming to play within themselves. Tuchel’s system follows Guardiola’s idea – its title in the game “juego de posicion” – in that it involves players learning mental maps of the pitch to the point they can interchange instinctively. While they’ve got that in terms of where to go when the opposition have the ball, it is still at that point where there is seemingly just a slow matrix of passes when they have the ball.

So many of their games are characterised by good technical play without really terrorising the opposition.

As such, they are something of a “game state” team. They need to work very hard to make it 1-0, but then enjoy the space when finally ahead.

You only have to look at the amount of goals that come from defenders, given it’s 41% of their league total, and the fact Reece James is their top scorer.

Some of that is also because, put bluntly, they don’t have the individual stars that really terrorise teams.

They don’t have a Mohamed Salah, capable of scorching a team in an instant.

This, of course, is where Romelu Lukaku should slot in.

He has been injured of late, and it has slowed his integration into this team. Tuchel has spoken about how it is still a case of the Chelsea attack and Lukaku getting used to each other. That is why it isn’t that much of a concern. While it remains the case, though, Chelsea will remain much more dependent on their defence working flawlessly than either of their main rivals.

And that doesn’t tend to be the real difference in title races any more.

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