Chelsea’s Champions League final win in May was their third consecutive victory over Manchester City in all competitions.
Only two managers have ever beaten Pep Guardiola three times in a row since he left Barcelona B: Jurgen Klopp, and now Thomas Tuchel.
It was Klopp’s Liverpool who denied City three Premier League titles in three seasons when they triumphed in 2019-20. It’s Tuchel’s Chelsea who look best placed to wrestle the crown from the head of the champions in 2021-22.
The Blues begin their campaign in the UEFA Super Cup against Europa League winners Villarreal: no pushovers, as Manchester United will tell you, but a team who will not be expected to win in Belfast.
It could be a double celebration for Chelsea fans, too, as a deal to bring Romelu Lukaku back to the club from Inter looks set to be concluded shortly. It could well be Belgium’s record goalscorer who makes the difference when Tuchel targets the club’s first league title since 2017…
Putting it bluntly…
Chelsea went unbeaten in their first 14 games under Tuchel after he replaced Frank Lampard as head coach in January. They secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and won the Champions League for the second time.
It seems strange, then, to say they weren’t particularly good going forward.
From Tuchel’s appointment on January 26 to the end of last season, Chelsea scored 38 goals in all competitions, as many as Granada and Montpellier over the same time frame. By contrast, Tottenham scored 49, Manchester United 58, and City 70. A 4-1 win at Crystal Palace on April 10 remains the only occasion Tuchel’s Chelsea have scored more than twice in a game.
The lack of cutting edge was not for a paucity of chances, either. They were third in the Premier League last term for shots, and their expected goals from open play in the top flight (42.5) was the fifth-best in the division. The problem was they underperformed that value by 6.5 – only Liverpool (6.6) did worse among top-half teams.
They may have found a €115million solution to that problem.
Lukaku enjoyed the season of his career in 2020-21. With 30 goals and 11 assists, only six players in Europe’s top-five leagues were directly involved in more goals. All of those assists came from open play, too, a figure nobody in Serie A could better.
By contrast, Chelsea’s most productive forward was Timo Werner (12 goals, 11 assists), with the Germany international’s xG of 21.07 significantly down on Lukaku’s 30.02. Werner was, of course, scrutinised ever more intensely for failing to take his opportunities (he scored 28.57 per cent of his ‘big chances’), but there were no such problems for Lukaku, who converted 51.02 per cent of his.
Lukaku, of course, is more than a goalscorer. He created 63 chances last term, more than any Chelsea player except Mason Mount (109). He also completed 67 dribbles, a figure only two players surpassed for Tuchel’s team. He was equally adept at carving out opportunities as he was at taking them, his partnership with Lautaro Martinez firing Inter to their first Scudetto in over a decade.
It’s that all-round threat that was too often missing in his days at United, when Jose Mourinho deployed him generally as a rudimentary target man, not as the roving forward sometimes seen starting out wide for his country. The Lukaku of 2021 is a player who thrives when involved in sequences of play, not just when trying to finish them.
Given Chelsea were second only to City last season for passes per sequence (4.83), sequences of 10 or more passes (778) and build-up attacks (187), Lukaku will have every chance to operate at the heart of things.
Tuchel’s first 10 Premier League matches produced only 13 goals, an average of 1.3 per game. There were 12 goals scored in their preceding two league matches alone.
We know about their limitations in attack, but the lack of consistent goal-fests also proves just how strong in defence they have become.
Only Manchester City and Liverpool faced fewer shots than Chelsea (336) in the Premier League last season, while they conceded 36 goals, a number only beaten by the champions. There was also just one game where they conceded more than a single goal under Tuchel: that bizarre 5-2 home defeat to West Brom, when the Baggies played like peak Barcelona, and Chelsea played like… well, like last season’s West Brom.
Even with that defeat considered, Chelsea’s expected goals against under Tuchel was just 20.53, well below City (26.58) or anyone else in England’s top flight across all competitions. They kept 10 clean sheets in their first 14 league games under the German, equalling the quickest time for a manager to reach such a figure in Premier League history (Luiz Felipe Scolari did it in 2008).
From Tuchel’s first game to the end of the season, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) than Chelsea in all competitions. And now, they reportedly want to add Sevilla’s talented Jules Kounde to their defensive options.
The game against Villarreal in Northern Ireland could well showcase the new English champions in waiting.