Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea reign is just 12 games old, but it has already become impossible to predict the lineup he will go with.
Two or three changes has become the norm at Stamford Bridge, but recently, Tuchel has taken it to the extreme. He made five changes for the 2-0 win over Everton, before stepping up to six for the 0-0 draw with Leeds, which also featured a switch from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-2-3-1 at times.
Keeping the opponent guessing has its worth, but it seems like Tuchel’s relentless tinkering has left his own team unable to settle. Nobody knows who they are going to play alongside, or even if they’re going to play themselves.
Tuchel has been looking for the perfect strategy during the first few months of his reign, but whenever he looks like he has found one, he changes it.
The devastating left-wing combination of Marcos Alonso and Timo Werner that wreaked havoc in the first few games has already been dissolved. Callum Hudson-Odoi as a right wing-back is an experiment that cooled off quickly, and now we don’t know whether he’s a defender, a ten or a striker. At the top, Kai Havertz is the fourth player to be used as a striker since January.
With the semi-change in formation against Leeds, Chelsea deviated away from everything we have come to expect from them under the boss, and that lack of fluidity was painfully evident from start to finish.
Chelsea dominated possession and passed the ball around with real ease, but once they hit the final third, things hit a wall. Too many of the eight shots on target were from long range, and while Chelsea did create a handful of good chances, they should have been doing so much better against one of the leakiest defences in the division.
The movement just wasn’t there, and whenever somebody did make a run, it flew under the radar because nobody has developed the kind of deeper understanding needed to make the difference.
Players have not been given a chance to get used to their teammates’ movements just yet – a flaw particularly evident in Hakim Ziyech’s game. The Moroccan playmaker does not know which colleagues make what runs or where he needs to be to get the ball, and it’s turned him into a bit-part player at best.
This problem isn’t entirely Tuchel’s doing. After all, he inherited a squad with six new first-team players – Edouard Mendy, Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva, Havertz, Werner and Ziyech – and a combination of injuries and poor form have limited the group’s time on the field together thus far.
And of course, things could be much worse; Tuchel remains unbeaten in 12 games in charge – a run that includes fine wins over Atlético Madrid and Liverpool. However, Chelsea have been low-scoring, and disappointing draws away to Southampton and Leeds – as well as at home to Man Utd – speak to a lack of cutting edge. It’s a tough job for Tuchel, but he’s making it harder by chopping and changing his lineup so much.
The return leg against Atlético on Wednesday was evidently also at the forefront of his thinking, but the level of rotation at Leeds seemed like overkill.
“We have a strong squad, everyone deserves to play and show themselves,” Tuchel said (via Goal) when asked to explain his constant changes. “At some point you have to feel the changes, there will come moments where we will not do so many changes.”
He’s right. At some point, the changes are going to have to stop. Tuchel must figure out his best lineup and give them a chance to grow together. Until he does, the Blues may well continue to labour.
It’s up to Tuchel to figure things out, but it’s also up to the players to step up and prove they deserve to be part of his regular starting lineup. Not enough of them have done that yet, with the forwards particularly underwhelming.
It’s all a touch confused, and that confusion has started spilling out on to the pitch. With the top-four race as tight as it has ever been, Tuchel needs to settle on his preferred lineup soon.