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It's time for Thomas Tuchel to innovate again – or Chelsea risk becoming predictable

(Image credit: Getty)

The Champions League winners started at Tottenham in their now trademark 3-4-3. They were being held at half-time. On came N’Golo Kante for Mason Mount. With a defensive midfielder and a 3-5-2 formation, Chelsea won 3-0. It was a Thomas Tuchel masterstroke, a case of Tactics Tom getting his tactics right. By bringing on more defensive players, he made Chelsea more attacking and more incisive.

A transformative switch was further evidence of alchemy. Yet since then, Tuchel’s experiments with the new toy of a different system have been less fruitful. His reign has been defined by low-scoring games, but control feels replaced by excessive caution.

Playing 3-5-2, Chelsea lost 1-0 to Manchester City and beat Brentford by the same scoreline. Over those 180 minutes, Chelsea mustered a solitary shot on target, Ben Chilwell’s fine derby winner on Saturday.

It is a small sample size but it is an indication that Tuchel’s Chelsea have needlessly constrained themselves in a straitjacket. There have been different importance of the illustrations of balance in a team. Manchester United failed by playing five attacking players at Leicester; Chelsea have gone to the other extreme by fielding just two.

That pair, Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner, have been distanced from their team-mates and starved of service. The Belgian had a grand total of 40 touches over those two games. There were fewer suggestions that Lukaku was out of form when permitted to play with two more attack-minded allies and when there were players connecting the midfield to the forward line.

Perhaps Tuchel was influenced by the 3-5-2 formation Inter Milan adopted when Lukaku was prolific in their Scudetto-winning season, but there were times when that was more of a 3-4-1-2 and others when central midfielders such as Christian Eriksen and Nicolo Barella could be more adventurous or inventive than their Chelsea counterparts.

Tuchel has been the antidote to his predecessor. If Frank Lampard’s midfield could be too open, Tuchel has concentrated on closing any gaps in front of his defence. There were times when Lampard fielded five essentially attacking players – Mount, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tammy Abraham all started his last league game – and the German prospered by rationing the number of them, while instead, getting goals and assists from more defensively-inclined personnel. His seven-three balance was scarcely kamikaze but it was effective.

Now, perhaps Tuchel has taken logic to an extreme. The deficient department of Chelsea’s squad this season has been the creative contingent, so he has discarded them altogether.

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Chelsea have six men who can operate as No.10s, inside forwards or narrow wingers. Some – Pulisic in particular – have suffered from injuries, but only one has actually fashioned many opportunities. Of the eight players who have produced most shot-creating actions in the Premier League – or, in layman’s terms, created most chances – only Mount is a natural candidate for the roles either side of Lukaku in a 3-4-3. 

The others are Lukaku himself, plus two holding midfielders, in an unusually creative Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, and four defenders or wing-backs, in Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso, Reece James and Chilwell. Along with Kante, the two Spaniards were the key to the second-half unlocking of Spurs. Along with Lukaku, James was the scourge of Arsenal. By congesting the middle, Chelsea have sometimes been able to outflank opponents.

Yet while it scarcely reflects well on Havertz that Antonio Rudiger has created as many chances (and more, if the Champions League is also factored in), stripping the side of the No.10s has left them disjointed and dull. 

Mount’s ability to act as the bridge between midfield and attack had made him a Tuchel favourite. He is the most obvious individual remedy to Chelsea’s impotence, but the systemic failings of a shape that overloads a team with players behind the ball has been apparent. Tuchel’s 3-4-3 allied clean sheets with at least some more invention; they were sides that had a creator in chief, rather than no one whose prime duty was to fashion chances. 

An experiment that was briefly inspired and then more impotent and ineffectual should be abandoned because 3-4-3 still looks Tuchel’s best way to display his tactical nous.

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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.