IT somehow feels inevitable that the first club to sack their manager in the Premier League era were Chelsea. It was February 1992 and after a dismal home defeat to Aston Villa, Ken Bates gave Ian Porterfield the bullet, replacing him with 1970 FA Cup final hero David Webb. Webb did what he was asked to and guided the club back into mid-table but, despite his popularity, wasn’t kept on long-term, instead being replaced by the more glamorous figure of Glenn Hoddle in the summer. Chelsea’s slow metamorphosis into a global power inched forward one step. 29 years on and Chelsea have once again made a mid-season switch. Frank Lampard is our Porterfield, Thomas Tuchel our Webb.
Tuchel is certain to get more time in charge of the club than David Webb, but his task is considerably harder. In the short term, Chelsea have to start winning matches, in the medium term they need to finish in the top four and in the longer-but-not-too-much-longer term they need to put up a sustained title challenge for the first time since Antonio Conte led them to the title in 2016-17. Managerial popularity matters more at Chelsea than it does at most clubs, which made the departure of legend Lampard so hard for a large section of the support to take. At a lot of clubs, it’s impatience from the fans that leads to manager churn but at Chelsea it feels like most of the supporters would readily accept a rebuild that takes a few seasons, but the board would not.
For a club where managerial popularity is so important, it's still funny that Chelsea's most recent European honours were won by Rafa Benitez & Maurizio Sarri
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) January 3, 2021
Judging a new manager on his first game, especially someone given only one or two training sessions with his new squad, is pretty much an exercise in futility but that will never stop us. Jurgen Klopp’s first Premier League game in charge of Liverpool took him to White Hart Lane. Like Chelsea v Wolves the match ended 0-0 and didn’t tell us much, but that didn’t prevent a keen interest in how much “heavy metal football” Klopp had managed to instil into his new players in a few days. The media excitedly reported on how Liverpool had not only run further than they had in any other game that season but how they had also outrun Mauricio Pochettino’s hitherto un-outrunnable Spurs team. Klopp, it was satisfyingly noted, had made the right sort of impact.
Tuchel was unfortunate to face Wolves in his first game. A visiting team who know how to sit deep and frustrate opponents but also have the likes of Adama Traore and Pedro Neto to counter. Selection-wise Tuchel went for the classic new manager gambit of choosing his most experienced XI, along with a vague splash of anti-favouritism by not playing Christian Pulisic (his former player) and Timo Werner (his struggling countryman, who would have probably struggled some more against the low block Wolves team). The absence of N’Golo Kante meant Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho in midfield, a pair who exchanged 80 passes to each other in the game. The map of all their passes in the game below shows just how congested and sterile that middle third was, largely horizontal play with Chelsea not managing a shot on target between the 64th and 86th minute. The introduction of Pulisic and Mason Mount towards the end helped and it wouldn’t be surprising to see both of them start on Sunday.
Chelsea’s final total of 832 completed passes a 79% possession figure are the highest recorded figures by a new manager in his first Premier League game, but they are not the sort of figures that impress certain fanbases, and Chelsea almost certainly fit into that category. The highest average of successful passes per game by a Chelsea manager in the Roman Abramovich era is 578 by the wildly unpopular Maurizio Sarri, with Lampard managing to shave off around 55 per game in his season and a half in charge. Passing numbers have steadily increased overall in the Premier League in the last two decades but it’s still noteworthy that Antonio Conte only needed his team to complete 444 per game to win the league in 2017, precisely the same figure as Jose Mourinho’s title winners recorded in 2014-15.
Tuchel’s post-match comment that "I think the supporters would have liked what they saw: 16 recoveries in the last third is proof of energy on the pitch” might be based on empirical evidence he has built up in his career but it’s not the sort of statement that gets most fans excited. Not yet anyway. But those recoveries in the final third are important. The two images below show the difference between Chelsea and league leaders Manchester City this season. City have roughly 50% more high turnovers and have converted six of them into goals, which is five more than Chelsea. It’s consistency here that that wins titles. Also note, though, that City’s numbers have gone up this season while Liverpool’s have gone down, illustrating just how important having a secure defensive base is to this approach. On that basis, restricting Wolves to precisely zero shots on target is a definite base to build on.
With Burnley up next, Chelsea can expect another obdurate wall at Stamford Bridge on Saturday and the new manager will surely have most of his time with the squad since Wolves improving their routes. All of which means Tuchel’s first chance to properly open up against an opponent may have to wait until next Thursday when Chelsea travel to play Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham. As former Chelsea bosses go, he is a complicated figure. He’s been let go by the club twice as many times as Dave Webb, but he’s won 50% of their all-time league titles. It’s that sort of place. Welcome aboard Mr Tuchel.