BEING able to swap one of Europe’s most promising young stars for a one of the finest midfielders in the world certainly made his task somewhat easier, but in replacing Mason Mount with N’Golo Kante after his Chelsea side had toiled away to Tottenham in a goalless first half last weekend, Thomas Tuchel cemented his reputation as the game’s premier in-game adjuster.
The Blues failed to muster a single effort at goal in the first period. In the second half, they finished with ten, three of them – including a deflected effort from Kante – found the back of Hugo Lloris’ net for an ultimately comfortable 3-0 win and top spot in the Premier League table.
“I was absolutely not happy with the first 45 minutes,” Tuchel said after the match. “There are individual performances that were already great. From Kepa [Arrizabalaga], Thiago [Silva] was very good in the first half. Even more players were good, but in general we lacked energy, to be more relentless in duels, to decide 50-50 balls for us.
“I had the feeling we wanted to impress by pure skills, but a game like this in the Premier League, in a derby, Tottenham, it’s not all about skilful play, it’s about aggression, winning duels, performing as a team. We lacked energy and we spoke clearly about it half time.
“Second half was a very good performance, and a well deserved win in the second half, so it was a very good reaction in the second half.”
The change transformed Chelsea. Kante’s arrival meant they had three central midfielders to patrol the middle of the park. Alongside Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, the French World Cup winner helped his side wrest control of the fixture and emboldened the wing-backs to push on and support Romelu Lukaku and Kai Havertz in attack. Tuchel had identified his team’s weakness and, with one swift switch, addressed and eradicated it.
And the Spurs win is just the latest example this season of the former Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund boss making relatively early substitutions to great effect. In a 3-2 win over Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge the week before, he hooked the debuting Saul Niguez at the break after the on-loan Atletico Madrid midfielder appeared desperately off the pace. And when Reece James was red-carded at Anfield in late August, Tuchel introduced Silva and Kovacic at half-time to solidify the Blues against the inevitable Liverpool onslaught, and they escaped with a well-earned point.
Chelsea have now kept more clean sheets (15) than they have conceded goals (14) in the Premier League under Thomas Tuchel. pic.twitter.com/KeaDNUKdDY
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 19, 2021
Tuchel has made substitutions at of before half-time in 13 of the 24 Premier League games he has overseen since being appointed Chelsea manager in January.
Upon his arrival at Stamford Bridge, there had been some question marks over Tuchel’s ability to construct sides capable of challenging for top honours. The 48-year-old’s tactical acumen has never been in doubt, but some saw a return of one DFP-Pokal (the German equivalent of the FA Cup) as a disappointing return for three seasons in charge of Dortmund, while the two Ligue 1 titles he claimed in France represented par for the course for PSG, who were beaten Champions League finalists under his watch in 2019-20.
Such assessments were over-simplifications which ignored mitigating factors. His BVB tenure overlapped with Pep Guardiola’s record-setting time in charge of Bayern. Dortmund’s haul of 78 points in 2015-16 would have been enough to earn the title in all but four previous seasons in Bundesliga history, but the behemoth of Bayern still finished 10 points clear. The following season, after seeing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gundogan all sold, it was to Tuchel’s credit that Dortmund maintained a Champions League spot thanks to a third-place finish.
As for not achieving more with PSG, managers before and since Tuchel have proven the difficulty of arranging that particular array of superstars into a unit capable of challenging for Europe’s top prize. That run to the final the season before last represents the club’s best-ever continental campaign.
But any lingering doubts over Tuchel’s position among the coaching elite have already been dispelled since his arrival in England, having guided Chelsea to Champions League glory last season. His advantage now is that, perhaps unlike the Premier League’s other truly elite managers, Tuchel occupies a sweet spot between having been at his current club long enough to have fully implemented his style and methodology while not having been around so long that his message is becoming less effective.
Tuchel is, of course, in a position of extreme footballing privilege thanks to the talent-packed squad at his disposal. But Chelsea’s greatest asset, as they strive to add a Premier League title to the Champions League crown earned last season, is Tuchel’s timely tinkering.