Thomas Tuchel shows class as improvisation gives Chelsea life after week of turmoil

After days of talk, talks and talking about talk, Chelsea’s semi-final first leg victory over Tottenham Hotspur was a deep breath for Thomas Tuchel.

For so long the football has acted as relief from the club politics rife at Stamford Bridge. These last six days, in the midst of what has been a testing period for Tuchel, will have been his first exposure to that.

Spurs were more than willing to provide relief. The 2-0 scoreline also an indication of the number of gears they were below Chelsea, and their terminal mistakes. Both belonged to Japhet Tanganga: the centre-back gave the ball away for the first goal, then headed into Ben Davies for the second. The game was all but over after 34 minutes.

It was last Thursday evening that Romelu Lukaku’s ill-judged and/or misunderstood interview with Sky Italia enhanced the relative gloom in west London. And having missed the slobberknocker of a draw against Liverpool, his return was the pencilled line underneath an awkward bump in both his relationship with Tuchel, and theirs respectively with the club.

The German manager was able to see the funny side on Wednesday evening, joking that Lukaku’s engaging performance from start to finish was because he “rested himself a little bit” at the weekend. All that was missing was a goal for the Belgian – and a deserved third for Chelsea – for what could have been the perfect evening.

It’s in these moments, when you feel like you are losing your grip on the world around you through things beyond your control, that you and others learn that little bit more about you. And quite apart from his handling of the Lukaku mini-tiff, particularly their productive clear-the-air meeting on Monday, there were signs on Wednesday night of Tuchel showing Chelsea fans another side to his management.

The Premier League may now be a long shot with Manchester City 10 points ahead with 17 games to play, but Tuchel is halfway to winning his ninth semi-final, and in turn, netting a second trophy for the Blues in over a year. That position has been established through what some might regard as out-of-character improvisation.

With a dearth of centre backs after Thiago Silva was ruled out, and without N’Golo Kante – both unavailable because of Covid-19 – Tuchel spent Tuesday’s training session honing an ad hoc system. Chelsea played a 4-4-2 with the ball, while adopting a makeshift back five without it. The former contributed to a high octane start, typified by Marcos Alonso using his more advanced position to make the interception and then the assist for the opener.

Malang Sarr made his first appearance since league cup quarter-final against Brentford on 22 December and looked assured in the new set-up. Likewise, Saul Niguez, who benefited from a degree of freedom to explore, breaking up play across the pitch and getting some work done in the final third. Similarly, Hakim Ziyech – man of the match – was allowed to veer any which way he pleased given the volume of possession and territory Chelsea had at their disposal.

The ultimate compliment was paid by Antonio Conte, who made his own tactical shifts at half-time to mitigate for this surprise approach. Spurs faired a little better, though were still restricted to two shots on target and an overall 0.5 on expectedGoals. Meanwhile, Chelsea were still able to create chance after chance.

With the six changes from the weekend’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool, and the change in approach, it was a quietly impressive performance. And it reinforced the sentiment purveyed by the playing group that Tuchel has everyone’s trust in the dressing room. Behind the piercing eyes and menacing smile that’s not quite a smile is clearly a holistic approach to man-management.

It was evident in the way he caveated praise for Ziyech, Saul and Sarr, expressing that even when starting them, it was “not always fair to demand performances out of nothing” given how little they had played recently. Of course, the most glowing praise was saved for Lukaku.

“I expected it honestly because Romelu can handle pressure and adversity,” he said. “He seemed to be relaxed after the decision was made, after we finished our talks, and after he finished his talks. The decision was made (to start him) and I felt him relaxed enough to have a performance like this.”