For all that data has grown in prominence and visibility around the world of football it can still be something of a jolt to the senses when the likes of Thomas Tuchel seem so comfortable talking about their team’s expected goals (xG), attacking third recoveries and touches in both penalty boxes.
There is more to Tuchel’s coaching success at Chelsea than his understanding of his new team’s metrics but it is equally true that he appreciates the value of numbers. When he arrived at Stamford Bridge midway through the season he brought just three colleagues with him to add to the Blues coaching staff. Two were to be his assistants, Arno Michels and Zsolt Low, while the other was Benjamin Weber, his video and data analyst.
It has at times felt like Tuchel’s public utterances have been treated with some curiosity in an English footballing landscape where passion and energy are often given equal weighting to tactical concerns. His statement after a 5-2 loss to West Bromwich Albion that Chelsea had “won all statistics that matter to win games, even expected goals” brought befuddlement from many even if his belief that if the game were replayed 100 times his team would win it 99 may not be too far off the mark.
What can be true of the media can also be for some players, many of whom would not have made their way into the game obsessively analyzing their own xG and take-on success rate, Now they find themselves working for a manager who is acutely aware of the changing statistical profile of his squad and who has intimated on more than one occasion in recent weeks that his players are not picking up the sort of results their underlying metrics ought to bring them.
How then, does he take what he sees on a screen and apply it out on the pitches of the Cobham training ground? “We try to translate it in our own [footballing] language and try not to overdo it with data but to reduce it to important data that corresponds to the style we want to play and fits with our team,” Tuchel tells CBS Sports ahead of the Champions League final.
“We talk about expected goals clearly because it’s a good way to measure your performance, to not get carried away by results, either wins or losses, because in football you depend on luck a huge amount. Sometimes it’s good for the coach to not lose his head, sometimes it’s good for the players to prove your point, if you have a win to prove it’s not enough or the other way around, that we’re on the right way.”
It would be fair to say that the data suggests Tuchel’s side are on the right path. He would agree and after two wins in two meetings with Champions League final opponents Manchester City since he arrived, the German says that Chelsea have “arrived with genuine confidence” before they fly out to Porto on Thursday.
A late season wobble was not quite enough to cost them a top four finish even if Tuchel’s first attempt to win silverware with Chelsea ended in a defeat to Leicester City in the FA Cup Final. Losing to Pep Guardiola on Saturday would make for a sour note on which to finish his first campaign in England but there have been clear signs of progress.
In the Champions League and Premier League Chelsea played 25 games before sacking Frank Lampard and have played 25 since. In almost every measure they have improved under Tuchel. They average two points per game as opposed to 1.7 previously and have lost just four matches compared to seven with Lampard.
The defense was the most obvious area of improvement with the Blues averaging exactly a goal conceded per game pre-Tuchel and 0.6 since, a sample skewed by that one thumping defeat to West Brom when down to 10 men. Opponent xG per game has dropped from 0.9 to 0.6 and opponents average 17 percent fewer touches in the box.
Offensively the underlying numbers also point to progress. In 25 games Chelsea have created 302 chances as opposed to the 257 they did with Lampard and their total xG has gone from 43.4 to 45.2. And yet the one rather critical aspect of football that has not gotten better for Tuchel is how often his side have put the ball in the net. His team have scored 33 goals. Lampard’s scored 47 despite having seemingly inferior opportunities from which to finish. The one number that matters most seems the most resolutely unwilling to follow the trend of progress.
“It’s pretty much the question every week and after every match so far,” he says. “This is the story to put all our energy in to improve. It’s maybe the toughest one because in the end it’s about conversion.
“We create touches in the box in crucial areas, we create chances with it, we have expected goals. We lack the conversion. Making the players know about it and keeping them confident still is not so easy because the strikers are dependent on their success and they need to feel it.
“We’re working on it. It’s a big challenge of course.”
Perhaps if nothing else his side’s struggles in front of goal offer him something of a project to take into next season with him. He certainly hopes there is a next season and beyond though his contract comes to its conclusion in the summer of 2022. Chelsea is not known as a stable environment for managers but Tuchel believes he has found a landing spot for the long term.
“It feels exactly like that,” he explains, breaking out into a broad grin. “I don’t want to hide from it and play games. It feels like I’m in the perfect place at the perfect time. I feel very, very good.
“Hopefully it’s like this but I know we have to deliver. It’s about timing, not only about results sometimes but the chemistry, the moment, the team. Everything feels very, very good now.”
Delivering could start with Chelsea’s second Champions League title. Like his counterpart at City, Tuchel seems to be enjoying the build-up to the biggest match of the season. He and Guardiola are veterans of this stage but for the former there is rather more time for him to enjoy the moment than last year and the “mad rush” that took Paris Saint-Germain to the final of the Lisbon bubble.
That was a mad dash through three games in 11 days from the thrills of two late goals to beat Atalanta to the heartbreak of falling short against Bayern Munich, Chelsea’s passage to the final has been more of a slow burn. From their round of 16 victory over Atletico Madrid they looked to be dark horses to make a run deep into this competition but unlike City their berth in the final never felt preordained.
Under new management there has been a sense of this team developing over time, peaking just at the right moment for the emphatic semifinal win over Real Madrid that the head coach would doubtless know was even more impressive in terms of expected goals (6.1 for the Blues as opposed to 1.2 for their opponents) than the actual results.
Tuchel is determined to make the most of the build-up to his second final. “It’s one of the nicest weeks that you can have in football. You’re one of the only two teams that are still in training. This is very, very special.
“Hopefully the players take their time to also picture it, to connect to where they came from when they were little boys with the ball under their arm in the park or in their first clubs and dreamed about becoming professionals. This is the moment to picture it. [This is] what we do it for. Why do you do it? Why was this dream so big? [This is the moment] to connect you to the little boy in you and feel the joy and at the same time the hunger to fulfil your dream.”