For all the indisputable progress that Chelsea have made under Thomas Tuchel, their season suddenly sits on a knife edge. A disastrous week saw the Blues’ advantage in the top-four race slip away with defeat to Arsenal before they were downed by Leicester City at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup final. To rub salt in those wounds Liverpool then found the most remarkable way to keep the top-four race alive as goalkeeper Alisson headed in a 95th minute winner against West Bromwich Albion.
There need not be gloom and doom at Stamford Bridge just yet though. Their fate remains in their own hands. Win out in the Premier League season and they will finish third. In the worst-case scenario, domestically, there is even the possibility of qualifying for next season’s Champions League by winning this season’s final against a Manchester City side Tuchel has already defeated twice in his brief reign.
Still, a win or bust European final is hardly the ideal way for Chelsea to discover whether they are in Europe. Better to take a sizeable step toward Champions League qualification on Tuesday when the Blues face Leicester once more, a match that Tuchel indicated on Friday is a “final” in no less a way than their meeting at Wembley. Certainly from a financial perspective, a top-four berth is worth far more than the FA Cup.
There was even a sense on Saturday that Tuchel might just have been holding some trump cards up his sleeve for Tuesday’s game: Ben Chilwell is surely a superior option at left wing back to Marcos Alonso, but was left on the bench while Mateo Kovacic’s non-involvement may have been with one eye on the game at Stamford Bridge, a match which the Chelsea manager says can be separated from the heartbreak of Wembley.
Insisting that it was the loss to Arsenal that built pressure on this game, not the FA Cup final, Tuchel said: “There is no reason to doubt these players, who have done so well to get into the top four from 10th place, to reach the FA Cup final and to be in the final of the Champions League. We are strong enough to handle these situations and these are the challenges that we face. It’s not easy, but it is fun, and there are a lot of teams chasing us and our situation.”
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Finding a balanced attack
But there will also need to be strategic changes. Chelsea might have dominated possession but they turned 64 percent of the ball into just three shots on target and only really tested Kasper Schmeichel after Youri Tielemans’ wondrous opener.
Above all else, Saturday’s defeat was a reminder of the challenges Tuchel, Frank Lampard and any other manager would have difficulties structuring a coherent attack out of the options available to them. There is an abundance of talent but the fit can often be awkward, best reflected by the difficulties in pairing major summer signings Kai Havertz, a modern interpretation of a No. 10, with a striker like Timo Werner who has always looked to be at his best with a partner alongside him.
That much was apparent from the outset at Wembley. Werner’s match was once more a tale of near-misses, though in this case he was providing them for others as when he got enough of a flick on Thiago Silva’s cross to discombobulate a waiting Cesar Azpiliceuta at the back post. Yet there were flashes of a Werner-led strategy that might have brought Chelsea more joy at Wembley, and might again in west London on Tuesday.
Twice in as many minutes early in the first half Werner showed a clean pair of heels to Caglar Soyuncu on the left side of Leicester’s trident of center backs. The Turkish international was on inspired form at Wembley, particularly when his opponents started chucking crosses into the box, but he simply does not have the pace to keep up with Werner. Few do. Chelsea’s problem was that their striker successfully burst into the channels only to find no one with him, his crosses only picking out Schmeichel in a box crowded with maroon shirts.
It has not always been the case when Tuchel has tried to use Werner’s pace in behind as an assist weapon. Indeed last time out at Wembley, the German had laid the winner on a plate for Hakim Ziyech. If that was the plan again the issue was more that the Moroccan, perhaps the most inconsistent of Chelsea’s big-money summer signings in that he has blended brilliance with games that simply pass him by, was nowhere to be seen when opportunities came Chelsea’s way.
Perhaps Christian Pulisic offers a better tandem with Werner. Certainly the American has the pace to keep up with his fellow forward and has the laser focus on getting to shooting positions that would mean he is well-placed to profit from Werner’s willingness to cover the hard yards. Since Tuchel’s appointment, only the players he has used at center forward log a higher expected goals (xG, a metric that assesses the likelihood of any shot ending in a goal) per 90 than Pulisic, who leads all first team regulars at Stamford Bridge for xG per 90 in the Champions League.
A Pulisic-Werner pairing has proven effective in the past, particularly in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal where Tuchel switched from a three-man attack to those two on their own with Mason Mount deeper, and the two are a reliable source of goals weighing in with eight of the 20 Chelsea have scored when they are on the pitch together.
Leave the James experiment for later
If Chelsea are still a work in progress at the top of the pitch then they have long since been a force at the other. The Premier League’s best defense since Tuchel’s appointment has conceded just 10 goals in their last 17 top flight matches. That record becomes all the more remarkable when you consider that half of them were scored by a West Bromwich Albion team facing 10 men.
Chelsea are a reassuring cocktail of experience and quality and when the team sheet for the cup final included Silva, Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger — who share 95 years and 158 international caps between them — it seemed a given that the Blues would not hand Leicester any easy goals. Yet curiously, Azpilicueta did not take up his place on the right side of the back three with Reece James, the presumptive wing back, instead dropping in alongside his veteran colleagues.
Azpilicueta, whose Chelsea career has been a tale of continued adaptability to the whims of the latest coach, does not lack for experience in the wider role and performed it admirably in the Champions League semi against Real Madrid, where he quelled much of the threat posed by former teammate Eden Hazard. Theoretically, James has everything needed to play the role he was given in the final. In league and European games this season, he has won 61.5 percent of aerial duels, he has an exceptional passing range and offers pace that Silva and Azpilicueta do not.
His loose pass from out of defense may have set Leicester on course for Tielemans’ winner, but James did not have a bad game defensively, quite the opposite. He made crucial blocks at the back, won three of four aerial duels and led his team in clearances. The issue was that in swapping his right-sided center back and his wing back, Tuchel left himself with little attacking thrust down that flank.
Among regulars, James is fourth for key passes per 90 in the Chelsea squad, against Leicester he made none. Azpilicueta delivered just one and offered little to threaten teenager Luke Thomas in the Foxes’ defense. With Ziyech struggling, the Blues effectively had no outlet on the right until the introduction of Callum Hudson-Odoi in the 76th minute.
Those two young English prospects could certainly bring a heady blend of offensive talents at Stamford Bridge, and in a match where Chelsea need to win, perhaps a pairing Hudson-Odoi could mesh well together. However, Azpilicueta in the back three and James at wing back has worked so effectively for Tuchel; it would seem curious to ditch one of your hits at the biggest of your career in London.
Having missed over a month of football through injury, Kovacic could hardly have been surprised that he did not feature in the FA Cup final. Though Tuchel announced before the game that the Croatia international was fit, it is understandable that the Chelsea manager opted to stick with Jorginho alongside N’Golo Kante instead. Those two make for a steady pair in defense while the latter has proven to be a devastating transitional force.
But what the last week might have taught Tuchel is that that particular duo does not quite have the offensive punch he might need to win out in the remainder of the Premier League season. Jorginho can keep the ball moving while Kante can dart into open space but Kovacic is a little more capable of drawing pressure from opponents, breaking by them and giving Chelsea advantages high up the pitch.
Speaking before the final, Tuchel said: “Mateo has everything we need in the midfield: Experience, power, acceleration, deceleration, can beat players, has the physical ability, and has played big games.”
No player in the Chelsea squad, bar Pulisic, attempts more take ons than Kovacic per 90 minutes. Only the curious presence of Andreas Christensen and his seven from eight record denies him the right to say he is the most successful at them. Similarly, Kovacic is top of the group in the Premier League and European games this season in terms of passes into the attacking third per 90.
Against Leicester as against Arsenal, Chelsea showed a tendency to get bogged down well outside the box. If they couldn’t unleash Werner with quick ball, they became a little too reliant on slow ball that went through Mount; while the England international did look threatening in flashes throughout the game, he could hardly bear the creative burden all by himself. Introducing a more forward-thinking creator behind him could be a crucial step in rectifying the troubles of Saturday and ensuring a season of real progress does not sputter to its conclusion.