Thomas Tuchel made his intentions clear from the start. There was no question of building slowly when he arrived at Chelsea at the end of January. The German understood that Roman Abramovich had high demands and he responded accordingly, focusing on the winning mentality of his new club and promising to turn Chelsea into a team no one would like to play.
It didn’t take long for Tuchel to realize his vision. The former Paris Saint-Germain manager did not need a transition period after replacing Frank Lampard. In the space of four months, Tuchel transformed Chelsea from a disorganized squad into one capable of staging a Champions League final against Manchester City by beating and beating Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night.
Zinedine Zidane had no response to Tuchel’s clever tactics. Chelsea were superior throughout, attacking brilliantly and blunting Madrid’s attack with organized defense, and it was clear long before Mason Mount’s last clincher that Abramovich was right to abandon Lampard.
It is a personal victory for Tuchel, who has already beaten Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Diego Simeone and Zidane. Although he tries to divert attention elsewhere, the former PSG manager deserves praise. Even if Chelsea have a team full of talented internationals, it must not be forgotten that the team looked broken under Lampard. They were ninth in the Premier League before Abramovich acted and few could have imagined they would reach the final when City separated them at Stamford Bridge on 3 January.
When Tuchel took over, however, he never gave the impression that Chelsea were a team that demanded huge repairs. He looked at his team, found little trouble with it and just tweaked the system, moving on to a 3-4-2-1 formation which gave Chelsea better structure.
It has sometimes been pragmatic. Chelsea weren’t always happy. Increasingly, however, there is a sense of a plan coming together in the attack. Realizing that he needed to bring Timo Werner and Kai Havertz to life up front, Tuchel worked with the young German duo, giving them time to settle in, and was rewarded when the two excelled against Madrid. Chelsea attacked at high speed, creating chances at will, and it was obvious why Tuchel resisted calls to launch conventional strikers such as Olivier Giroud or Tammy Abraham.
Madrid struggled to deal with the movement of Werner, Havertz and Mount during the first half and Christian Pulisic added another dimension when he entered. The only criticism was that Chelsea kept eating their lines.
Yet there was seldom the feeling that they would regret their debauchery. Chelsea look impenetrable at the moment, with Edward Mendy impressive in goal. They have kept 18 clean sheets in Tuchel’s first 24 games and appear equipped to face City in Istanbul on May 29. Tuchel has already recorded a big win against Guardiola this season, outdoing his friend when Chelsea won their FA Cup semi-final against City last month.
Abramovich expects nothing less after spending last summer. Still, PSG’s dismal semi-final performance against City is proof that money alone doesn’t make a team. It takes a smart manager to build a cohesive unit and Tuchel, who meets Leicester in the FA Cup final next week, has put the pieces in the right place.
The natural temptation is to revisit Abramovich’s previous mid-season leadership changes, which saw Avram Grant take Chelsea to the Champions League final in 2008 and Roberto Di Matteo win the tournament four years later. But it is different. Chelsea were on autopilot under Grant and they were very lucky under Di Matteo. There is no comparison to be made with this controlled race under Tuchel.
It’s a management triumph. Although Tuchel is an intense character, he lightened the mood. Even those on the sidelines remained engaged, as demonstrated by a somewhat partisan player like Emerson Palmieri who tore to score an excellent goal moments after arriving in the final stages of Chelsea’s win against the ‘Atlético Madrid in the last 16 matches.
It’s a group pulling in the same direction. Tuchel brought clarity and revived players who struggled under the previous regime. Antonio Rüdiger was a rock defending against Madrid and Andreas Christensen grew in stature, eradicating mistakes from his game.
Tuchel identified strengths rather than weaknesses. Improbably, César Azpilicueta has shone in right-back in recent weeks. Ben Chilwell rose to the challenge of learning to play left-back. Jorginho, such a divisive character in the past, didn’t go wrong in midfield after getting an early booking against Madrid.
Chelsea, who are fourth in the Premier League with four games to go, are playing with just as much composure. N’Golo Kanté is back to his unleashed best in midfield and Tuchel knew it was too early to give up on Werner and Haverz. Chelsea have been too impatient in the past and ended up looking silly after selling Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah.
When Eden Hazard returned to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, however, Chelsea no longer thought nostalgically of the past. After waiting to pass the last 16 years for seven years, they are back in the big time and not going to suffer from impostor syndrome with Tuchel in charge.