“I did not see a single match of the Eurocup,” confessed Thomas Tuchel, pointing to the tournament that Portugal conquered by closing in behind France, which also closed in behind. “I was not interested. I turned off the TV! ”.
Night fell over Lisbon on October 16, 2016, at Borussia Dortmund’s concentration in a hotel next to the Tagus, on the eve of visiting Alvalade in the Champions League, and the coach, then considered the greatest innovator of the new wave of football German, feverishly proclaimed his vision of the game. To summarize it, he drew on a board the number sequence that represented his ideal: 3-1-2-4. “The future is to play with six attackers,” he said.
“The key is neither in the midfielder nor in the three centrals, but in the compensation you can make with your two midfielders in defensive transitions,” he said. “If the midfielders know when to maintain their position in front of the rival area and when to abandon it to join the attack, then attacking with six is possible. I aspire to that because people pay to be entertained, to see occasions, overflows, imbalances … People pay to feel an emotion and what produces emotion are the attack actions not the results. Nobody goes to a field to see a 1-0 ”.
Five years and two multi-million dollar contracts later – one with Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s PSG, another with Abramovich’s Chelsea – Tuchel still hasn’t changed reality. Rather, it seems that reality has changed him on the way to face Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals, tonight in Valdebebas. Chelsea’s last four games have ended Porto with 0-1; 1-0 to City; 0-0 with Brighton; and 0-1 with West-Ham.
Since he took charge of Chelsea at the end of January, he has turned the London team, until then unstable and regal, into the most secretive machinery of English football: 15 of the 20 games that Tuchel has directed have ended with a clean sheet. By dint of making its area an impracticable garden, it is the team that allows the opponent the fewest touches beyond the 16-meter line, the one that receives the fewest shots among the three sticks, and the least thrashed in the Premier. Since the last 16 of the Champions League, he has scored fewer goals than anyone. A bit against in four games.
“We are very happy with the statistics,” Tuchel said. “They are a product of the quality and commitment of the players. The quality is self explanatory; the commitment consists of doing what is necessary to help your teammates, to cover them when they face an opponent. Be one hundred percent reliable in my role. That the defenders can trust the midfielders, and that the midfielders can trust the forwards. This demands a great physical effort that is never enough without courage. We have been very brave to defend and press up without forgetting that sometimes the best defense is to have the ball, for which we need to be good at possession and pressure after loss ”.
The scheme is not the dreamed 3-1-2-4 of 2016 but the rough 5-2-2-1 of 2021, with three centrals, two long wingers and two pivots very attentive to watch, perfectly coordinated when they do not have the ball and naturally simple when they have it. Tuchel’s Chelsea is the seventh team in the Premier by number of goals in favor: 18 in the last 13 days. The generation of clear chances is the least consistent point of a team that makes long movements of its centrals the first route of attack.
There has been no time for more the German coach, hired on an emergency basis to replace Frank Lampard and prevent the team from collapsing away from the European competition positions. To rebuild it he acted pragmatically. Faced with Havertz’s immaturity, Ziyech’s injuries and young Mount’s difficulties in reading plays quickly, Tuchel found that the longer he invaded the rival field, the more problems his players would have in handling games. When he verified that the most reliable of his squad were Kanté and Jorginho, the defensive midfielders, and that he had very expert centrals such as Rudiger, Thiago Silva, Azpilicueta and Christensen, he opted for the route direttissima. It was fortified.
“If it is not possible to play our most beautiful game, we must always be prepared not to allow the opponent to play his best game,” Tuchel reflected yesterday. “That is also one of the definitions of performance: not letting others perform.”
Tuchel has buried his idealistic speech. The urgent need to compete at the highest level with a staff that he has not been able to train has led him to reverse his precepts. “Let no one expect crazy things,” he said before traveling to Madrid. “The strategy is to be ourselves. The more you climb the mountain, the more security you should look for in the things that make you feel comfortable. Do not do more than is necessary. Do not think more than necessary ”.
After Atalanta and Liverpool, heroic archetypes of forward defenses, a bunker awaits Madrid in the semifinals.