Thomas Tuchel’s fantasy football start at Chelsea FC set path for Champions League Final

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·4-min read
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 (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
(Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

If Chelsea triumph at Estadio do Dragao tomorrow they can trace their unlikely run to the summit of European football back to a bitterly cold January night as Thomas Tuchel hastily drew up plans to start his Stamford Bridge reign on a winning note.

On his flight from Paris to London, where he would sign terms on an 18-month contract that left him with misgivings about Marina Granovskaia's faith in him, the German began devising a strategy to overcome Wolves.

He had not even spoken with the players he inherited from Frank Lampard or overseen a training session. Tuchel was playing fantasy football, but for real.

It was on that flight he decided to go with the three-man defence that has been pivotal to Chelsea's turnaround. An incredible 18 clean sheets in his first 24 games makes it look like a masterstroke – but the thinking behind it was more owing to pragmatism.

Tuchel wanted to outnumber Wolves' attack and always have three against Pedro Neto and Adama Traore when defending counterattacks. It worked and he stuck with it.

Likewise, he felt it important to load that first side with experience after confessing to the players in his first team meeting that his sudden arrival was "crazy". That meant he wanted Cesar Azpilicueta in from the start, despite the captain being phased out under Lampard.

He knew fellow German Antonio Rudiger — also used sparingly by his predecessor — and wanted his experience, too, while Thiago Silva had worked under him at Paris Saint-Germain.

Chelsea kept their first clean of the Tuchel reign in the goalless draw against Wolves and never looked back.

It is evidence of the power of circumstance over design, with Tuchel harnessing the momentum of those first few weeks while still getting to know his players.

Who knows if he would have stumbled on the back three if his first game had been against a different side? But it was an example of his attention to detail depending on the opposition, as well as his approach during exceptional circumstances.

It remains difficult to determine whether we have seen a Tuchel team yet at Chelsea, or one adapted to cope with his minimum target of securing top four and then runs to two finals.

Players talk of tailored tactics to disrupt specific opponents. They have bought into being "horrible" to play against, with their confidence in that approach only growing as the results continued to come. The suspicion is Tuchel will try to be more pro-active in his first full season when in less of a fire-fighting mode.

The second leg of their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid may have been Chelsea's finest performance under him, with a 2-0 win in no way reflecting their utter superiority.

It will be fascinating to see the additions he makes to a squad that has revealed its deficiencies in the final weeks of the campaign when losing three of four matches.

But it has been commendable how he has managed with the hand he was dealt. While Lampard struggled with a bloated squad, Tuchel has embraced the availability of so many options.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

He offered a clean slate upon his arrival, which saw Ben Chilwell usurped by the virtually exiled Marcos Alonso. Reece James made way for Callum Hudson-Odoi and N'Golo Kante had to wait for his chance after Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic made an impressive start. While Tammy Abraham would have every right to bemoan his lack of opportunities the majority of the squad have appreciated Tuchel's openness.

He held talks with Chilwell before the game against Tottenham when the £50million summer signing had been left out in favour of Alonso for the second time in quick succession.

Mason Mount was dropped for that Wolves game — only for Tuchel to quickly realise the error and install the midfielder at the heart of his plans.

Tuchel has been frank about how he has benefited from the luxury of concentrating solely on coaching.

With no transfer window, he has been able to focus on one match to another.

Holed up in his hotel room during lockdown for much of his time in London, he was robbed of the chance to explore his new city or indulge in one of his favourite pastimes of wiling away time in book shops.

Without his family, who he left behind in Paris, he entertains himself or relaxes away from football by reading crime novels or meditating.

The lack of distraction has allowed him to plot his way through a hectic four months in charge.

From Wolves to standing on the cusp of club football's biggest prize, he has methodically plotted his route to this point on a game-by-game basis.

From Paris, to London, to the top of the world.

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