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It was in September 2021, in the luxurious confines of the away dressing room of Tottenham Hotspur’s new £1billion stadium, that Thomas Tuchel brought his honeymoon period as Chelsea manager to an end.
Tuchel had been frustrated by some performances during his seven months or so in charge of Chelsea, but his patience had not snapped until that Spurs game, where his team had laboured for 45 goalless minutes.
Tuchel was angry, and let his players know it. One source said: “It was very loud and it was a shock, but none of it was personal. It was all directed at the team, what they weren’t doing and what they needed to do. You could say it was their first b—----g from him.”
Afterwards, Tuchel is even said to have remarked “Wow, that’s the first time!” but the dressing down had the desired effect: Chelsea dominated the second half and won 3-0.
There was another noisy exchange at the start of December, when Chelsea were lucky to beat Watford but in general Tuchel has been careful to pick his moments before letting rip at his players.
The German will be three days short of his one-year anniversary when Tottenham visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday in the reverse fixture of that September victory and while neither Tuchel nor Chelsea could have hoped for their first year together to have gone much better, a bumpy few weeks, in which the club have fallen out of the Premier League title race and issues within the squad have surfaced, suggest his second year could be tougher than the first.
The high point of Tuchel’s reign is obvious. The German had only been in charge of the club for four short months and yet, at 4.30am on May 30 last year, he was toasting Chelsea’s Champions League final success over Manchester City at the post-match party in the Alfandega Congress Centre on the banks of the Douro River with gin and tonics.
It was then that Marina Granovskaia informed him he would be sitting down with the club owner Roman Abramovich for the first time in the lobby of the Yeatman Hotel in Porto, giving him just three hours to sober up. Tuchel duly switched straight on to soft drinks and eventually went to bed at around 6am, getting about an hour's sleep before collecting his thoughts and meeting the Russian billionaire.
With the Champions League trophy packed and ready to take back with the Chelsea squad to London, Tuchel had nothing to worry about. By the end of the meeting, he had agreed a two-year extension to his contract and been promised a new star striker. As hangover cures go, it was probably one of the most effective Tuchel - a former barman - had ever tried.
The doubts shared by Tuchel and Chelsea ahead of his appointment disappeared almost as quickly as that Porto hangover. He has already become the club’s first manager to reach the Champions League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup finals, but the next challenge is the most difficult - trying to turn a squad signed for six different managers into one capable of lasting a league title race.
It will be that, rather than whether or not Chesea win a Carabao Cup final, that is likely to dictate if Tuchel’s next hangover follows another extension to his contract, or a fond farewell.
‘I’m under contract until 2024 but history says it’s not that easy’
Tuchel is evidently not expecting a change in culture at Chelsea. No matter how well they have done in their first year, coaches tend to live and die by results - even if they turn quickly.
“I am under contract until 2024 and let's stay with this and let's try to stay as long as this contract says because history tells us it is not that easy,” said Tuchel. “But I feel very confident that I can make it and I don't want to be anywhere else.
"I feel very happy and let's see what is going on. But we both know what we need - results. I am responsible for creating an atmosphere that gives us the results.”
Chelsea made enquiries about three Germans to replace Frank Lampard - Ralf Rangnick, who turned down an offer to take interim charge, Julian Nagelsmann, who was already eying up the Bayern Munich post, and Tuchel, who had been sacked by Paris Saint-Germain.
Of the three, Tuchel was probably the least appealing given his stormy exits from PSG and his previous club, Borussia Dortmund. Stories of his difficulties managing upwards and supposed volatile temperament were given serious consideration by those inside Stamford Bridge, but the reality is Abramovich had nowhere else to turn midway through a season.
Tuchel, too, had his reservations and it took several chats with technical and performance advisor Petr Cech, who speaks fluent German, to ease some of his concerns surrounding the offer of an initial contract of just 18 months. Ultimately, at that stage of his career, a better offer was unlikely to arrive.
As he has since made public, Tuchel even questioned whether or not Chelsea should go ahead with sacking Lampard given his legendary status and, having analysed some games, concluded that the team had suffered from bad luck during a poor run of results.
Tuchel will hope there is a little more understanding given to the misfortune he has suffered of late, including injury, coronavirus and fixture congestion.
The bond he has forged with Granovskaia, Cech and other influential figures at Chelsea will help, but Tuchel will be aware that clouds are looming. Contract issues are hanging over Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta, and expensive signings such as Romelu Lukaku, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner are still yet to consistently show their best form.
“I have no time to assess the year, but maybe this is good news as I am not the person to look back and to feel great about the past, I am a person who takes care about today and makes tomorrow easier,” said Tuchel.
“This is how I feel good, this is how I work and this is what I do. Hopefully it will be for many more years to come, but the only thing to influence that is to deliver at this very moment and that is what I am trying to do.”
‘The Lukaku situation was easier to handle with an intelligent coach’
Tuchel was bruised from his experience at PSG, perhaps Europe’s most dysfunctional club, and had considered the fact that managing the so-called super clubs may not be for him. Had things not worked out at Stamford Bridge, then those close to the 48-year-old believe he would have prepared himself for spending the rest of his coaching career at the Bayer Leverkusens of this world, away from the egos.
Only West Ham and Newcastle had previously shown a real interest in bringing him to England, but Tuchel would now be courted by all of Europe’s biggest clubs were he to leave Stamford Bridge.
Tuchel’s light touch with his players and staff has perhaps been the best received and most pleasantly surprising feature of his first 12 months at Chelsea. Hugs are dished out with far greater frequency than his rollickings and he is happy to give out and receive good-humoured stick in equal measure, whether it be in training sessions with his players or in staff games.
It was after the Champions League quarter-final success over Porto in Seville that, having taken the decision to stay on for an extra night to enjoy a meal and drinks, Tuchel took the two Chelsea chefs out of the hotel kitchen for the players and staff to show their appreciation with a loud round of applause.
Things have not always been fun, but long-serving staff have been struck by Tuchel’s ability to negotiate his way over the hurdles he has faced with minimum fuss, although we are likely to find out whether or not some problems have been parked, rather than fully resolved.
He sent Rudiger in from training after a bust-up with Kepa Arrizabalaga that followed the shock defeat to West Bromwich Albion last season, but did not overreact and the storm quickly blew over.
Flanked by Chelsea press officer Adrian Phillips, Tuchel has been open and honest with the media, offering detailed explanations of his decisions, his players and even more delicate issues such as Rudiger’s row, Callum Hudson-Odoi’s decision to turn down an England Under-21 call and Christensen’s contract situation.
Never once snapping in reply to one of the hundreds of questions he was asked on the subject, Tuchel described the fall-out caused by Lukaku’s controversial interview to Sky Italia as “a smell”. The Belgian was dropped for one game, but Tuchel struck a truce and restored his club record signing to his line-up for Chelsea’s next game, against Spurs in the Carabao Cup.
The Lukaku saga could have easily made the first real crack in the relationship between Tuchel and Chelsea, and yet because of the way it was handled it actually brought them even closer - at least in the short-term.
One source said: “The situation regarding Lukaku was easier to handle with a cooperative intelligent coach and it was clear he feels the same way about the club. So long may it continue.”
There is still the question of how to get the best out of the striker. More questions, not only from the media, will follow if the £97.5million signing continues to look unsettled. File that one under ‘work to be done’, along with some other instances of dissatisfaction inside his squad.
Tuchel found in France that clubs generally treat their players as assets and their coaches as costs. But sources believe his time at PSG, described by one as “the ultimate s---house club”, has provided greater perspective and made the problems he has faced at Chelsea, including the Lukaku storm, seem comparatively minor.
‘I enjoyed it on day one and it’s only got better’
Although the flight from Paris to London last January was short, it proved to be fruitful as Tuchel and his staff quickly scribbled down the formation and tactics that have broadly remained throughout his first year and have proved to be so transformative.
Tuchel, in his first session with the squad ahead of his first game in charge against Wolves on January 27 last year, was delighted to find a set of players who were adaptable and took decisions themselves, without needing to be told exactly where to run and when.
The next phase may well be to find a way of more regularly implementing a back four and giving his forward players greater freedom, which Tuchel is said to have pondered on a number of occasions during his first year at Chelsea. Such a shift would need a change of playing personnel.
Spending four months in charge without meeting Abramovich was no problem for Tuchel, who likes to be left to get on with his work and does not need to be given the constant approval and praise of those above him. Where others have found the silence isolating, Tuchel is said to have found it liberating.
“I enjoyed it on day one and it has only got better,” said Tuchel. “Every single day, it is a pure joy to come to work and I was not wrong about the mentality in the club. There is still support from the very highest level to make a football team win games. This is what Chelsea is all about and I’m very grateful to be part of it. I’m doing my very, very best because I feel very comfortable and it suits me very well. Hopefully, everybody feels the same way.”
There are those at Chelsea who have witnessed how quickly things can unravel or personalities can change when the qualities and quirks that were so endearing at the start become annoying or matter of fact. But the first year has been a hell of a ride that Tuchel can raise a glass of gin and tonic to, even if the really hard work might only just be about to begin.