Thomas Tuchel’s dismissal as Chelsea head coach this week sent shockwaves through European football, with ruthless new owner Todd Boehly dropping the axe in true Roman Abramovich-style just 100 days after succeeding the ousted Russian at Stamford Bridge.
It was a move as surprising as it was confusing. Tuchel, who led the club to a second Champions League crown a mere 16 months ago, had surely acquired enough credit in the bank to survive an early wobble this season – especially after Boehly had supplied him with a war chest of more than £270million over the summer.
Taking their record spend into account, and the fact that without a sporting director in place Tuchel was the lead strategist behind it, his abrupt sacking on Wednesday, almost a week after the transfer window closed, makes little to no sense.
Thomas Tuchel’s sacking as Chelsea boss this week was as surprising as it was confusing
Todd Boehly’s decision was controversial but if performances were to go by it wouldn’t be
Though that is not to say performances on the pitch warranted a greater degree of patience from Boehly in any way.
The German’s final outing, a shambolic 1-0 defeat away at Dinamo Zagreb which raised alarm bells to a crescendo on Tuesday night, was perhaps the nadir of his 20-month spell in west London.
That lethargic showing in Croatia pretty much symbolised Tuchel’s Chelsea in its dying days; a muddled, disjointed team with no confidence, no ideas and no clear clear direction.
Few would have seen this divorce coming on August 22, 2021: when his swaggering European champions, spearheaded by a new-and-improved Romelu Lukaku, flexed their muscles as Premier League title contenders in a confident 2-0 win away at Arsenal.
Chelsea were still riding the wave of their sensational triumph in Porto three months earlier at this time, and in hindsight it was the peak of Tuchel’s reign. From there, his side slowly unravelled and dropped out of the title race as early as January.
Justifiably, a lot will be made of results this term when dissecting his sacking as Blues boss. Yet last season, as good as a third-place finish and two domestic cup finals appear on paper – admittedly amid the backdrop of sanctions placed on the club by the UK Government – it did not live up to expectations long before Abramovich’s ownership imploded.
Few would have envisaged this divorce happening when Chelsea beat Arsenal 13 months ago
The Blues were still riding the wave of their sensational Champions League final triumph
Tuchel’s side appeared poised to launch a title challenge after becoming European champions
Tuchel encountered a host of on-field dilemmas in the 2021-22 campaign, but none were more impactful and as well documented than the Lukaku debacle.
All that Chelsea lacked after their breathtaking end to the previous season was a bona fide No 9, with a system centred around Kai Havertz as a false nine seen as unsustainable for a team with ambitions of mounting a serious title challenge.
In came Lukaku for a club-record £97.5million, and despite an encouraging start, which included four goals in as many games, that fee quickly transformed into the most expensive mistake in the club’s history.
Of course, the Belgian striker himself must take a large chunk of the blame for that. His infamous Sky Italia interview in which he took aim at his manager after falling out of favour in the side fractured his relationship with Tuchel significantly, and he is ultimately the one responsible for poor form on the pitch.
But after that encouraging honeymoon period it quickly became clear that Lukaku was not the right fit for the fluid, free-flowing attack that made Tuchel’s Chelsea so hard to beat the previous season.
But things soon unravelled for Chelsea amid £97.5m signing Romelu Lukaku’s poor form
Tuchel never managed to get the best out of the striker and it cost his side last season
Even before the bombshell interview was released at the end of December, the Blues’ record signing had produced a measly two league goals in almost three months – albeit a tally not helped by a brief knee injury and Covid-19.
With Havertz restored to the point of attack, everything seemed to click again. Lukaku, when used, was so ineffective and passive it seemed as if Chelsea had 10 players on the field.
And part of the blame lies at Tuchel’s door for that. It was he who discarded Tammy Abraham upon arrival at the Bridge and went in search of a seasoned, ready-made centre forward capable of delivering on the biggest stage.
When all is said and done, he failed to bring the best out of Lukaku and did not find the solutions to make it work.
In the aftermath of the Sky Italia drama, and having initially dropped him from his squad for one game against Liverpool, Tuchel offered his big-money recruit a chance of redemption by starting him in four successive league matches. The result? No goals, no assists, and against Crystal Palace just seven touches of the ball – a Premier League record for the lowest amount by an outfield player.
Lukaku’s infamous Sky Italia interview did not help his cause and damaged their relationship
But his record lack of touches against Crystal Palace showed he did not fit into Tuchel’s system
Lukaku’s struggles both on and off the field derailed Chelsea’s season from January onwards, although it was not the sole problem Tuchel had to contend with.
The major injury suffered by left wing-back Ben Chilwell during a mightily-impressive four-goal victory against Juventus at the end of November was the beginning of a serious dilemma for Tuchel to solve. It was followed by another serious setback for Reece James, his mainstay on the opposite side.
Losing both Chilwell and James for lengthy periods last term – the former did not make another appearance after being forced off against Juventus – exposed the alarming lack of depth in his squad and rendered a title bid all but impossible.
Marcos Alonso, 31 and past the peak of his powers, was the only natural left wing-back available, with club captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who only truly excels at right-back or in a three-man defence, the sole replacement for James.
In a 3-4-3 system heavily reliant on productivity from wing-backs, both going forward and defensively, Alonso and Azpilicueta were inadequate understudies to their crocked team-mates. The former in particular was regularly targeted throughout a disappointing 1-1 draw at Brighton in January.
Saul Niguez and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were sometimes deployed as makeshift wing-backs, but neither they or Alonso and Azpilicueta could truly fill the void left by Chilwell and James.
But Tuchel also felt the effect of losing key players, including left wing-back Ben Chilwell
Chilwell was soon joined on the sidelines by right wing-back Reece James for a lengthy period
Tuchel could not rely on a number of forwards, including Timo Werner (centre) and Christian Pulisic (right)
With that being said, perhaps their absence wouldn’t have been felt so sorely had Tuchel been able to rely upon a consistent stream of goals from his array of forwards. Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic were on hand with an underwhelming return of 30 goals in all competitions between them. The quartet featured a combined 142 times.
That year, Chelsea conceded 33 goals in their 38 league fixtures, seven more than leaders Manchester City and Liverpool.
When it came to goals scored, however, they were a whopping 23 short of City and 18 less than the Reds. Simply put, they were far too fruitless in the final third.
The early stages of this season were a completely different story. Barring a narrow, gritty 1-0 win at Everton and a high-octane attacking display which should have warranted three points against Tottenham, Chelsea looked worryingly fragile and devoid of inspiration every time they stepped onto the pitch.
They were dismantled by Leeds, edged past an equally-vulnerable Leicester side, were beaten convincingly by Southampton, gifted a contentious victory against West Ham and, lastly, humiliated by Zagreb.
It was a puzzling shift of form and fortunes after a thoroughly impressive and entertaining display in the 2-2 draw with Spurs. So what went wrong?
This season Chelsea have looked vulnerable and devoid of ideas in pretty much every outing
In hindsight, N’Golo Kante’s late injury in that London derby was perhaps the nail in Tuchel’s coffin. The tireless Frenchman looked back to his best on the day, typically covering every blade of grass and providing the platform for Jorginho to pull the strings.
The pair worked excellently together and Chelsea should have come away with a well-deserved victory. Yet without Kante in the middle of the park, Jorginho, and Chelsea for that matter, are nowhere near as secure or assured when out of possession.
While losing Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen made defensive reinforcements a must, it is puzzling that Boehly and Co did not press ahead with signing a top-end midfielder capable of filling in for Kante, who has proven far too injury prone in recent years, when he is on the sidelines.
Mateo Kovacic has proven equally susceptible to fitness problems, there are question marks over Loftus-Cheek’s effectiveness without the ball and Conor Gallagher is still finding his feet as an up-and-coming young player. Mount, meanwhile, is better suited to playing in more advanced areas.
The injury suffered by N’Golo Kante against Tottenham could have been the nail in his coffin
Jorginho does not look as secure or assured in the middle of the park without Kante next to him
Juventus midfielder Denis Zakaria did join the club on loan from Juventus right at the death in the summer window, though his performances for the Italian club do not suggest he is a sufficient backup option for Kante – and by the time he arrived it seems the writing was on the wall for Tuchel.
Following a hectic summer’s business, when transfer targets were assembled by a panicking owner desperate to make a swift impression and a head coach with unwanted responsibility bestowed upon him, Chelsea soon appeared a dishevelled, confused squad. And in the end Tuchel did not know his best formation or his strongest XI.
In the first month of the new season, the Blues fluctuated from 3-4-3, to 3-5-2, back to 3-4-3 and even to shapes resembling more of a 4-2-2-2 or 3-1-4-2 at times.
Chilwell was in, then £63m new boy Cucurella replaced him, then back to Chilwell. It was Gallagher, then Loftus-Cheek, then Pulisic, then Ziyech, then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
As his Chelsea reign slowly spiralled into crisis, Tuchel became more and more desperate for a quick-fix, tinkering with his set-up and key personnel as performances and results worsened.
Tuchel was ultimately left chopping and changing in search of quick-fix solutions to problems
After 100 games in charge the numbers speak for themselves: the first 50 of them saw his side concede just 24 goals. The second? 53, more than double that tally.
By the time the final whistle sounded in Zagreb on Tuesday, the doomed head coach was staring a dallying, deflated group of underperforming players directly in the face, with only James and Silva able to hold their heads high – and he was running out of ideas and time to revive them.
Just over three months into Boehly’s ownership and in the same year he helped them become world champions, Tuchel deserved the opportunity to steer a sinking ship back in the right direction. Whether he would have succeeded or not is a question that will never be answered.