“It was a moment to shake things up but not in a crazy way,” Thomas Tuchel says, looking back on the fallout from Chelsea’s 1-0 Champions League defeat at Juventus on 29 September. And yet it was certainly in a forensic way, heavy on soul-searching and argument. So perhaps a little crazy? “It’s not about being super angry or blaming somebody but it was the moment to turn every stone and this is what we did for the next days in the coaching office,” the manager adds.
“To find the mix between being honest and critical but also supportive, to show a way out of this in which we believe and which suits us. With the help of the team, with the openness of the team and the mentality, we did it.”
Chelsea had travelled to Turin on the back of the 1-0 home loss to Manchester City in the Premier League and the Juventus performance was marked by a lack of sharpness and confidence. Too often it was safe and sideways and just too slow, with precious little penetration.
Look at Chelsea now, especially what they did to Juventus last Tuesday night in the Group H return. The 4-0 dismantling of the Serie A giants was all about high-tempo front-foot football, intelligent angles of attack and suffocating pressing. When Juventus’s torment was over, Chelsea’s could savour a ninth win in 10 matches (including the Carabao Cup penalty shootout victory over Southampton). The other game was the 1-1 home draw with Burnley.
Chelsea are flying going into Sunday’s visit of Manchester United, the bit firmly between their teeth in terms of a title challenge and as they begin a run of nine league matches in 36 days – taking them up to the home fixture with Liverpool on 2 January.
“It’s never easy, it hurts always … it hurts me every single time, make no mistake,” Tuchel says of defeat and what bothered him after Turin was the fear that opposing teams had worked Chelsea out. They were lining up in defensive formations and seeking to make life as difficult as possible for them.
Tuchel also noted that Romelu Lukaku was being closed down and pushed “into spaces where he does not feel so comfortable”. The centre-forward would be injured three games later against Malmö in the Champions League; he could return as a substitute against United.
Were Chelsea getting a bit complacent before Turin, a little too comfortable in their ability to find the answers even when not at their best? Tuchel had prepared them meticulously for the game and was dismayed at how it panned out. Yet he knows how to engineer title-winning seasons, having done so at Paris Saint-Germain; how to get through to his players, with arguably his greatest gift being how he packages his messages to them in a clear and simple way.
Fans can see the passion and emotion in Tuchel during matches but it is his rational and analytical side that is most pronounced at the training ground. It underpins a key element of any champion manager – the capacity to respond quickly and effectively to setbacks.
In Turin, Chelsea had tried to play patiently, to pass, pass and pass, and it was not them. Since then, they have upped the pace and intensity, seeking to be more fluid within their 3-4-2-1 system, and the high point was the remorselessness that they showed in the second game against Juventus. There was a period early in the second half when the visitors could not catch their breath. Chelsea made it 2-0 then 3-0 and Tuchel seemed to mainline the energy of the Stamford Bridge crowd.
“We changed the approach a bit towards the team [after Turin], a bit in training, a bit in our style of playing,” he says. “It was to find maybe new solutions and to install more of a mix of structure but also freedom in our game and the players did excellently.”
It is interesting to hear Tuchel describe the internal workings of his technical staff. When he joined the club in January, he brought with him the coaches, Arno Michels and Zsolt Low, and the analyst, Benjamin Weber, while he inherited the assistants, Anthony Barry and Joe Edwards, and the goalkeeper coaches, Henrique Hilário and James Russell.
“I am super protected by my staff – they know me, I know them,” Tuchel says. “And then we have new input here with our two assistant coaches and the goalkeeper coaches. So in one office we are also like one team and we are brutally honest with each other.
“Sometimes I confront with my doubts and somebody else has doubts. We have different opinions and then we start digging and we start asking ourselves: ‘What is here on us, how did we not see it? Could we have seen it? What can we do better? What could we have done better? What can we change?’ Everything is on the table. You need to have this trust and openness.”
The Juventus defeat has come to feel like an increasingly distant memory but not for Tuchel. “These moments are super-hard but sometimes they are necessary to refocus and resharpen,” he says. Chelsea are ready for a defining period.