It only took one deflected shot from Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus to shatter the notion that Chelsea are a team with barely any weak spots under Thomas Tuchel, who has tactical and mental problems to solve after one of the most difficult weeks of his tenure at Stamford Bridge.
These are interesting times for the European champions. A lot has changed since they were being hailed as title favourites after thrashing Tottenham a fortnight ago. Their sheen of defensive invincibility has evaporated after consecutive 1-0 defeats by City and Juventus, Tuchel’s selections are being questioned and, perhaps most worryingly, there have been signs of Chelsea’s creative players struggling to build an understanding with Romelu Lukaku, who has gone four games without a goal before facing Southampton on Saturday.
In Lukaku’s case, the concern is that the striker’s teammates are yet to work out how to service him. The Belgian was far too isolated against City – Tuchel’s 3-5-2 system handed the initiative to Pep Guardiola’s team – and his disappointing display against Juve in midweek gave weight to the theory that not much has changed since he was being criticised for his touch and movement in his biggest games with Manchester United.
It is a worrying development for Tuchel. Lukaku was supposed to have honed his game during two years at Internazionale, but old flaws were evident against City and Juve. The 28-year-old’s link play was not good enough, he was too static and he missed a golden chance to equalise in Turin.
Chelsea signed Lukaku to deliver in those moments, paying £97.5m for a player who fired Antonio Conte’s Inter to the title last season. He was hailed as the final piece in the jigsaw; the lethal forward who could turn Chelsea into title contenders by finishing off the chances created by Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech.
Teams are well prepared against us. We have to accept it. Don’t get angry about it. Play free no matter what
There have, of course, been promising signs. Lukaku destroyed Arsenal on his debut, he scored the winner against Zenit St Petersburg and he delivered two excellent goals against Aston Villa. But his arrival also brings challenges. Chelsea were a fluid, counterattacking team last season, often at their best with Havertz as a false 9 or Werner’s pace creating space for others. Lukaku, a target man, changes the way they play. He works hard, but he is not a natural presser. He is quick, but he likes to play with his back to goal.
“I don’t think Chelsea have quite figured out how to use him yet,” Conte said while working as a pundit on the Juve game. “He is a very specific striker. Bringing Lukaku into the box, he is dangerous. However, when he starts from midfield, he is incredibly quick. It is very difficult to find a player who is both a target man but can also run from midfield.”
Conte’s analysis was put to Tuchel. “He was obviously not on the telly after the Tottenham game,” the German noted. “I don’t feel offended, he has every right. He is in the TV studio. I even saw it while I was showering before the match in the hotel. I saw him talking about us and I saw all the pictures between Romelu and our players from the Tottenham game. They were talking about the link-up play from Romelu, and how strong he is and how much he scored so they were praising him.”
Tuchel argued that Mateo Kovacic and Mount, who could return from injury against Southampton, are on Lukaku’s wavelength. However, he admitted that other players were struggling. Ziyech was frustrating against Juve. Werner remained on the bench, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley thrown on instead, and has not scored in the league this season.
“There were simply no spaces for him,” Tuchel said. “Nobody knows what would have happened had we brought Timo on. We decided to go for Ruben and Ross, who could maybe have shots from the second line because the box was simply too full.”
Much has been made of Tuchel’s triple substitution after 62 minutes of lethargy at the Allianz Stadium, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Trevoh Chalobah and Loftus-Cheek replacing Ziyech, César Azpilicueta and Jorginho. The impression was of a manager looking to shock his team into life. Not much gets past Tuchel. He knows that Chelsea, who got away with poor first halves against Spurs and Villa, have played in fits and starts lately.
“Teams are well prepared against us,” Tuchel said. “I can see Zenit St Petersburg play a back five for the first time in the last 200 matches that we watched. I can see Aston Villa play a back five against us and they never played a back five before. We have to accept it. Don’t get angry about it. Play free no matter what.”
The onus is on Chelsea, a point below Liverpool at the top, to respond to heightened expectations. They are viewed differently since winning the Champions League and Tuchel admitted he was expecting more from Havertz, who scored the winner against City in last season’s final.
“Not only because of the goal,” he said. “The goal of course helped and he came back and showed that in training. He showed a different attitude, a mature way of training, a mature way of using his body. I’m not shy of saying that we expected to see more of this in the games. At the same time it is important that I feel the whole team is stuck a little bit in expectations. I don’t know why. Maybe off the expectations that come with success.”
Tuchel thought his players lacked mental sharpness against Juve. He needs them to start thinking and moving quickly again.